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Ecology & Environmental Sciences - At a Crossroads

Research hopes to aid wildebeest and other African species that are increasingly falling prey to shortsighted land-use decisions

by Jessica Bloch | Art/Photography by Robert Lilieholm


In the last 40 years, human population growth has hampered wildebeest migration to the point that the animal’s numbers have fallen 90 percent in some locales.

It’s one of the most impressive spectacles in the animal world, and one of a few of its kind remaining on Earth. Every year, millions of wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, loping across the grassy plains, en route to dry-season lands and their calving grounds. Of course the approximately 500-mile journey is not without peril. Predators are a constant threat. Indeed, the wildebeest’s migratory movements play a major role in the ecosystem’s food chain.

However, through the last 40 years, something other than predation has hampered wildebeest migration, to the point that the animal’s numbers have fallen 90 percent in some locales. In Kenya, human population growth in the capital city of Nairobi has sent development and urban sprawl spreading south, threatening to encircle Nairobi National Park. Increased development has meant more settlements and farms, more factories and quarries, new roads and more development along existing roads.

More development has also meant more fences.

And as fences proliferate across the arid savannas, more of the wildebeest’s migration routes are cut off — a scenario Robert Lilieholm has seen firsthand during research trips to East Africa.

“At the local level, people are fencing for a lot of reasons, foremost to establish ownership but also to exclude wildlife. To many Kenyans, the animals are a nuisance, devouring their crops,” says Lilieholm, a natural resource economist at the University of Maine who is part of a $680,000 National Science Foundation grant with Colorado State University researchers to look at fragmentation in this particular region of Africa. “It’s sad to contemplate, but for a lot of rural Kenyans, it would be OK if Nairobi National Park just became a large fenced-in zoo. And that’s what is going to happen without any active engagement and creative land-use planning.”

The losses could be huge. Tourism generates nearly $900 million annually for Kenya’s cash-strapped economy. Last year, tourists topped 1 million — a 15 percent increase from 2009.

Using mapping and a concept known as alternative futures modeling, Lilieholm’s research in Kenya will show people at local and regional levels that the land-use decisions they make today could have far-reaching impacts in the future.

And while there are no wildebeest in the western hemisphere, Lilieholm is working to promote the same concept of alternative futures modeling in Maine in order transform the way state and local interests think about future growth, development and zoning. Using modeling systems such as logistic regression and Bayesian Belief Networks, Lilieholm is showing communities that instead of taking a laissez-faire attitude to development, they can thoughtfully consider how to set aside areas for conservation, agriculture and forestry while maximizing the net contribution of important development initiatives.

“You have to recognize that whether you plan or not, you’re going to change the landscape, oftentimes in irreversible ways,” Lilieholm says. “Do you want to do it with more information or less? Do you want to anticipate the impacts of what you’re doing or not? I would hope most people would say, ‘Let’s go forward with better information.’ Without that, you can really undermine your future. You see it all the time.”

For example, Lilieholm cites a 2006 Brookings Institution study that found that although Maine’s school-age population was declining, the state’s four largest metropolitan regions spent $186 million building new schools.

“Unplanned growth is expensive, creating the need for more infrastructure like roads, sewers and schools, while established systems are underused and in need of repair,” Lilieholm says. “The result is costly, inefficient growth and high taxes.”

AfricaThe swelling human population requires more commercial and residential development. That’s happening in Nairobi and along the Mombasa Road, the major north-south highway that links the capital to Mombasa, a key port city on Kenya’s coast. In addition to new farms, planta­tions and dwellings, several cement plants have been built in the last five years just outside the boundary of Nairobi National Park.

A member of the antelope family whose name is Dutch for “wild beast,” the wildebeest probably isn’t on anyone’s list of top animals to see on an African safari — not when there are more glamorous and compelling species, such as cheetahs, giraffes and lions. The wildebeest — part of a group of mammals known as ungulates, which refers to hooved animals — is an odd-looking creature with its 90 degree-angled horns, shaggy beard, long face, unusual upper-body markings that appear to be skin folds, spindly legs, lumpy midsection, slender hindquarters and horselike tail.

Yet the wildebeest is remarkable, Lilieholm says, because it has the well-earned distinction of being one of the world’s most iconic migratory species. With more than a million wildebeest migrating, they comprise a huge percentage of the animal biomass in countries such as Kenya. And because of their vast numbers, they play a crucial role in the food chain. Wildebeest are a favorite meal of crocodiles, as shown in a recent segment of “60 Minutes” on CBS about the migration.

In addition, the wildebeest is susceptible to landscape and climate change because its mass migrations are driven by the region’s seasonal rains. Wildebeest herds tend to spend the dry season in places such as Nairobi National Park, which like many African national parks and reserves was set aside because it contains vital dry-season water sources.

giraffeNairobi National Park is immediately south of Nairobi, one of the fastest-growing cities on the African continent. Nairobi has seen its population numbers explode in the last 40 years — from about 500,000 in 1970 to more than 3 million today.

rhinocerosThe city has expanded to the north, Lilieholm says, and now population has spilled south, encircling the national park.

As in any expanding urban area, the swelling human population requires more commercial and residential development. That’s happening in Nairobi and along the Mombasa Road, the major north-south highway linking the capital to Mombasa, a key port city on Kenya’s coast. In addition to new farms, plantations and homes, several cement plants have been built in the last five years just outside of the boundary of Nairobi National Park.

However, it’s not just buildings that are being erected. Residents of Nairobi’s southern reaches are heavily fencing their property to establish boundaries and exclude wildlife. When the rainy season begins in March, the wildebeest herd in Nairobi National Park begins the migration east to its calving grounds. But with the growing patchwork of development and miles of fencing, the wildebeest have increasing trouble making the journey.

“The wildebeest are less able to meet their foraging needs and access water. And they can’t get to their important calving grounds, and that’s believed to be the reason there’s been such a large decline in the population,” Lilieholm says. “In addition, they are more susceptible to poaching and predators. Some also get caught and tangled in fences.”

Fences and development have also affected the Maasai tribe, a politically powerful ethnic group in East Africa. Traditionally nomadic and pastoral, the Maasai too were used to migrating unencumbered through the landscape.

“When I was in Kenya in 2005, the location of the fences south of the park had been mapped and for the first time, people could view the extent of the fencing,” he says. “The Maasai saw this and knew it had to stop, because it would be the death of their way of life.”

Lilieholm and his Colorado State colleagues, including biologist Robin Reid, are also looking at development around the Maasai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, which have much larger wildebeest herds. Although urban sprawl is not a problem in those locations, which sit along Kenya’s southern border with Tanzania, ecotourism is a huge issue.

Tourist lodges surrounded by 12– to 15–foot triple electric fences are springing up around the edges of the parks, forming a kind of pearl necklace around the land that chokes off animal movement. More ominous, Lilieholm says, is the recent appearance of such lodges inside the parks and reserves, including one at a spot considered an important rhinoceros breeding ground. How those lodges came to be built inside the park is unclear.

In order to understand how wildebeest respond and migrate in the landscape — and to begin tackling the critical issue of how Kenyans can better plan for future development — the researchers need to know where the wildebeest are and where they’re going.

Colorado State’s Reid, along with Kenya-based colleagues Erustus Kanga and Jeff Worden, have radio collared 12–15 wildebeest in each of three herds in the Nairobi, Amboseli and the Maasai Mara parks to monitor the animals’ hourly movements. Randall Boone, a UMaine graduate who is now at Colorado State, will use the hourly location data gathered from the animals to build agent-based models that can predict the behavior of individual animals. The models then will be scaled up to predict how herds behave across the landscape.

This is where Lilieholm’s expertise comes in. His team, which includes UMaine professor of forest resources Steve Sader, is using satellite data from the 1980s forward to reconstruct development through time and forecast what will happen using logistic regression and Bayesian Belief Network models. The result will be a map of 1-hectare pixels showing the probability of future development.

Combined with assumptions about future population growth and settlement densities, a variety of future development “footprints” can be developed for the region. These future landscapes will then be merged with the agent-based wildebeest behavior model to explore how changing development and climate change scenarios interact to affect wildebeest migration.

“We can take that knowledge, overlay the agent-based models, and see how the animals are likely to respond to future landscapes they haven’t encountered yet,” Lilieholm says. “If we had done this 10 years ago, we would have been able to say, if the wildebeest can’t get to a particular spot such as their calving grounds, and if they don’t find substitute places, you’re going to see a collapse in the population.”

Lilieholm hopes to demonstrate to various stakeholders in Kenya the wide-reaching effects of their development decisions so they can better plan for the future.

Despite many and oftentimes competing interests — which range from national governments to tribes and the tourism industry — he believes the impact of showing someone a spatial depiction of his or her future can bring about a strong reaction, just as the Maasai reacted when they first saw how fences proliferated and restricted their livelihood.

“Without any active engagement, this area is going to become a large, fenced-in zoo,” Lilieholm says. “Although the Maasai are just 12 percent of the population in Kenya, in this region they comprise a plurality and are politically strong — strong enough to have recently adopted a regional land-use plan that limits future development and fencing. Local conservation groups also are exploring ways to compensate people to remove fences, especially fences that obstruct passage to the wildebeest calving grounds. Fortunately, there are some promising developments happening at different levels.”

For Lilieholm, the wildebeest project is another vehicle through which he studies alternative futures modeling in the U.S. and abroad. He has been working in Africa for nearly two decades, beginning in Morocco and Uganda as a Utah State University researcher. In the 1990s, he was involved in a Ford Foundation- and World Bank-funded project to promote local sustainable harvests of wild forest-grown coffee as a way to generate revenue for communities surrounding Uganda’s Kibale National Park.

“Biologists working in the park knew that the greatest threat to Kibale was from the surrounding communities, because they weren’t benefitting from the park,” Lilieholm says. “Although nationally there was a huge benefit through tourism and international aid, it wasn’t getting down to the people on the ground, and that’s where the coffee project came in. We were trying to find a way to get local people direct access to resources in a carefully monitored, controlled way, to build support and sustainability for the park.”

Lilieholm also worked on bioregional planning with a Utah State group looking at alternative futures modeling in western areas of the U.S., such as earthquake and mudslide zones, and land management and development around military bases in California’s Mojave Desert. Initially, some saw the approach as anti-development or overly concerned with environmental issues. But his colleagues, including landscape planning legend Carl Steinitz of Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, understood the value of using maps to help stakeholders visualize what’s happening across the landscape.

That’s what really sold Lilieholm on alternative futures modeling. And that’s what he now brings to Maine.

Here, manufacturing towns can consider alternative futures to respond to a mill closure or changing technology. Given existing infrastructure and land suitability, growing municipalities can target land for future development. A coastal community can evaluate how its waterfront should grow or which lands to protect for agriculture or forestry uses.

“In Maine, we’re looking for ways to develop alternative futures that identify the trade-offs and opportunities of different growth scenarios,” says Lilieholm, who will be an instructor this summer in UMaine’s Acadian Internship, a new program in which students study large-scale conservation efforts.

“The exciting thing is, once people begin thinking about alternative futures, their ability to generate and evaluate future landscapes increases. As a result, we can be more effective, not only in protecting resources, but in ensuring that future development complements, rather than distracts from, local quality of life.”

Click here for a slideshow of Lilieholm’s trip.

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