MOMBASA, Kenya (AP) — Africa’s national parks, home to thousands of species like lions, elephants and buffalo, are increasingly threatened by below-average rainfall and new infrastructure projects, stressing habitats and the species that depend on them.
A prolonged drought in large parts of the continent’s eastern part, exacerbated by climate change, and large-scale developments, including oil drilling and livestock grazing, are hindering conservation efforts in protected areas, several environmental experts say.
The vulnerable parks stretch all the way from Kenya in the east – home to Tsavo and Nairobi National Parks – south to Mkomazi and Serengeti Parks in Tanzania, Quirimbas and Gorongosa Parks in Mozambique and the famous Kruger National Park in South Africa, and west to the Kahuzi Biega, Salonga and Virunga reserves in the Congo.
The parks not only protect flora and fauna, but also act as natural carbon sinks – storing carbon dioxide released into the air and reducing the effects of global warming.
An estimated 38% of Africa’s biodiversity hotspots are under serious threat from climate change and infrastructure development, said Ken Mwathe of BirdLife International.
“Key areas of biodiversity over the years, especially in Africa, have been seen by investors as vacant and ready for development,” Mwathe said. “Governments allocate land in these areas for infrastructure development.”
He added that “power lines and other energy infrastructure cause collisions with birds due to low visibility. The numbers killed in this way are not few.”
In their quest to improve living standards and achieve sustainable development goals, such as access to clean water and food, increasing jobs and economic growth, and improving the quality of education, African governments have set their sights on large-scale construction projects, many of them financed by foreign investment, especially from China.
The proposed East African oil pipeline, which the Ugandan government says could help lift millions out of poverty, runs through Uganda’s Kidepo Valley, Murchison Falls and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, threatening species and drawing criticism from climate campaigners.
The growth of urban populations and the building that accompanies it, such as new roads, power grids, gas pipelines, ports and railways, has also increased pressure on parks, conservationists said.
But they add that replacing wildlife with infrastructure is the wrong approach for economic growth.
“We have to have a future where wildlife is not separated from people,” said Sam Shaba, program manager at the Honeyguide Foundation in Tanzania, an environmental non-profit organization.
When “people start to see that living with wildlife provides the answer to sustainable development … that’s the game changer,” Shaba said.
Most of Africa’s wildlife parks were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s by colonial regimes who fenced off the areas and ordered the local population to stay out. But now conservationists are discovering that a more inclusive approach to running the parks and seeking the expertise of the indigenous people who live around the parks can help protect them, said Ademola Ajagbe, Africa regional executive director of the Nature Conservancy.
“The inhabitants of these areas are being forcibly evicted or prevented from living there, such as the Maasai (in Tanzania and Kenya), Twa and Mbutis (in Central Africa) who for generations have lived off wildlife,” said Simon Counseill, an adviser in Survival International.
“Africa is depicted as a place for wildlife without people living there, and this narrative needs to change,” he said.
“If we don’t take into account the communities’ social needs, health, education and where they get water, we are missing the key,” said John Kasaona, executive director of Integrated Rural Development in Nature Conservation in Namibia.
The effects of worsening weather conditions in national parks due to climate change should also not be ignored, experts said.
A recent study conducted in the Kruger National Park linked extreme weather events to the loss of plants and animals, unable to cope with the drastic conditions and lack of water due to longer dry spells and warmer temperatures.
Drought has seriously threatened species such as rhinos, elephants and lions as it reduces the amount of food available, said Philip Wandera, a former Kenya Wildlife Service ranger who is now a range management lecturer at the Catholic University of East Africa.
More intensive management of parks and removal of fences that prevent species from migrating to less drought-prone areas are important first steps to protect wildlife, Wandera said.
He added that financial help to “support communities in and around national parks” would also help preserve them.
Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate commitment here. AP is solely responsible for all content.