The Ecological Viability of Kenya's Wildlife Conservancies (Summary)

Summary of research into the ecological viability of wildlife conservancies in the Masai Mara ecosystem in Kenya.

Summary of research into the ecological viability of wildlife conservancies in the Masai Mara ecosystem in Kenya.


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Spatial Ecology and Land Use Unit<br />

Research <strong>Summary</strong><br />

Ol Kinyei Conservancy: a model wildlife conservancy<br />

for the assessment <strong>of</strong> the ecological viability <strong>of</strong><br />

wildlife conservancies in the Mara ecosystem<br />

Laura Sophie Doughty, 2016

Background<br />

Habitat loss, contraction and fragmentation have been suggested as prevalent causes in the<br />

decrease <strong>of</strong> wildlife numbers in areas that historically sustained large numbers, such as the<br />

rangelands <strong>of</strong> the Greater Mara Ecosystem (GME) (Sinclair et al., 1995; Fryxell et al., 2005; Ogutu et<br />

al., 2009; Ogutu et al., 2010; Ogutu et al., 2011). Increases in human population size, a shift from<br />

semi-nomadic pastoral to increasingly sedentary lifestyles and a movement from communal to<br />

private tenure in the GME (Lamprey & Reid, 2004) have resulted in increased habitat loss,<br />

competition with livestock and hunting. <strong>The</strong>se factors combined have resulted in marked wildlife<br />

population declines (Ottichilo et al., 2000; Shackleton et al., 2002; Ogutu et al., 2011). Specifically,<br />

wild ungulate numbers have declined by two thirds or more in both the MMNR and the adjacent<br />

pastoral lands between 1977 and 2009 (Ogutu et al., 2011). Tourism is prolific in the areas around<br />

the government run Maasai Mara National Reserve and although this industry is advantageous<br />

economically to the area, it has further restricted wildlife movement as a result <strong>of</strong> the growth <strong>of</strong><br />

settlements and trading posts at the gates and along its boundary (Thomson & Homewood, 2002;<br />

Lamprey & Reid, 2004). To address these conservation management issues, wildlife conservancies<br />

were created as additional protected areas on the pastoral ranging lands that surround the MMNR.<br />

<strong>Wildlife</strong> in the Mara are free-ranging and while the provision <strong>of</strong> additional protected areas in the<br />

form <strong>of</strong> wildlife conservancies is undoubtedly beneficial, there is no information to date as to<br />

whether wildlife are utilising these areas i.e. are they working?<br />

This research aimed to determine whether wildlife conservancies are effective as a management<br />

tool, both in terms <strong>of</strong> elevating wildlife populations and providing refuge to resident and migrating<br />

wildlife in areas outside the MMNR.<br />

Project description<br />

Our research took place in Ol Kinyei Conservancy (See map for location in the Greater Mara<br />

Ecosystem) to help better identify and quantify changes to and vegetation cover, ungulate<br />

distribution patterns and abundance that take place as a result <strong>of</strong> changes in management strategies<br />

with the establishment <strong>of</strong> wildlife conservancies. In 2012 the Ol Kinyei conservancy expanded and it<br />

was at this time that we became involved in monitoring and modelling the response <strong>of</strong> the<br />

landscape and its dependent wildlife to this newly created addition to the existing conservancy area<br />

and grazing management regime.<br />

Data was collected using Wildknowledge® s<strong>of</strong>tware (http://www.wildknowledge.co.uk/)

Ol Kinyei<br />

Conservancy<br />

Findings<br />

Overall our research provides an accumulation <strong>of</strong> evidence in support <strong>of</strong> wildlife conservancies as<br />

ecological refuges, presenting them as a management tool that has the potential to promote rapid<br />

recovery from degradation and consequently support substantial numbers <strong>of</strong> wildlife. <strong>The</strong> main<br />

outputs from this research demonstrate that grasslands in the GME respond positively (increases in<br />

species composition and reduction <strong>of</strong> bare ground) to conservancy creation and that habitat<br />

heterogeneity increases with conservancy maturity. This in turn attracts significant number <strong>of</strong> wild<br />

ungulates to the area, which are integral to the natural function <strong>of</strong> savanna ecosystems. Our results<br />

indicate that for many herbivore species there was positive response to the creation <strong>of</strong> the<br />

conservancy, with several species showing considerable range expansion and population growth.<br />

To assess the ecological viability <strong>of</strong> Ol Kinyei Conservancy an examination and comparison <strong>of</strong> wild<br />

ungulate abundance in an established wildlife conservancy (Ol Kinyei 1(OK1)), and in a newly<br />

designated and adjacent conservancy area (Ol Kinyei 2 (OK2)) in the three years following its<br />

establishment was conducted. Wild ungulate densities (grazers, mixed feeders and browsers) were<br />

found to have increased in both OK1 and OK2 over the course <strong>of</strong> three years, indicating both

increased reproductive success and wider use <strong>of</strong> the conservancy. Initially, population estimates<br />

were higher in the ‘older’ part <strong>of</strong> the conservancy (OK1), but with time numbers became comparable<br />

between the two areas. <strong>The</strong>se changes suggested that OK1 accelerated wildlife colonisation in OK2<br />

due to its close proximity acting as a ‘population reservoir’ <strong>of</strong> individuals attracted from the high<br />

densities <strong>of</strong> wild ungulate species found in OK1, the surrounding community grazing lands, other<br />

conservancies and the MMNR. Patterns <strong>of</strong> spatial distribution <strong>of</strong> grazing ungulates over the course<br />

<strong>of</strong> the three year period in the established wildlife conservancy (OK1) and in the newly designated<br />

area (OK2) were also investigated.<br />

Our findings demonstrate how the previously identified numerical uplifts in population sizes<br />

manifested themselves in the spatial distribution <strong>of</strong> grazing ungulates in the newly extended<br />

conservancy. Results revealed that the study species were successfully increasing their distribution<br />

into OK2 over a short period <strong>of</strong> time, with all species present in significant hotspots (red) in OK2<br />

approximately a year after it was established as a wildlife conservancy.<br />

Below are examples <strong>of</strong> the increases in wild ungulate range in response to the expansion <strong>of</strong> Ol Kinyei<br />

Conservancy:<br />

Study Animals - Grazers<br />

Thomson’s Gazelles<br />

Wildebeest<br />

Zebra<br />


Distribution response to establishment <strong>of</strong> OK2<br />

Thomson’s gazelles<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014<br />

Wildebeest<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014

Zebra<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014<br />

Topi<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014

Study Species - Mixed feeders and Browsers<br />

Impala Grant’s gazelles Maasai giraffe<br />

Distribution response to Ol Kinyei 2<br />

Impala<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014

Grant’s Gazelles<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014<br />

Maasai Giraffe<br />

2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014

Despite expected fluctuations, the distributions <strong>of</strong> all study species persisted in OK2 through to the<br />

final year <strong>of</strong> study, confirming that populations were beginning to establish themselves in the new<br />

conservancy area. <strong>The</strong> most important fluctuation in wild ungulate abundance results was identified<br />

in sample season 2 where there was a significant escalation in the population sizes <strong>of</strong> all four grazing<br />

species; Thomson’s gazelles, wildebeest, zebra and topi. <strong>The</strong> creation <strong>of</strong> OK2 and the resulting<br />

decrease in the utilisation <strong>of</strong> the area by domestic livestock will have resulted in a competitive<br />

‘vacuum’ that could be attributed to the surge in occupancy by wild ungulates in the conservancy as<br />

a result <strong>of</strong> migration from surrounding pastoral lands and the MMNR. <strong>The</strong> high densities found in<br />

the conservancy in sample season 2, were not expected to be sustainable long term. This was borne<br />

out by results from sample season 4 which demonstrated that even though the population estimates<br />

were lower than in sample season 2 in both parts <strong>of</strong> the conservancy, they were more evenly<br />

distributed between them. Additionally, variations in migration timings could still influence results<br />

from data collected in October/November, as ungulates sometimes return to the Serengeti at a later<br />

date than expected. This research concludes that to fully understand the impact <strong>of</strong> these<br />

fluctuations a longer term study <strong>of</strong> wild ungulate abundance and distributions both within Ol Kinyei<br />

and across the GME is necessary.<br />

In addition, examination <strong>of</strong> habitat use and selectivity <strong>of</strong> grazing ungulates was also conducted to<br />

determine whether ungulate species used the habitats present in Ol Kinyei Conservancy<br />

differentially. As expected, the analysis identified open grasslands as the most important habitat to<br />

most species and therefore confirmed that their recovery should comprise a fundamental<br />

component in the forward management <strong>of</strong> the conservancies. Nevertheless, patterns <strong>of</strong> habitat use<br />

and selectivity in areas <strong>of</strong> high clustering also highlighted the importance <strong>of</strong> habitat heterogeneity<br />

(mosaic <strong>of</strong> different habitats) in small conservation areas. Results revealed that in Ol Kinyei<br />

Conservancy the study species (grazers, mixed feeders and browsers) utilised the resources available<br />

quite differently. Small bodied grazers (Thomson’s gazelles) were restricted to large open spaces<br />

where short, palatable new grass growth is available. Larger bodied grazers such as zebra and<br />

wildebeest utilised open grassland, but were more adaptable to other habitats with more vegetative<br />

cover. <strong>The</strong>se findings correspond to the ecological theory <strong>of</strong> resource partitioning, which suggests<br />

that larger bodied species have the ability to utilise a larger proportion <strong>of</strong> a landscape as a result <strong>of</strong><br />

both a higher tolerance for low quality resources, and due to the fact that they are less susceptible<br />

to increased levels <strong>of</strong> predation. Resource partitioning is heavily dependent upon high spatial<br />

heterogeneity <strong>of</strong> habitats within landscapes, particularly in the allocation <strong>of</strong> small protected areas<br />

designed to ensure the persistence <strong>of</strong> complex species assemblages and to provide resistance to<br />

temporal variations in resource availability (Fryxell et al., 2005; Cromsigt et al., 2009). When<br />

considered together with results that identify an elevation <strong>of</strong> wild ungulate abundance in both OK1<br />

and OK2, these findings suggests that the habitat composition and heterogeneity in Ol Kinyei<br />

Conservancy are proving to be acceptable refugia to the diverse ungulate dietary guilds represented<br />

by the most abundant species in the GME.<br />

<strong>The</strong> results that demonstrated that habitat heterogeneity and vegetation productivity had<br />

increased with conservancy maturity were consequently highly encouraging. When considered<br />

with the increases in ungulate populations, results suggest that the removal <strong>of</strong> livestock grazing<br />

has allowed the vegetation to begin to recover and regenerate. Additionally, investigation <strong>of</strong><br />

changes to the herbaceous layer in term <strong>of</strong> species composition, cover and grass height and<br />

comparisons <strong>of</strong> these between the established wildlife conservancy and the newly designated area

evealed that short pastures were being maintained with increasing species composition and cover<br />

improving the overall palatability <strong>of</strong> the grasslands to the benefit <strong>of</strong> the diverse ungulate feeding<br />

guilds. In particular these changes increased the conservancies’ attractiveness to the small and<br />

medium herbivores that represent an important proportion <strong>of</strong> herbivore biomass in “healthy”<br />

savannah environments. When considered together with the findings that demonstrate elevations<br />

in ungulate abundance these results further support the concept <strong>of</strong> wildlife conservancies in the<br />

GME, where in Ol Kinyei Conservancy, habitat heterogeneity and ungulate abundance were found<br />

to have increased concurrently.<br />

Conclusions<br />

To conclude, the results described here demonstrate that small wildlife conservancies, such as Ol<br />

Kinyei Conservancy, have the potential to provide suitable refuge for grazing ungulates among the<br />

pastoral dispersal lands located around the MMNR, a fact that until this research was conducted<br />

remained unsubstantiated. Furthermore, the rapid colonisation by wild ungulates and the<br />

demonstrated diversity <strong>of</strong> habitat use between feeding guilds and body size uncovered in this<br />

research indicates that the spatial heterogeneity found in Ol Kinyei Conservancy is able to maintain a<br />

representative assemblage <strong>of</strong> savannah ungulates in significant abundance. <strong>The</strong>se findings were<br />

additionally supported by increases in habitat heterogeneity and the positive changes described to<br />

the quality and cover <strong>of</strong> forage, which further confirm that grassland recovery and habitat<br />

regeneration is achievable using the wildlife conservancy model. <strong>The</strong> patterns <strong>of</strong> rapid utilisation <strong>of</strong><br />

wild ungulates described in the newly designated conservancy area are equally encouraging for both<br />

potential investors in future conservancies and those land owners interested in leasing their land to<br />

diversify their livelihood. <strong>The</strong> findings <strong>of</strong> this research therefore demonstrate that a short time for<br />

re-wilding and landscape recovery can be expected and that with appropriate management,<br />

significant increases in both numbers and distribution <strong>of</strong> ungulates can be achieved, so long as a<br />

careful consideration is given as to where new conservancies are to be situated.<br />

Finally, the GIS database <strong>of</strong> species distributions and densities, anthropogenic and biotic features <strong>of</strong><br />

the GME produced from this research as well as the resulting suitability models, will provide valuable<br />

material for wildlife managers, researchers and conservancy managers involved in decision making<br />

exercises concerning future tourism developments in the ecosystem. It is therefore anticipated, that<br />

these results can help pave the way for wildlife conservancies to become recognised by governing<br />

bodies, conservation organisations and financial investors as viable management options in<br />

pastoral landscapes to promote the protection <strong>of</strong> savanna wildlife.

Scope for future work<br />

More long term monitoring <strong>of</strong> ungulate species in Ol Kinyei Conservancy would provide a detailed<br />

insight to population stability and fluctuations and patterns <strong>of</strong> habitat use and selectivity. It would<br />

also provide further understanding <strong>of</strong> changes that occur from climatic variations and the resultant<br />

yearly shifts in the timing <strong>of</strong> the migrations. Overall, much deeper understanding <strong>of</strong> the role that<br />

wildlife conservancies are having in protecting and encouraging the uplift <strong>of</strong> wildlife numbers would<br />

be achieved by expansion <strong>of</strong> the research conducted in this study with regards to ungulate<br />

abundance and patterns <strong>of</strong> distributions throughout the extensive network <strong>of</strong> existing<br />

conservancies, some <strong>of</strong> which occupy significantly different landscapes to Ol Kinyei (This research is<br />

starting in 2016). Furthermore, several conservancies implement varying management strategies to<br />

Ol Kinyei Conservancy in terms <strong>of</strong> livestock grazing allowances, it would therefore be interesting to<br />

assess how wild ungulates respond to the different grazing plans.<br />

In addition to increasing ecological understanding these advances would provide conservancy<br />

managers with essential information on the condition <strong>of</strong> their conservancies and help to develop<br />

management plans that incorporate the needs <strong>of</strong> wildlife and enable the Maasai to maintain their<br />

traditional livelihood through grazing agreement with conservancies, removing any discord that<br />

might arise from the increased coverage <strong>of</strong> protected areas in the GME.<br />

Gamewatchers’ Adventure camp staff and Laura.

Acknowledgements - Ashe Oleng<br />

First and foremost, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Sir Martin & Lady Audrey Wood<br />

whose financial support made this project possible. I would also like to thank Jake Grieves-Cook and<br />

Dr Mohanjeet Brar, who allowed me to conduct this research in Ol Kinyei Conservancy and whose<br />

generosity, support and kindness were invaluable.<br />

To Pr<strong>of</strong>. Stewart Thompson, I would like to express my sincere gratitude for his continued support<br />

and for providing me with so many opportunities to develop as a researcher. Stewart’s patience,<br />

motivation, dedication and immense knowledge have been instrumental to the completion this<br />

research. Besides Stewart, I would like to thank Dr. Bruce Riddoch for his support, insightful<br />

comments and encouragement. Dr Irene Amoke, who I will never be able to thank enough for<br />

introducing me to the project. Her deep understanding <strong>of</strong> the ecology <strong>of</strong> the area and dynamics<br />

(human and wildlife) in the Mara are undoubtedly one <strong>of</strong> the reasons that I settled into my research<br />

with ease.<br />

A most special thank you is extended to my Kenyan family which has grown considerably over the<br />

last four years. To all the staff at Gamewatchers safaris who helped me extensively with the logistical<br />

side <strong>of</strong> my research particularly: Naeem, Angela and John. Ol Kinyei Conservancy and the Porini<br />

camps became my home away from home. <strong>The</strong>re are too many to thank, so this is far from an<br />

exhaustive list, but my special thanks to: Jimmy Lemara, Ben Tongoyo, Wilson Saningo, George<br />

Letuolo, Josphat Koros, Masago Simon, Richard, Staley Depe, Jackson Liaram, Emmanuel Mpararia,<br />

Julius Sanare, Leonard Tongoyo, James Tompoi, Fanuel, Simon and all the Askaris. Additionally, I<br />

would like to thank the staff at the KWS research station in the Mara and to ILRI and DRSRS for the<br />

use <strong>of</strong> their data. I would also like to thank Niels Mogensen (Mara Lion Project, KWT) for sharing his<br />

knowledge <strong>of</strong> the Mara with me. I would also like to express the deepest appreciation to the Kenyan<br />

Government, Kenya <strong>Wildlife</strong> Service and the Ministry for Science and Technology for allowing me to<br />

conduct this research.<br />

All photos included in the document were taken by Laura Doughty in Ol Kinyei Conservancy.

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