### Craig, his wife Susan, and lion researcher Daniel and I went camping at Barafu the other night. These are Craig’s thoughts as we all sat on top of Barafu kopjes, watching the wildebeest out on the plains. ###
The rains have been especially good this year. We are camping at Barafu Kopjes, at the eastern edge of the lion study area. The wildebeest have moved very far east, as I type this, I can hear them grunting loudly. The noise will only reach greater volume in the coming weeks as the rut approaches. The grass is green, the sky is full of rain clouds, and this is really the most glorious time to be in the Serengeti.
Back within the camera trap grid, the grass is getting tall, and Ali has to mow it every time she checks the cameras. There is almost nothing for the lions to eat inside the grid; most of the lions have moved very far to the south and east. This is the happiest time of year for the wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle – they are out on the open plains where they can see any danger approaching. They can easily move off away from a hyena, a lion, and still be in the lush green grass –so short it’s like the fairway of a golf course. For the lions, though, having to shift so far outside of their usual territories, this is a time of uncertainty. They may encounter rivals, unwelcoming territory holders, and so they move quietly across the land, always on edge. Further to the east, across the park boundary, into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, there is also the danger that our study lions may encounter the Masaai warriors. Several years ago we lost three of our study lions in a wet April like this one.
All the grazers are drawn eastwards by the extraordinary richness of the volcanic soils immediately downwind from the Ngorongoro highlands. Without the wildebeest, the grass would be nearly as tall here as anywhere else, but it is so sweet, that it is mowed right down to the ground. The vistas here are breathtaking; every animal looks as though it’s floating in green space. It’s almost like snorkeling – the bright orange of the gazelle from head to toe, the vivid black and white stripes of the zebra, the dull brown of the wildebeest but in such mass it’s like a living train as the herd flows across the landscape. And lions, when we see them, stand out a mile. Usually they look like the bulls-eye – a large green target with a concentric circle of brown wildebeest around them.
This is the wet season.
Craig wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times today. He argues that fencing wildlife reserves in Africa is a cost-effective and necessary step to conserving Africa’s big mammals. The reasons that reserves need fencing now have to do with demographic changes over the half-century since they were established. He points out that fences won’t work for some reserves, especially those that depend on wildlife migration over reserve boundaries, but that for many, it may be an important step towards conservation sustainability. (For what it’s worth, those reserves like Tarangire with in-out migration may be doomed anyway, as human population and agriculture increase around the reserve and effectively block the migration anyway.)
Craig’s opinion piece derives from a study he and many others did comparing the success of Africa’s reserves based on various attributes of those reserves *. The effectiveness of conservation efforts is not usually measured; mostly, people would rather their money to go conservation actions rather than conservation monitoring programs. Lacking specific monitoring data, the approach of Craig’s study is one way to look at what works and what doesn’t when it comes to conservation. And the data say that fences work in (most) African wildlife reserves.
Your gut reaction to fencing wildlife areas might be aversion, or even horror. I know I wince when I consider the idea. Fences are unattractive. But they’re especially unattractive, I want to point out, for those of us with the luxury of living far from major human-wildlife conflict. If there were reasonable chances that a lion or leopard might carry off my child – or kill my livestock – or that elephants would trample my carefully tended crops – I would welcome a fence. North Americans and Europeans have historically come into conflict with wild animals when human needs for land, food, and fuel have increased. They have largely solved this human-wildlife conflict by eliminating the wildlife. Africans have done a better job of retaining their wildlife, but their needs for land, food, and fuel are also increasing. As unaesthetic as they might seem, maybe fences around wildlife reserves can help both Africa’s wildlife and its people.
* “Conserving large carnivores: dollars and fence” in Ecology Letters, 2013 Volume 16, pages 635-641. DOI: 10.1111/ele.12091
Authors: C. Packer A. Loveridge S. Canney T. Caro S.T. Garnett M. Pfeifer K.K. Zander A. Swanson D. MacNulty G. Balme H. Bauer C.M. Begg K.S. Begg S. Bhalla C. Bissett T. Bodasing H. Brink A. Burger A.C. Burton B. Clegg S. Dell A. Delsink T. Dickerson S.M. Dloniak D. Druce L. Frank P. Funston N. Gichohi R. Groom C. Hanekom B. Heath L. Hunter H.H. DeIongh C.J. Joubert S.M. Kasiki B. Kissui W. Knocker B. Leathem P.A. Lindsey S.D. Maclennan J.W. McNutt S.M. Miller S. Naylor P. Nel C. Ng’weno K. Nicholls J.O. Ogutu E. Okot‐Omoya B.D. Patterson A. Plumptre J. Salerno K. Skinner R. Slotow E.A. Sogbohossou K.J. Stratford C. Winterbach H. Winterbach S. Polasky.