Insights From Wildlife Conflict Studies

Concern for human-wildlife conflict has increased in Africa in the last few years. The focus on conflict provides a different prospective for problem solving. The survival of ecosystems as a whole and wildlife in particular are vitally dependent upon the coexistence of local people with wildlife. The conflicts threaten the very existence of wildlife. Those conflicts take many forms. Three forms have recently been studied in the Masai Mara area of Kenya. They provide interesting insight to those that care about Africa, its people and its wildlife.


The studies were done in the Mara region of Kenya which is the North or Kenya side of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. The Masai Mara National Reserve (MMNR) is within the area. Its visitor numbers peaked at over 200,000 in the early and mid-1960s. However, due to competition from Southern Africa and security concerns, visitation today has fallen to 100,000 visitors per year. It is especially famous for its concentration of migratory herbivores including 100,000 zebra and over 1 million wildebeest. The sight of hundreds of thousands of these animals moving together through the grasslands has been described as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth. It is also famous for its other large mammals such as the "Big Five" made famous by safari hunting before it was closed in the 1960s. The "Big Five" did much to promote the Kenya tourist economy in the 1960s but today that mentality is reported to be "doing more harm than good" because of "traffic jams . . . around prides of lions and other conflicts." 

The British Government's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs funded conflict studies in the area that were conducted by graduate students of the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. A workshop was conducted to develop management recommendations from the findings which were published in March 2003 and entitled, Wildlife and People: Conflict and Conservation in Masai Mara, Kenya, Wildlife and Development Series No. 14, International Institute for Environment and Development, London.

Three kinds of human-wildlife conflicts were researched. Each contains some jewels of interest. First, the impacts of tourism on wildlife within the Reserve (MMNR). Second, the impact of tourist and the local community on the endangered Black Rhinoceros population within the Reserve. And third, on the human-elephant conflict in the district beside the Reserve.

The primary impact of tourism within the Reserve was caused by uncontrollable off-road driving. The number of roads and tracks increased by approximately thirty percent between 1991 and 1999. Although that disturbed the animals, it did not significantly affect the distribution of seven herbivores selected for study, the waterbuck, kongoni, impala, giraffe, zebra, warthog and topi. The location of streams and rivers controlled the location of the animals irregardless of the increase in number and location of the roads and tracks. "Among all the explanatory variables that were tested it was only the mean distance from all rivers that had a significant relationship with species richness. Vegetation, visitor presence and distance from roads were insignificant for those seven species."

There was a positive correlation between the visible disturbance of wildlife and tourist vehicle speed. That was measured for five species, warthog, wildebeest, impala, zebra and topi. Each of these animals reacted at different distances upon the approach of a tourist vehicle and the disturbance to each increased with an increase in the speed of the vehicle. "Analysis indicated that there were significant differences in response distance among the different species studied." We note that the same is likely to be true if one was hunting instead of viewing. Topi were the least timid to vehicle approach while warthogs were the most timid. Of course, the "animals responded at shorter distances (slower to be disturbed) in areas with high visitation levels than those with low visitation levels" indicating "that most animals have become habituated to vehicles in highly visited areas."

The warthog was the most sensitive animal to the approach of a vehicle. It was the first to be disturbed at the greatest distance and also responded sooner and more greatly the faster the vehicle speed. The sensitivity of the others in descending order were the wildebeest, impala, zebra, and the topi. The topi being the least sensitive. This means that the slower you go the closer you can get without disturbing the animals. 

"Too many vehicles around animals (more than 5 at a viewing) and driving too close to the animals (closer than 20 meters) were the most frequently broken visitor regulations. These were broken during 66 percent of lion viewing events, and 57 percent . . . of cheetah viewing events . . . . The other most frequently broken regulations were visitors remaining too long viewing animals (more than 10 minutes when other vehicles were waiting), and driving off road. These infringements occurred in 40 percent and 36 percent of lion viewing events, and 36 percent and 52 percent of cheetah viewing events. . . ." Though the regulations appear reasonable, they are broken in ninety percent of the viewing cases despite the drivers and tourists knowing the regulations.

The Black rhino in the Masai Mara are disbursing to other areas when the population should be building to its former density in the Reserve. The mystery was where are they going and what is the cause of their disbursal? The research demonstrated that all of the animals studied in the system are declining except the elephants. The elephants are increasing. The Reserve "is becoming less valuable for browsers such as rhinos, partly due to elephant-induced habitat changes."

Cattle was found to be the primary culprit. "Neither tourism pressure, expressed either as road density, vehicle density, or distance from lodges, nor elevation had any effect on rhino distribution." "Whilst cattle do not compete directly with black rhinos for resources, they appear to disturb rhinos so that they do not make use of areas where cattle reside. This disturbance is probably a result of cattle bells, and the presence of herders and dogs with the cattle, the noise from which prevents rhinos from resting in thickets in areas where cattle occur." A high density of cattle certainly limits the distribution of Black rhinos. In this case, the presence of cattle has all but eliminated the Black rhino in the cattle area and appears to be driving them from Kenya into Tanzania where there is a greater availability of quality woody foods as well as less conflict with cattle.

Unlike Black rhino, the elephant populations are growing at a high cost to other species. "Due to the danger that elephants pose to people and the catastrophic damage that they can inflict on crops, human-elephant conflict is more frequently reported and less easily tolerated than conflict with other wildlife species. . . . Human and elephant deaths and injuries increased in the 1990s. Conflict with humans is now a major conservation issue threatening the future of elephants, especially outside of protected areas."

Between 1986 and 2000, elephants caused thirty-five reported cases of attacks on humans, and forty-seven attacks on humans were caused by ten other wildlife species. The forty-seven other attacks were caused by lion, leopard, hippopotamus, crocodile, buffalo, warthog, bushbuck, baboon, hyena and snakes. A total of fifty-six cases of elephant attacks on humans were recorded in the TransMara District between 1961 and 2000. "There were more reports of human wildlife conflict for elephants (45.7%) than for other herbivores (20.6%), predators (22.6%) or primates (10.9%)." This confirms that, for a fact, elephants are the most dangerous animal in Africa.

"Many farms" have literally been abandoned in the TransMara District because of crop raiding elephants. There is little that people can do to avoid attacks of their farms. "Over the longer term, communities need to recognize that alternative activities to farming that generate benefits from forest and wildlife are likely to be more sustainable." Unfortunately, because of the ban on hunting, Kenya does not have the alternatives available to other African countries. According to the study,

The attitudes of the local community towards elephants was generally negative because of a lack of related benefits. The resident elephant population is found in areas where people do not derive any benefits from tourism. The future of elephants in TM (TransMara) is bleak unless local tolerance to elephants can be improved. This can only be achieved through improved HEC (Human-Elephant Conflict) mitigation and increased elephant-related benefits (Walpole & Leader-Williams, 2001).

One particularly disturbing conflict was uncovered. Elephant are impacting school-age children. There are 132 primary schools in the TM District. "An elephant killed one pupil while going to school in 1994. Most students in elephant ranges therefore wait until elephants have receded back into the forests before going to school. Many students arrive late and are always absent, and this obviously affects their education." Therefore, an analysis was undertaken of the performance of both schools and individual pupils. The national examination given in ninety-six of the schools demonstrated that both the schools and individual students performance scores were lower where elephants were present. There was no difference between boarding schools in and out of elephant areas where children did not have to face elephants to get to school because they were already boarding at school. As a consequence of this discovery, authorities are actually recommending that more children be sent to boarding schools in areas where elephants are present. Think about that. The elephants are closing down day schools, causing the abandonment of farms and farming, reducing woody vegetation and reducing practically all other animals including those endangered like the Black rhino.

For a copy of the studies contact the International Institute for Environment and Development, 3 Endsleigh Street, London, WCIH ODD, telephone +44(0)207-388-2117, fax +044(0) 207-388-2826; Email: and ask for 11ED Wildlife and Development Series No. 14.