Serengeti surely SHALL die if a proposed highway bisects its northern wilderness—and if its human neighbours remain poverty-stricken

Zebra and wildebeest in the Masai Mara Game Reserve

Zebra and wildebeest in Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

The New York Times and other media are reporting this week that one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth—the annual migration of nearly 2 million wildebeest and zebra from the drying savannas of the Serengeti, in Tanzania, to the wetter, greener, pastures of Kenya’s adjacent Masai Mara, and back again—is threatened by a proposed new national transit road for northern Tanzania that would cut right across the migration route of these vast herds of ungulates, likely leading to the collapse of this migration and possibly the crash of this ecosystem as a whole.

Kenya’s Masai Mara is the only year-round water source in the Greater Serengeti, and thus serves as critical dry-season grazing grounds for these vast herds of big mammals.

Just one of the problems such a road would bring is a greater disease burden to people, livestock and wildlife alike. In her extensive and useful research notes to her recent article, ‘Road Kill in the Serengeti’, in the New York Times, Olivia Judson refers readers to a scientific paper written by Eric Fevre, of the Zoonotic and Emerging Diseases research group at the University of Edinburgh, now based at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Kenya while working on a 3-year human-animal disease research project in Busia District. Fevre describes the spread of animal diseases through animal transportation in his article, ‘Animal movements and the spread of infectious diseases’ (Trends in Microbiology, 2006).

Perhaps just in time, just this month former ILRI ecologist Robin Reid, now director of the Center for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, USA, began a project in Kenya that is putting radio collars on wildebeest to learn more precisely what routes the animals take in their migration. This project’s members are involving Maasai schoolchildren, who are naming the wildebeest, which they will then be able to follow. The wildebeest collars send regular tracking signals to Safaricom, which are then sent to Colorado, where the routes are posted on a web map that the schoolchildren can follow.

This year’s annual wildebeest migration has already begun. Herds are reported to have crossed the common border of Kenya/Tanzania from Northern Serengeti into Masai Mara, about 4 days ago. ‘What has been unusual about this year’s migration,’ says Paul Kirui, in the Masai Mara, ‘is that the main migration from the south arrived in the Mara early ahead of the Loita herds—the Kenyan resident herds of wildebeest—which usually migrate into the Mara from the east of the park. Normally when we start seeing them move into the park, it is a sign that the main migration from the south is on the way.’

The first population of wildebeest that Reid’s team darted and then tagged with radio collars in the Mara is the Loita group that remains resident in Kenya all year round. Or so the researchers think. The radio collars, now fixed on the first 15 wildebeest, have already started to report back and will be letting scientists, and those schoolchildren, know just where they go, and when.

Reid’s return gave ILRI cause to revisit two remarkable films about her ILRI research in the Mara. Counting in a Disappearing Land (ILRI, 11 minutes, 2007) describes Reid’s project with a Maasai community that has traditionally herded their livestock in Kenya’s wildlife-rich Masai Mara region. This ILRI project was looking to find ways of balancing the needs of people, lands and wildlife. In The Great Migration (CBS ’60 Minutes’, 15 minutes, October 2009), Scott Pelley interviews Reid about the threats to this natural spectacle and the part local Masai are playing to address these threats.

Collaborative conservation may indeed be the answer to saving the Serengeti ecosystem. Protecting majestic wild places and the wildlife they support, places that instill wonder in us, matters, of course, but so does protecting millions of people from severe poverty, chronic hunger and the afflictions that come in their wake: disease and untimely death.

With a large percentage of its land area under protection, Tanzania is a world leader in biodiversity conservation. It is also very, very poor. How this tug at resources—whether the Serengeti Plains will be used for wildlife tourism or other kinds of commerce—will play out may depend on how much the local communities living in poverty near the wildlife benefit from saving this, the last of the great migrations of big mammals on Earth.

More . . . (New York Times, 15 June 2010)

An alternative, southern road in Tanzania is discussed on a webpage of the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

See Paul Kirui’s blog on 17 June 2010 the migration on Masai Mara Updates.

American TV show ’60 Minutes’ features ILRI research in Masai Mara


The work of ecologist Robin Reid, who spent 15 years conducting pastoral research at the Nairobi headquarters of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and is now Director for Collaborative Conservation at Colorado State University, in Fort Collins, is featured in a current segment of the American television program ’60 Minutes’, which aired last Sunday, 3 October 2009. You can view the segment on the 60 Minutes website here:

This story of the great annual wildebeest migration, the last such spectacle of big mammals on the move, focuses on two things—the danger that destruction of Kenya’s Mau Forest presents to the Mara River, the artery that keeps the wildlife and livestock in the Masai Mara region alive, and the hope for sustaining both wildlife populations and the Maasai’s pastoral livelihoods presented by new public-private initiatives called wildlife conservancies.

Poverty reduction lies behind both the danger and the hope.

Kenyan governments have allowed poor farmers to inhabit the Mau Forest, high above the Mara Game Reserve, which provides the waters for the Mara River. These farmers fell the trees to grow crops and make a living. The current government has recently acted to evict these communities to protect this important watershed.

Downstream, meanwhile, Maasai livestock herders, who have provided stewardship for the wildlife populations they live amongst for centuries, are bearing the brunt of the declining water in the Mara River, which threatens both their livestock livelihoods and the populations of big mammals and other wildlife that have made the Mara Game Reserve famous worldwide. Robin Reid says that should the Mara River disappear entirely, some experts estimate some 400,000 animals would likely perish in the very first week.

The new wildlife conservancies being developed in the lands adjacent to the Reserve are also about poverty reduction. They are an ambitious attempt by the local Maasai and private conservation and tourist companies to serve the needs both of the local livestock herders and the many people wanting to conserve resources for the wildlife. The conservancies are paying the Maasai to leave some of their lands open for wildlife. They appear to be working well, with the full support of the local Maasai. Dickson ole Kaelo, who is leading the conservancy effort, was recently a partner in an ILRI research project called Reto-o-Reto, a Maasai term meaning ‘I help you, you help me’. Dickson was a science communicator in that 3-year project, which found ways to help both the human and wildlife populations of this region. In his new role as developer of conservancies, Dickson and his community have managed to bring nearly 300 square miles of Mara rangelands under management by the conservancies, which pay equal attention to people and animals.

The long-term participatory science behind this story is demonstrable proof that, difficult as they are to find and develop, ways to help both people and wildlife, both public and private goods, exist, if all stakeholders come together and if the political will and policy support are forthcoming.

In other, drier, rangelands of Kenya, now experiencing a great drought that is killing half the livestock herds of pastoralists, some experts are predicting an end to pastoral ways of life. Other experts are predicting the end of big game in Kenya. Both, ILRI’s research indicates, are tied to one another. It appears unlikely that either will be saved without the other.

New atlas helps identify connections between poverty and ecosystems

On Wednesday 30 May, ILRI and partners launched ‘Nature’s benefits in Kenya: An atlas of ecosystems and well-being’. It is a first attempt to provide information on how people, land and prosperity are related.

Cover of Nature’s benefits in Kenya: An atlas of ecosystems and well-being

The atlas is a multi-year effort between two Kenyan organisations and two international organisations – the Kenyan Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS), Kenya’s Department of Remote Surveys and Remote Sensing (DRSRS), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) – and many others.

This atlas is a first for Kenya. It is a step forward from the landmark findings of the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment – that 15 of the world’s ecosystem services are degraded – and provides a model for other countries to develop their own similar maps. Similar studies are already planned for Uganda.

ILRI economist and lead author, Patti Kristjanson, said, ‘Four institutions, 13 collaborators, 67 authors and 23 reviewers – the many people and institutions that collaborated in this study is truly remarkable. Kenya, with this book, has become a leader in facilitating innovative institutional partnerships to explore and improve our understanding of the connections between poverty and the environment.’

The links between poverty and ecosystems are often overlooked. For the majority of the poor, rural environmental resources are key to better livelihoods and economic growth. Attaining development goals means policymakers and civil-society groups need to access evidence-based information and analysis on the numerous interconnections between environmental resources and human well-being.

Robin Reid, a landscape ecologist at ILRI and a lead author, said ‘There is a crippling division between sectors and disciplines within the areas of poverty and the environment. This is an effort to cross these boundaries. This has not been done in many places. It is an attempt to close the gap between science, policy and communities so that science can be applied more quickly on the ground. We, at ILRI, are eager to engage and help at every step of the way.’

The atlas and its 96 different maps include significant policy and economic development analyses that will be useful to policy-makers worldwide to improve understanding of the relationships between poverty and the environment. The atlas overlays statistical information on population and household expenditures with spatial data on ecosystems and their services -water availability, livestock and wildlife populations, etc. – to provide a picture of how land, people and prosperity are related in Kenya.

Mohammed Said, a lead author and scientist at ILRI explains: ‘One of the maps shows the spatial coincidence of poverty and locations with high milk production. Most of the areas with high milk production correspond to locations with a low incidence of poverty, but further investigation is needed to determine whether households in these communities became less poor once they became high milk producers or whether a certain amount of capital had to be in place to support a high-milk production system. Similarly, further examination of areas of high milk production and high poverty rates will provide useful insights into the causes of high poverty rates.’

Professor Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate and member of Tetu Constituency of the Kenya Parliament wrote the foreward to the Atlas and commended the contribution it can make to sound decision-making and good governance.

‘As a result of this type of work, we will never be able to claim that we did not know. Rather, using this knowledge, we can move forward to protect our environment, provide economic opportunity for everyone, and build a strong democracy’ said Maathai.

Maathai’s views were echoed by Edward Sambili, Permanent Secretary, Kenya’s Ministry of Planning and National Development, at the book launch on Wednesday. He concluded: ‘This (book) is going to change the lives of Kenyans. It is going to reduce poverty.’


The book is available for download in PDF format as an entire document or by chapter.

Full book.
(PDF: 15MB)

Natures Benefit in Kenya_Cover
(PDF: 856KB)

Authors and Credits
(PDF: 466KB)

Authors and Credits
(PDF: 466KB)

Planting a Seedling for Better Desicion-Making_Wangari Maathai_Nobel Peace Laureate-2004
(PDF: 62KB)

Table of Contents
(PDF: 62KB)

Natures Benefits in Kenya_Executive Summary
(PDF: 97KB)

Building Partnerships for Better Poverty-Environment Analyses
(PDF: 61KB)

Preface and Readers Guide
(PDF: 75KB)

(PDF: 98KB)

Chapter 1_Ecosystems and Ecosystem Service
(PDF: 1.4MB)

Chapter 2_Spatial Patterns of Poverty and Human Well-Being
(PDF: 1.6MB)

Chapter 3_Water
(PDF: 1.8MB)

Chapter 4_Food
(PDF: 2.3MB)

Chapter 5_Biodiversity
(PDF: 2.5MB)

Chapter 6_Tourism
(PDF: 2.2MB)

Chapter 7_Wood
(PDF: 2MB)

Chapter 8_The Upper Tana – Patterns of Ecosystem Services and Poverty
(PDF: 4.5MB)

Lessons Learned and Next Steps
(PDF: 100KB)

(PDF: 72MB)

(PDF: 39KB)

(PDF: 482KB)

Moving on: ILRI savanna scientist heads up new Center for Collaborative Conservation

After 15 years working out of Nairobi for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), American Robin Reid leaves for Colorado State University.

After 15 years working out of Nairobi for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), American Robin Reid leaves for Colorado State University.  Reid has been appointed Director of a new Center for Collaborative Conservation at the Warner College of Natural Resources, part of Colorado State University, in Fort Collins. She started her new job in January 2008.

ILRI’s Deputy General for Research, John McDermott, says ‘Robin is a highly respected scientist at all levels—international, national and community—as well as a leading strategic thinker.

‘She has made outstanding contributions to the genesis and evolution of ILRI’s research on people, livestock and the environment, providing visionary thinking and outstanding leadership’ says McDermott.

Reid is ambivalent about departing ILRI and her East African home: ‘For 14 years I’ve had the privilege of working at a world-class research institute with some inspirational people on some exciting ecological projects in one of the most spectacular places—ecologically and otherwise—on earth. My job here has been one most ecologists can only dream of.’

Among things she’ll greatly miss is her field in the vast wildlife-enriched savannas of East Africa. ‘But most of all’, she says, ‘I’ll miss my colleagues, collaborators and friends. That said, I look forward to creating some exciting new projects and working with many of my old colleagues again.’

Meeting in the middle ground

Reid is passionate about science, teaching, pastoralist peoples and pastoral lands. What matters most to her is making a difference in people’s lives and lands and, through science and education, helping both to develop in sustainable ways. The so-called ‘stakeholders’ in her particular research are a particularly diverse and passionate group, including Maasai and other traditional livestock herders as well as livestock scientists, land owners as well as community leaders, and policymakers as well as conservationists. Reid’s research regularly brought representatives of these groups together to find common ground and common solutions to urgent land-use and related problems now facing East Africa’s traditional pastoralists and the increasingly fragmented fragile ecosystems that support them.

‘If I could have one professional dream, it would be to help local communities build their livelihoods and conserve biodiversity and landscapes in a way that clearly benefits both,’ says Reid.

‘The world is fractured into camps of polarized views about East Africa’s pastoral lands and their people, livestock, and wildlife. Some groups argue passionately for people—for conserving or developing the semi-migratory pastoral ways of life of the Maasai and other livestock peoples here with little consideration of the environment—while others argue just as passionately for conserving the spectacular diverse herds of big mammals that share East Africa’s vast pastoral lands with little concern for people’s livelihoods. ‘We won’t solve any problems here,’ says Reid, ‘until we all meet in the middle ground and work together.’

Reid's work

Highlights from Reid’s work

Reid started work at ILRI in 1992 as a Rockefeller Fellow on ILRAD’s Epidemiology and Economics team, leading a pan-African study on the environmental and economic impacts of controlling the tsetse fly, which transmits human and animal trypanosomosis (known as sleeping sickness in humans). In 1999, Reid and colleagues founded an initiative called Land-Use Change Impacts and Dynamics, or ‘LUCID’, for short. This network of national and international scientists investigates land-use change in East Africa and its impacts on lands, biodiversity and climate change, and makes sure information generated by this research gets in the hands of policy makers. About this time, Reid’s team began focusing on sustaining pastoral lands and livelihoods. From 2001 to 2004, Reid coordinated ILRI’s People, Livestock and Environment Program, and then beginning in 2004, led a project on Sustaining Lands and Livelihoods.  In 2005, Reid was appointed Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Center for Sustainability Science.

Reid has authored and co-authored over 90 scientific publications and 5 books. She has supervised, mentored and advised over 20 MSc and PhD students and raised some USD20 million in grants. Summaries of some of her projects appear below.

LUCID: Getting the facts out about people, wildlife and livestock

The main objective of the LUCID network is to find regional research approaches to stemming losses of East African lands and biodiversity while sustaining the livelihoods of the peoples who depend on them. LUCID has six research sites: in Kenya, the eastern slopes of Mount Kenya and the northern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro; In Tanzania, the southern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro; and in Uganda, Sango Bay on Lake Victoria, Lake Mburo National Park and Ntungamo. Reid is proud that LUCID, set up in 1999, is alive and well today. ‘LUCID brings the best of science to policymakers in this region,’ she says. ‘Policymakers of all kinds and at all levels are in urgent need of scientific evidence for their decision-making, which affects the lives of millions of people.’

The Mara Count: Counting people, wildlife and livestock

Much of the spectacular wildlife of Kenya’s famous Masai Mara Reserve is disappearing at an alarming rate. The whole of the Greater Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem is of particular concern because nearly 70 per cent of the wildlife here was lost between 1976 to 1996. Pastoral peoples living in the Mara ecosystem have less livestock per person than they did 20 years ago, and about half survive on an income of less than Kenyan shillings (Ksh) 70 (USD1) per day. If these trends continue, it’s probable that the Mara in 20 year’s time will support very little wildlife and very poor pastoral people.

‘Work to conserve the Mara’s priceless wildlife populations and to improve returns from wildlife tourism to its Maasai people is being jeopardized by disjointed efforts, by all stakeholders in the Mara’s development,’ says Reid. ‘The Mara Count in 2002 was one effort to redress this. This project was a joint venture by pastoral peoples, conservationists, private industry, land managers and researchers in the region to create vast scientific datasets that would form the foundation of future decisions to conserve wildlife and develop pastoral peoples livelihoods.’

This project counted wildlife and livestock and much more in the Masai Mara region. Thirty-six local community members, 5 land managers, 6 tourist operators and 15 scientists participated, producing and analyzing 3.4 million data points published in a report and on a website. See

ILRI Brief: People, Wildlife and Livestock in the Mara:

Reto-o-Reto: Balancing people, wildlife and livestock

People, wildlife and livestock have co-existed and co-evolved on the East African savannas for millennia. But this intermingling has declined greatly in recent decades. Conservation policies have excluded people and livestock from wildlife parks and protected areas. Meantime, growing human populations and expanding cropping and agriculture have excluded wildlife and pastoral use of lands. Thus, in many parts of the region, wildlife populations have declined by nearly half while livestock populations have remained stagnant and human populations have grown. Millions of pastoralists now have no choice but to diversify their livelihoods beyond livestock.

In the Maa language of the Masai ‘Reto-o-Reto’ means ‘I help you; you help me’.  ILRI’s collaborative Reto-o-Reto Project focuses on sustainable development of pastoral landscapes, improving the livelihoods of agro-pastoralists and also protecting the diversity of wildlife species and savanna landscapes.

The Reto-o-Reto Project sites are in Maasailand of Kenya and Tanzania and include the pastoral lands surrounding protected areas in the  Mara/Transmara and Kitengela in Kenya, Amboseli/Longido in Kenya and Tanzania, and Tarangire/Simanjiro in Tanzania. The four sites represent contrasts in land tenure, national policies and degree of land use intensification. Each site has a different set of challenges. See

A central aim of ILRI’s Reto-o-Reto Project was to involve communities and policymakers in research that would be useful and used by them. Reid and her team created and wrote a large grant to fund a unique communication team that consists of 8 scientists, 5 community facilitators and 1 policy facilitator. This facilitation team formed a critical link between the scientific team and about 50 local communities.

‘The Reto-o-Reto Project has been more effective at helping people than any of us dreamed,’ says Reid. ‘We’ve held over 600 meetings with local communities throughout the region to identify problems, make cross-site visits to other communities and present research results.

‘Working with local media was instrumental in getting the word out. We initiated a local radio program series that reaches thousands of pastoral people on the ground and raised the profile of pastoral issues with national and regional policy makers,’ she said.

In December 2006, the Reto-o-Reto collaboration with the Kitengela Ilparakuo Landowners Association (KILA) won an international award from the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). While this award focused on the ILRI-KILA link, this link was supported by and enriched by efforts of many collaborative organizations.  This award for innovative partnerships between research institutes and civil society organizations came with a cash prize of USD 30,000 for use in further collaborative work. Below is a link to a photo-essay on the Reto-o-Reto Project at Kitengela, a fast-changing wildlife-enriched pastoral community lying on the outskirts of Kenya’s booming capital of Nairobi, which describes the challenges facing this pastoral community and some of the solutions being implemented by researchers, the local community, landowners and policymakers.

ILRI brief: Saving Lands and Livelihoods in Kitengela:

Further Information

Robin Reid
Director, Center for Collaborative Conservation
Warner College of Natural Resources, Corolado State University