Thursday, 25 August 2011

Human influences in national parks

Maasai Paintings at Moru Kopjes, Serengeti NP
Gong Rocks, Moru Kopj
Quite a few people are surprised that one of my 10 things to talk about is people - we're on safari, we've come to wonderful wilderness, and you want to talk about people?! Must be crazy...  But I don't think so, and it shouldn't be surprising once you remember that people evolved in Africa and have been here a very, very long time. Their influence is everywhere, despite the fairly recent notion that we must separate people from wildlife in strict protected areas.

Some things are obvious - such as the paintings featured above at Moru Kopjes in Serengeti. These are relatively recent Maasai paintings, but despite their recent history I can't find anything particularly informative about them - some speculation here, and some hints they may be a circumcision site. Anyone with any better information to share (if you know a source, even better, but I suspect the stories must still be available in living memory...)? Such sites obviously provide an opportunity to talk about how the idea of wilderness areas and safari sites as being without people are a moden (mostly colonial) myth - people have been present in wildlife areas in Africa for as long as there have been recognisable 'people'. I think this is an issue that can generate debate, but I think a lot of visitors to these areas are willing to engage and learn and I think a lot of people are interested to know that what they might have thought of as a 'pristine wilderness' and 'unchanged Africa' is very much a modern invention.

'Managed' fire in Tarangire NP, June 2011
Even today, the influence of people is obvious in many parks - and I don't mean simply the negative aspects of queues of cars, roads, poaching and all the rest. Fires, already established as a favourite topic of mine here and one of the big four of savanna ecology, are actively set by people as the one major land-management practice carried out in much of East Africa's savannah. And they're pretty much all set by man (I understand from Grant Hopcraft that there isn't a single recorded incidence of natural fire in the Serenegeti ecosystem - though I suspect that's mainly a consequence of an inappropriate management regime, rather than an indicator that there wasn't any pre-hominid fire) - and before modern men were around, they were set by earlier hominids, perhaps as long ago as 1.5 - 2 million years ago. Now, that long ago there were some pretty odd beasts inhabiting the savannahs, as anyone visiting the Olduvai museum will know (if you ahven't been, check the photo here!). So the modern fauna of the savanna have all evolved under conditions of regular, hominid induced, fire - our influence is massive and pervasive, and fires are still a good opportunity to talk about people in the savanna today.

Hadzabe hunter shooting doves, Eyasi, Jan 2011
Handzabe baobab peg ladder, Mongo wa Mono, April 2011
It's not just that though. Until relatively recently (and in some areas, still today, even with parks!) people were one of the top predators. And hopefully we already know how top predators are important at maintaining a functioning ecosystem - we've talked a lot about lions creating a landscape of fear, people too must have done the same in many areas until relatively recently. And in a few pockets, of course, they still do (let's ignore poaching!) - the Hadzabe are a hunter-gatherer tribe who maintain a traditional lifestyle and although now limited in distribution to a few pockets around Lake Eyasi they were relatively recently spread much more widely. You can still find evidence of their (or similar people's) occupation in many parks today. Baobabs are probably the best places to look - you'll often see old pegs from honey-gatherers embedded in the trunk, and when watching the Hadza use these ladders today I find it amazing to think that their ancestors may well have been running up the same tree 1000 years ago, for exactly the same purpose - that's sustainaility! These hints of a (recent) but different way of life are always fascinating I think.

And your conversations about people can be wider than that too - you can point out the berries you can eat (feed people them too!), the uses people have for many of the plants (and animals!), and all the rest. These little pointers about how people still use nature are great and to be exploited - I hope we'll be able to feature some of these stories in more detail on the blog in time (let me know your favourites in the comments, as I love to learn too!).

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