Friday, 9 December 2011

TAWIRI Conference discussions

I've spent most of this week at the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute (TAWIRI) conference here in Arusha. This is an event that happens every two years and involves a very high proportion of researchers active across Tanzania, so it's always a good place to hear about interesting things going on in these areas. I thought I'd give a few of my highlights today. The two talks that most exicted me were from two different aspects of ecology - one by Dr. Grant Hopcraft on the Serengeti and how climate change might impact wildlife there, the other also related to Serengeti, but this time by Dr. Dennis Rentsch from Frankfurt Zoological Society on the economics of the bushmeat industry. I know both of these folk fairly well, so was able to press them for lots of extra information about both talks, and what I'm going to descibe here represents both their presentations and some of the other stuff we talked about - I hope they don't mind me putting this information out before it's all polished and published!
Wildebeest and zebra migrating through Grumeti Reserves, Feb 2010

Grant knows rather a lot about Serengeti and, in particular, the herbivores of the system. His work has focussed on how nutrition impacts herbivores and his talk fitted well into the overall theme of the conference on climate change, by asking how climate change will affect the nutrient content of the grasses and how this might impact the animals that feed on them. You might think it's crazy to suggest that climate change impacts grass quality (i.e. nutrient content), but actually it can have some pretty profound impacts indeed. Grass growing in high rainfall areas gets very tall very quickly, but also tends to be poor in nutrients - it might be that the grass can only collect the same amount of nutrient from it's roots, but in wet years it grows faster, so there's less nutrient per leaf than in dry years when the plants can't grow as much and pack all the nurients into a smaller volume. So more rain means lower quality grass, but more of it, less rain would mean less, but higher quality grass. In fact, lots of people showed plots of rainfall in Serengeti and demonstrated that the area is getting wetter (though I also suspect there might be shifts in the dry season length which could be even more significant, but no-one really talked about that), so we should be seeing more, lower quality grass. What is the consequence of this? Well, according to Grant, perhaps it means different things for different species, since all the herbivores prefer slightly different combinations of nutrient quality and grass quantity. In particular, hind-gut fermenters like zebra are happy with lots of relatively low quality food, whilst wildebeest are typically selective ruminants and need higher quality grass. Now, Wildebeest in Serengeti are food limited, not predation limited or anything else, so a decline in food quality might be bad for them - but they are, of course, interested in quantity too, particularly during the dry season when any rain is going to provide grazing which is clearly better than no rain at all. So a wetter Serengeti, if it impacts the dry season too, is probably going to mean more food at this crucial dry-season food shortage period, and we can expect that even in a wetter dry season the rain will still be scarce, so the grass will be relatively nutritious. So on the one hand poorer-quality forage during the wet season might be bad news, but more grass in the dry season is certainly going to be good news - which effect wins out isn't yet clear. My money will be on the dry season effects, but we'll wait to see! On the other hand, it seems pretty unambiguously clear that a wetter Serengeti will be good news for zebra, provided again that the dry season remains at least a bit wet too. So more zebra will always be good - though how that will affect everything else is also tricky to forsee. Does more zebra mean better facilitation for the wildebeest? Or might there be more competition? Who knows, as usual, more research needed (and if you want to fund Grant on his next project, do let him know - he's searching for money right now!).

The migration reaches Seronera, Nov 2010. Don't get eaten!
Spot the snare: many animals are poached in Serengeti. Moru Jan 2011
Meanwhile Dennis has been working on bushmeat trade on the western side of Serengeti for many years now. His approach to studying what is, after all, an illegal activity has been to deal not with the hard end in the park of finding and apprehending poachers and trying to get them to tell him how many animals they hunt (they're very unlikely to give an honest answer in such circumstances!). Instead he's focussed mainly on trying to work out how much bushmeat is being consumed in the villages around the Serengeti by asking them about the various protein sources they eat during the week. Although there might still be some resistance to tell the absolute truth in this context, it's likely his numbers are underestimates of the full impact of the harvest (especially as it doesn't include any of the meat that gets exported from the region commercially). Underestimates they might be, but the numbers are still staggering. In the villages surveyed, the average number of meals of wildebeest eaten per family per week was 2.4. Obviously that goes up during the period when the wildebeest are migrating through the particular village, and down when they're far away, but 2.4 meals per week is the average for the villages immediately around Serengeti NP. And knowing the number of households in each village, plus the number of villages Dennis estimates that somewhere between 90,000 and 100,000 wildebeest are harvested (illegally) from Serengeti each year. To put that into context, it's equivelant to a harvest greater than the entire wildebeest population of South Africa each year!

At between 500 and 1500TSh / kg (depending on seasonal availablity), and assuming a conservative 100kg of meat per animal that gives a a total market value of $2.5 - $8.5 Million per year. Compare that to TANAPA income from Serengeti gate fees 10 years ago (the latest I can find online) at about $5.23 Million, and we're talking the same size economy. (Bear in mind that these TANAPA fees are used throughout the national park system to subsidise less well visited parks, so Serengeti NP actually has an opperating budget of only around $2Million per year.) That's a pretty remarkable figure on it's own, but Dennis went on to talk about how consumption is related to price of other meat in the area - if the price of beef goes up, more wildebeest is eaten. Which suggests that it might be possible to reduce the amount of wildebeest eaten, if you bring the price of beef down. Now unfortunately I wasn't quick enough to get all the figures off Dennis's slide to do the calculation here, but I think I'm right in saying that if you want, say to halve the wildebeest harvest, his figures suggest you need to bring the price of beef down by about 3 times as much - so 50% of 50% of 50%, which is an 87.5% reduction in price. That's probably going to be tricky to achieve, unless you fill Serengeti with cattle, which is hardly going to help! So you're rather stuck there. Instead, the only effective solution is to make the wildebeest more expensive - and Dennis suggested you can do that either by giving poachers alternative employment and dry up the supply of meat, or by even more strictly enforcing the regulations within the park. But bear in mind that this is a sustainable harvest - there's no impact of this level of poaching on the wildebeest population overall. The problem is the bycatch - people want to trap common wildebeest, but instead their snares catch resident game sometimes and have had a missive impact. So instead of strictly enforcing current regulations, perhaps TANAPA should be looking at ways to encourage sustainable use and minimse the negative off-take. Perhaps making a few million $$ in the process. What do you think? Should we go this way? Or how should we feed these people?


  1. Hi Colin, I finally found some time to go back and catch up on old posts. It's nice to get updates on the kind of research going on around Tanzania. I'm curious about the wildebeest offtake. First, how do we know it's sustainable? Did Rentsch confirm that the offtake has been this high for many years? I would love to read a post about wildlife harvesting, both for meat and hunting, and how to formulate a credible quota. I would also like to hear more about game meat trades in other countries and its effect on conservation and ecology. I know this is pretty specific but if you ever have the time...

    Thanks for the blog,


  2. Hi Matt, thanks for taking time to comment! Dennis is sure that the offtake has been high for a sustained period - it might well be rising as poulation increases though. It's also sustainable when looked at from the population ecology end - we know how many calves are produced each year, and how many die, and that most snimals die of starvation. What I didn't mention in the post originally is the only reason this is sutastainable is because there appears to be a male bias to the harvest - snaring happens in the woodlands, where you're more likely to find males, females are on the plains. You can easily lose males from this population, it costs more if you start losing females. Entirely accidental, of course, but fortuitious - and why such a large harvest is sustainable (when Dennis first put the estimate forward everyone concluded either he was wrong, or there were lots more animals in the migration than we knew about - now we can see how both population estimate and harvest estimate can be possible!). I'll see what I can do about another bushmeat post. Maybe I'll be able to convince Dennis to give me something...