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A Ride to STEM the Conflict Between Humans and Wildlife
By Maciej Sudra, Anthony Charette, and Will Moore 05-Oct-16
STEM explores the interface between science, technology, engineering, and math, providing exciting opportunities for the development and application of new technologies in addressing emerging socio-economic and environmental issues. In March 2016, three teachers from the International School of Kenya (ISK) set off on a four-day motorcycle expedition following the historic wildlife migration routes in Narok county, situated in southern Kenya, which is home to the world famous Massai Mara National Reserve. Through the practical application of STEM skills and knowledge to map and analyze the interplay between humans and wildlife, the teachers hope not only to raise awareness of the critical issues around human/wildlife conflict but also to inspire students to apply their own STEM skills and experiences practically in addressing this issue. Southwestern Kenya is home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the country. While the annual wildebeest migration has been well documented, less attention has been paid to the movement of other game, including elephant, plains game, and predators—all of which, until recently, moved relatively freely between the Massai Mara reserve and other areas within Narok and its neighboring county of Kajiado. The rapid rise in wildlife poaching and trade in wildlife products has received a lot of media coverage. Far less attention has been focused on issues such as the large-scale subdivision and fencing of community land into private parcels across the country, rapid population growth, and the resulting disruption of wildlife movement. Our goal is to raise awareness of this increased human/wildlife conflict. Our 570-kilometer journey took us across the rift valley, passing lake Magadi, up and across the Nguruman Escarpment, the Loita Hills, and onto the Mara plains, which border the National Reserve. Using off-road motorcycles, GPS units, and GoPro cameras, we were able to follow, film, and geotag the migratory wildlife routes, as well as interview diverse stakeholders to capture the complexity of human impact on the Massai Mara National Reserve. “Population growth in Narok county increased by 29 percent between 2006 and 2009, while the wildlife population in the conservancies surrounding the reserve, in particular on the Loita plains, has decreased by 90 percent in the in past three decades,” according to KWS experts, who further explain that illegal grazing of cattle inside the reserve is up by 1,100 percent. We passed several makeshift villages and shanty towns, with shops, fuel stations, and piles of unmanaged waste. Only a decade ago these areas would have consisted of temporary Massai homesteads. As we passed through the many group ranches, which are large areas of communal land around the reserve that have been subdivided among members in recent decades, we came across mazes of barbed-wire fences and “land for sale” signs. According to David, a recent Massai landowner, it was this group ranch subdivision that opened the door for the land-grabbing that is now rampant and has, in effect, cut off wildlife migration routes. “We have co-existed with animals for years, but we never saw the proceeds from tourism. At least now we can make money from our land.” With the encroaching human population, poaching has also increased. Marc Goss, chief executive officer of the Mara Elephant Project and an ISK alumni, shared with us that the killing of elephants for ivory has been on the decline due to effective anti-poaching efforts. However, there has been an increase in wildlife deaths as a result of the human/elephant conflict, caused by shrinking rangeland and the loss of connectivity between areas for the wildlife to roam. This issue is more complex than poaching, as it requires the establishment of boundaries between people and wildlife, and the development of effective compensation systems. For these efforts to work, conservation land must provide economic alternatives or the days of free roaming wildlife in the Mara will soon be over. Marc and his team are currently working in areas bordering the Mara North Conservancy. The team has deployed tools to track elephants remotely, using satellite collars; they have built up rapid response teams to combat poaching and human elephant conflict. Working closely with the Kenya Wildlife Service, they monitor and collect data to find solutions to the scourge of poaching and human wildlife conflict. The creation of a STEM documentary film that was shown at ISK as well as at the International Schools of South and East Africa (ISSEA) STEM conference in Lusaka, Zambia aims to illustrate to students the complexity of this problem and the ways in which science, technology, engineering, and math can not only highlight the issues but also serve as the gateway to a sustainable solution. Supporting the Round Square School “IDEALS” (internationalism, democracy, environmentalism, adventure, leadership, service), we hope to involve individual clubs at ISK in raising awareness about the issues presented in the documentary while providing these clubs with the resources to further explore, examine, and collaborate. Working together with the Mara Elephant Project, we hope to involve students in hands-on research and other projects that will make strides towards finding both economic justice for the Maasai gatekeepers of our wildlife and securing the space in which Kenya’s wildlife can thrive.
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