Human uses of the savannah

The savannah ecosystem is a delicate balance of interdependent relationships between different species. This balance is easily disrupted by any human intervention, and the smallest change can have knock-on effects on other people, animals, plants and the wider environment.

Desertification

The effects of drought in Namibia

The effects of drought in Namibia

 

Desertification can result from poorly managed human intervention in the savannah. Areas of desert are created by the destruction of natural vegetation. Causes of desertification include:

  • Removal of vegetation cover.
  • Overgrazing.
  • Uncontrolled fuel wood collection.
  • Unsustainable farming practice and loss in fertility of soil.
  • Excessive tree felling.

The Masai and desertification

Masai women in the Amboseli National Park, Kenya

Masai women in the Amboseli National Park, Kenya

 

Many people in central Africa farm to produce the food they eat. The Masai tribe of the Kenyan Serengeti practise nomadic farming, a traditional method of farming allows vegetation to recover from animal grazing whenever the farmers move on to another area.

However, in the past 40 – 50 years the Masai’s way of life and farming have been disrupted as a result of commercial pressures and government policies. The ecosystem has also started to suffer.

  • Commercial farmers, encouraged by government policies, have moved into the best dry-season land and converted it to commercial agriculture. As savannah is converted into cropland, the natural vegetation is removed and the soil’s nutrients are rapidly used up.
  • When the Serengeti National Park was established in the 1950s to conserve wildlife and encourage tourism, human access to the park was restricted and the Masai were excluded from it.
  • The Serengeti’s population has expanded rapidly over the past 30 years. This has resulted in larger herds grazing the grassland and more trees being cut down for fuel. As vegetation is removed there is a risk of soil erosion.

These interventions forced the nomadic Masai farmers onto marginal land. Their traditional pastoral migration patterns have been disrupted and they have been compelled to use smaller areas of land for their cattle. Overgrazing has been the inevitable result.

The Serengeti’s increasing population has resulted in a growth in demand for meat, which has led to a rapid increase in meat poaching. Poachers are now killing around 150,000 wildebeest a year – and a dramatic fall in the wildebeest population will cause a knock-on effect throughout the ecosystem.

Tourism in the Serengeti

A lioness stands in front of a safari jeep

A lioness stands in front of a safari jeep

 

Tourism brings income to Kenya and gives tourists a greater understanding of the area’s animals and plants. The Serengeti is especially popular for safari holidays, which give tourists a chance to observe the annual migration of the wildebeest and zebra.

Tourism can also have negative impacts on the area. These need to be managed carefully to ensure that the natural environment isn’t damaged for future generations.

Positive impacts of tourism

  • Conservation. Tourism has supplied the economic incentive to set up national parks and conservation areas which protect wildlife.
  • Employment. Tourism has generated jobs, improving the living standards for local communities.
  • Infrastructure. Roads, airports and other facilities have been built.
  • Investment. Profits from tourism have been invested in education and other programmes for local communities.

Negative impacts of tourism

  • Environmental damage. Roads and tracks for safari jeeps can erode grass cover, damaging plants and animals and disturbing local habitats. The removal of trees and other vegetation for the construction of roads can lead to soil erosion.
  • Inequality. Often the profits of tourism are reaped by wealthy landowners or the hotel and travel companies in MEDCs.
  • Loss of traditional cultures. The Masai’s way of life and traditional farming methods have been by the setting up of the Serengeti National Park.
  • Water cycle damage. Diverting water for tourists can exploit local water reserves, leaving local people, plants and animals short of water. Tourist hotels sometimes dump waste into rivers.

Sustainable management of the savannah

Conservation is the key to protecting the Serengeti for future generations. A sustainable future could be achieved if the following policies are adopted:

  • Local people employed by investors.
  • Respect for local cultures and customs.
  • Local people should receive some financial rewards from tourism.
  • Sustainable methods are used in order to protect the environment.
  • Improved conservation education programmes for local communities and farmers.

Possible strategies to achieve these goals:

  1. Harvesting branches rather then whole trees to prevent deforestation, soil erosion and desertification.
  2. Controlled burning of grassland to avoid wildfires.
  3. Crop rotation to keep a varied supply of nutrients in the soil and prevent soil erosion and desertification.
  4. Stone lines along the soil contours keep it in place, prevent erosion and improve crop yields. Projects such as this can involve the whole community and give them a sense of ownership and responsibility.
  5. Managing grazing land to avoid overgrazing, soil erosion and desertification.

Solutions to desertification – some disadvantages

  • Afforestation – newly planted trees need water, which will be a problem in a drought stricken region.
  • Building stone lines – reduces soil erosion, but is a labour intensive process which diverts the community from tasks essential to their survival.
  • Decreasing livestock – solves the problem of overgrazing but requires people to adapt if they rely on cattle or goats for their livelihoods.
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