It’s one of the most impressive spectacles in the animal world, and one of a few of its kind remaining on Earth. Every year, millions of wildebeest migrate across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania, loping across the grassy plains, en route to dry-season lands and their calving grounds. Of course the approximately 500-mile journey is not without peril. Predators are a constant threat. Indeed, the wildebeest’s migratory movements play a major role in the ecosystem’s food chain.
However, through the last 40 years, something other than predation has hampered wildebeest migration, to the point that the animal’s numbers have fallen 90 percent in some locales. In Kenya, human population growth in the capital city of Nairobi has sent development and urban sprawl spreading south, threatening to encircle Nairobi National Park. Increased development has meant more settlements and farms, more factories and quarries, new roads and more development along existing roads.
More development has also meant more fences.
And as fences proliferate across the arid savannas, more of the wildebeest’s migration routes are cut off — a scenario Robert Lilieholm has seen firsthand during research trips to East Africa.
“At the local level, people are fencing for a lot of reasons, foremost to establish ownership but also to exclude wildlife. To many Kenyans, the animals are a nuisance, devouring their crops,” says Lilieholm, a natural resource economist at the University of Maine who is part of a $680,000 National Science Foundation grant with Colorado State University researchers to look at fragmentation in this particular region of Africa. “It’s sad to contemplate, but for a lot of rural Kenyans, it would be OK if Nairobi National Park just became a large fenced-in zoo. And that’s what is going to happen without any active engagement and creative land-use planning.”
The losses could be huge. Tourism generates nearly $900 million annually for Kenya’s cash-strapped economy. Last year, tourists topped 1 million — a 15 percent increase from 2009.
Using mapping and a concept known as alternative futures modeling, Lilieholm’s research in Kenya will show people at local and regional levels that the land-use decisions they make today could have far-reaching impacts in the future.
And while there are no wildebeest in the western hemisphere, Lilieholm is working to promote the same concept of alternative futures modeling in Maine in order transform the way state and local interests think about future growth, development and zoning. Using modeling systems such as logistic regression and Bayesian Belief Networks, Lilieholm is showing communities that instead of taking a laissez-faire attitude to development, they can thoughtfully consider how to set aside areas for conservation, agriculture and forestry while maximizing the net contribution of important development initiatives.
“You have to recognize that whether you plan or not, you’re going to change the landscape, oftentimes in irreversible ways,” Lilieholm says. “Do you want to do it with more information or less? Do you want to anticipate the impacts of what you’re doing or not? I would hope most people would say, ‘Let’s go forward with better information.’ Without that, you can really undermine your future. You see it all the time.”
For example, Lilieholm cites a 2006 Brookings Institution study that found that although Maine’s school-age population was declining, the state’s four largest metropolitan regions spent $186 million building new schools.
“Unplanned growth is expensive, creating the need for more infrastructure like roads, sewers and schools, while established systems are underused and in need of repair,” Lilieholm says. “The result is costly, inefficient growth and high taxes.”