Flagship ecosystems... serve nature 'and' people
Environmental imperatives aside, healthy ecosystems and rich biodiversity are essential to human populations too! This is especially true in developing countries, where more people rely directly on 'ecosystem services' for their livelihoods. But little is known about the complex links between human well-being and the state of biodiversity and ecosystems. An EU-backed international study takes up the challenge principally in Tanzania and Kenya.
© Rafal Cichawa #175953296, 2018. Source: fotolia.com
Ecosystems services offer direct and quite measurable benefits to people, such as food from agriculture or fishing, income from recreation, and even improved mental well-being. But they also provide indirect benefits such as as natural resistance or barriers to flooding, and can help stop the spread of disease.
Human dependence on ecosystem services is tightest in developing regions of sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty reduces peoples capacity to capitalise on national resources other than those they can acquire from their direct surroundings, explains Eivin Røskaft, a professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) who coordinates the EU-supported AfricanBioServies project. It makes them much more sensitive to accelerated climate change than the developed world, which can lead to a spiral of poverty.
AfricanBioServices is investigating the greater Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa that covers parts of Kenya and Tanzania. This ecosystem is world-renowned for its biodiversity and natural events, such as the migration of 1.3 million wildebeest. The project the first of its scale where scientists from Kenya and Tanzania are working with European counterparts is building a clearer picture of how climate change, human population growth and land-use changes affect ecology, biodiversity and human well-being. The results could prove pivotal in deriving innovative policies and practical solutions spanning the entire socio-ecological-economic system which underpins sustainable development in the region and beyond.
Interlinked and international, by design
Indeed, what happens in this flagship ecosystem matters wherever humans and nature interact, which clearly boosts international interest in our project, stresses Røskaft. The research itself is organised into seven interlinked activities, starting with data stock-take and analysis to help quantify the connections between human population growth and changes in land use, climate and biodiversity in Kenya and Tanzania.
The programme is designed to promote international exchange and training between Africa and Europe by bringing together leading researchers from Norway, the Netherlands, Scotland, Denmark and Germany with strong local partners in Tanzania and Kenya.
No single institution possesses all the skills needed complementary skills in human welfare, socio-economics, ecology, biodiversity, climate change, ecosystem services, policy, agriculture, local know-how, etc. to carry out complex research on this scale. Røskaft says that engaging local stakeholders is critical and will continue to be when the findings need to be communicated and disseminated at the end of the project in August 2019.
Crossing all kinds of boundaries
Our international and interdisciplinary consortium is scientifically strong with committed transcontinental and transboundary cooperation. It provides extensive, novel training opportunities for African institutions, notes project partner Robert Fyumagwa of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute. It is helping to foster a new generation of researchers and policy-makers in Africa with deeper understanding of the complex linkages between human well-being, the state and biodiversity of ecosystems.
The research is more than crossing disciplines, borders and geographical regions, it is also crossing cultural boundaries, and raising skills and awareness on how ecosystems serve both nature and people. The experiences of an NTNU researcher carrying out field work and training on ecosystem services in Tanzania are presented in an interesting video blog. Authors associated with AfricanBioServices have also contributed to the newly released book Northern Serengeti Road Ecology.
Another AfricanBioServices team, led by Joseph Ogutu at the University of Hohenheim, has also shown that Kenya lost nearly a third of its wildlife population in the last 40 years. This has been documented in an article on PLOSOne. More than a dozen wildlife species could become extinct in a couple of years unless urgent remedial measures are taken, according to the researchers who insist that these findings should be an eye-opener for politicians and land managers.
Urgent action is clearly needed, and our findings can shine a light on what needs to be done, says Røskaft. We aim to continue with this consortium beyond the lifespan of the project so our work reaches critical scale where it matters most.
This will be helped by the online repository being developed to provide open access to all project data, as well as from other bio-ecosystem projects in East Africa. This database will be a key platform for further cooperation between scientists in the project and beyond, he predicts.