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Cows Are the Next Great Threat to Tanzania's Endangered Species

The country's cattle population has grown steadily over the past decade, and its newly elected president has promised to subsidize ranchers.

by Oscar Lopez
Oct 29 2015, 9:30pm

Photo by Oscar Lopez

"We used to see elephants, giraffe, zebra," said Musa. "Nowadays, we never see them."

Musa was my guide in Tanzania and he and I were driving between two of the country's most important national parks — Tarangire and Lake Manyara. The stretch of land that connects them is known as a wildlife corridor, used by large mammals to move from one park to the other.

Watching the landscape rush past, it wasn't difficult to see why. As soon as we left the boundary of Tarangire, the long grasses and rich soil were replaced by a vast dry plain, a barren dustbowl entirely devoid of wildlife.

There was, however, one animal I kept seeing over and over and over again: cows.

Tanzania has 21.3 million cows, accounting for 82 percent of rural livestock, according to the country's Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development (MSFD). That count came four years ago, and according to the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT), cattle populations have increased steadily at a rate of 5 percent percent a year over the last ten years.

And that's becoming a big problem for the country's wildlife corridors — and the animals that traverse them.

While global attention has largely focused on the impacts of animal poaching and the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn, the increase in the number of livestock has become an underappreciated threat to Tanzania's endangered species. Huge herds of cattle have all but decimated many wildlife habitats, while increased droughts from climate change have forced pastoralists to to seek new pastures, even encroaching into protected national parks.

It's a threat that Silvia Ceppi understands all too well. Ceppi, a conservation biologist with Instituto Oikos, an non-profit organization that promotes sustainable wildlife management practices. She explains that this vast number of cattle, especially those in areas surrounding national parks, have placed a severe strain on wildlife ecosystems.

"There is a total depletion of mineralized topsoil because of constant grazing," she said. "This reduces the diversity of the grasses, meaning we are losing species that simply cannot reproduce."

No grass means no food for the plethora of Tanzania's wild herbivores, like zebras, wildebeest, elephants, giraffe, and rhinos.

Related: Poachers Just Killed Some More Elephants With Cyanide in Zimbabwe

Under ordinary circumstances, the issue might be manageable, because the vast majority of Tanzania's wildlife is contained within the country's national parks. But changes in weather patterns have created worsening droughts, in turn forcing pastoralists to take cattle into wildlife areas for better pasture, thus compounding the problem.

Tanzania's 2012 plan for dealing with climate change found the country's getting hotter and drier. (The irony is that cows themselves are contributing to global warming. Their burping, farting and shitting produces methane, a gas that in the short term is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.) Those changing climate conditions are diminishing the amount of pasture available for grazing. And that, too, is driving ranchers into wildlife corridors in search of better feed for their herds, destroying the grasses that elephants, antelope, and others large animals depend on.

But for ranchers, venturing farther afield doesn't necessarily bring relief. Instead, many of Tanzania's 300,000 Masai pastoralists are abandoning their traditionally nomadic lifestyles and turning to agriculture, farming in areas around national parks, despite poor soil conditions. This also intensifies the problem for wildlife: The farmers' proximity to big mammals often results in conflicts, which can prove deadly for both the animals and humans.

Those that don't turn to farming are forced to venture farther for fresh pastures, even if that means breaking the law. Grazing in national parks is illegal in Tanzania, but as Ceppi points out, when your entire livelihood depends on livestock, "You'll do anything to make your herd survive."

Sasi grazes his 50 cattle inside a UNESCO heritage site, which is legal, but could encroach upon rhino habitat.

Tanzania's cattle population has increased steadily over the last ten years, and the country's newly elected president has promised to subsidize ranchers. 

A Masai tribesman named Sasi who lives on the outskirts of Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, said he grazes his 50 head of cattle in the Ngorongoro Crater, a volcanic caldera home to some 25,000 large mammals, including a handful of black rhino. As a conservation area, and not a national park, grazing is legal. But as cattle populations continue to rise, and grazing areas continue to shrink, more and more villagers like Sasi will be looking for greener pastures, irrespective of the wildlife they contain or the legal restrictions that limit grazing.

Adelhelm Meru, secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, admits the problem is becoming "increasingly serious." He explained that, as cattle populations multiply and competition increases, a greater number of pastoralists are tending to graze inside conservation areas and national parks.

According to Meru, those found grazing in national parks are taken to court, fined, and often have their cattle confiscated. But he said the ruling CCM party is planning on increasing regulations and the severity of punishment.

The implementation of measures like these, however, will depend on John Magufuli, the man who was today announced victorious in one of the country's closest presidential elections ever. During his campaign, Magufuli promised to protect the country's wildlife sector and attract more tourism, but also assured voters he would provide public subsidies to the livestock industry. 

More significant still will be whether Magufuli can tackle the profound economic inequality of Tanzania's livestock industry. A 2012 report authored by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization, the World Bank, and the Tanzanian government, found that the top fifth of livestock owners own around 81 percent of all livestock. By contrast, the bottom fifth own just one percent of all livestock. The same report found that with larger herds, households in the top fifth were able to earn a third of their income from livestock, while the bottom fifth earned just 10-14 percent. A 2014 report from GRAIN, a non-profit that supports small farmers, showed that just 28 percent of agricultural land in Tanzania was in the hands of small farmers.

Related: American Trophy Hunters Pay Top Dollar for Lion Heads — But Asia Wants the Skeletons

And it's not just big business: Ceppi said the cattle industry has become inextricably linked to politics, with what she calls a whole "pool of politicians" owning herds that number in the hundreds of thousands.Fixing the problem, then, depends as much on confronting big time cattle herders as it does on dealing with traditional pastoralists like Sasi.

Still, livestock remains an important source of income for Tanzania's mostly rural population. According to the Ministry for Livestock and Fisheries Development, livestock provides livelihood support to 37 percent of rural households. And according to SAGCOT, this will only grow: Tanzania's demand for meat is projected to triple by 2030.

Yet for all the cows, livestock production accounts for just 3.8 percent of the country's GDP, something the World Bank has deemed a serious "missed opportunity." To counter this, in 2010, the MLFD implemented a livestock development program, which aims to increase GDP contribution to 7 percent by 2016. In order to achieve this, the program set out to improve access to grazing lands, control livestock diseases, and increase public and private investment.

Throughout the course of Tanzania's recent election, the environment became a political concern — both parties promised to protect wildlife and tackle the poachers. But while poaching remains a grave threat to Tanzania's endangered species, large-scale cattle farming is set to decimate wildlife corridors and encroach on the few national parks where these animals reside. Without a more sustainable approach to livestock production from newly elected president Magufuli, the simple cow stands to become what Silvia Ceppi calls "the next great threat to wildlife conservation." 

Follow Oscar Lopez on Twitter: @oscarlopezgib

Photos by Oscar Lopez

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