Responses to alternative rainfall regimes and antipoaching in a migratory system

Ricardo M Holdo, Kathleen A Galvin, Eli Knapp, Stephen Polasky, Ray Hilborn, Robert D Holt
Ecological Applications 2010, 20 (2): 381-97
Migratory ungulates may be particularly vulnerable to the challenges imposed by growing human populations and climate change. These species depend on vast areas to sustain their migratory behavior, and in many cases come into frequent contact with human populations outside protected areas. They may also act as spatial coupling agents allowing feedbacks between ecological systems and local economies, particularly in the agropastoral subsistence economies found in the African savanna biome. We used HUMENTS, a spatially realistic socioecological model of the Greater Serengeti Ecosystem in East Africa, to explore the potential impacts of changing climate and poaching on the migratory wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) population, the fire regime, and habitat structure in the ecosystem, as well as changes in the size and economic activities of the human population outside the protected area. Unlike earlier models, the HUMENTS model predicted only moderate declines in the wildebeest population associated with an increasing human population over the next century, with a gradual expansion of agriculture, more poaching, and increases in fire frequency and reduced tree density. Changes in rainfall were predicted to have strong asymmetric effects on the size and economic activity of the human population and on livestock, and more moderate effects on wildlife and other ecological indicators. Conversely, antipoaching had a stronger effect on the ecological portion of the system because of its effect on wildebeest (and therefore on fire and habitat structure), and a weaker effect on the socioeconomic component, except in areas directly adjacent to the protected-area boundary, which were affected by crop-raiding and the availability of wildlife as a source of income. The results highlight the strong direct and indirect effects of rainfall on the various components of socioecological systems in semiarid environments, and the key role of mobile wildlife populations as agents of spatial coupling between the human-dominated and natural portions of ecosystems. They also underscore the fundamental importance of considering the spatial configuration of hunting refuges across the landscape in relation to human populations.

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