A HANDFUL of Ramsar Sites in Tanzania are on the brink of ecological and humanitarian disasters following invasion by livestock keepers, other alternative land uses and involvement of heavyweight politicians, THISDAY has learned.
The Ramsar Convention (The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat) is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable utilisation of wetlands aimed at stemming the progressive encroachment on and loss of wetlands now and in the future, and recognising the fundamental ecological functions of wetlands and their economic, cultural, scientific, and recreational value.
Tanzania ratified the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in August 2000. The Convention also stipulates wise use of wetland resources, maintaining the ecological character of the sites while contributing to people's livelihoods.
Kilombero valley flood plains (also a Ramsar Site) in Morogoro Region could reportedly be ranked as victim number one where the encroachment of livestock keepers has caused serious degradation of the ecosystem.
Some wildlife species in the Kilombero flood plains have already been driven into extinction as a result of the invasion, with the water sources of several important rivers also at stake.
The invaders from pastoral communities in Tabora, Shinyanga and Mwanza Regions came into the Kilombero valley back in 2003 with hundreds of thousands of cattle, devastating the ecosystem and available habitat for wildlife.
Apart from the ecological damage caused by the invasion of the area by livestock keepers, other environmental side effects include the wiping out of 75 per cent of the world's population of the wetland dependent puku antelope (sheshe in Kiswahili).
This antelope is now only found in 18 locations in Africa and its survival, as a species, depends on the Kilombero valley population.
Apart from the puku antelope, other animals rendered an endangered species as a result of the activities in the valley include lions, buffalo, elephants, crocodiles and hippopotamus.
It is believed that the endemic puku antelope, for example, has become a favourite for some pastoralists who have become poachers per se as its meat is considered a delicacy.
THISDAY findings further show that many of the pastoralists have dogs and guns which they use in hunting the puku antelope, further speeding up their decline.
The pastoralists are also destroying fish spawning grounds in lakes interconnected with the Kilombero River system, where they use chemicals to protect their cattle from ticks and tsetse flies.
The other environmental victim is the Moyowosi-Malagarasi Ramsar Site covering 3.25 million hectares in western Tanzania, occupying Kigoma, Shinyanga and Tabora regions.
Ninety five per cent of this Ramsar Site falls within protected areas including forest and game reserves and thus is under the management jurisdiction of the Tanzanian government. A small portion forms part of the Kigoma rural village lands.
However, investigations by THISDAY have revealed that the Moyowosi-Malagarasi Ramsar Site is also facing serious ecological degradation through livestock encroachment.
Cattle encroachment: Recent history
For example, an information sheet produced for the Moyowosi-Malagarasi Ramsar Site in 1999, indicated that an estimate of between 15,000 and 20,000 heads of cattle occupied the central part of this Ramsar Site.
“The central portion of this site represents most of the area which is not under official protection, that is not in a game reserve or forest reserve,” says an environmental expert that has surveyed the area.
The original document for the Ramsar Site notes that the presence of these pastoralists would have negative impacts on the wetland, including overgrazing leading to soil erosion, frequent burning of the wetland again leading to soil erosion through run-off and other negative impacts on the biodiversity, and poaching for meat.
THISDAY has further learned that most of the people who have encroached Uvinza open area that forms part of the Ramsar Site are political refugees from Burundi, thus raising the question of the negative impact of these people, on what is essentially a Tanzanian resource.
To date Burundian refugees still occupy the Uvinza open area, and indeed have increased in number significantly, according to anecdotal reports of the Kasulu District Game Office seen by this newspaper.
“When originally settled into the area a specific site was agreed upon and designated for their settlements, a site which had in the past been used as a cattle ranch, however, the herdsmen also settled outside of this area, in closer proximity to the sensitive floodplain, and since have expanded into other areas which were not allocated to them,” says the expert, preferring to remain anonymous.
The expert adds: “The refugees continue to burn forests frequently and have been apprehended for meat poaching on a number of occasions. They hold firearms on permit, for protection of their cattle, however, it seems that these easily double for use in bush meat hunting.”
In addition, says the expert, an encroachment into the Uvinza open area by pastoralists from Mwanza and Shinyanga regions began to be noticed in 2006.
“Up to this point the previously designated Uvinza cattle ranch had fallen derelict and was unoccupied. During the period in which it was unoccupied the Kasulu District Council took steps to designate the area as a hunting block,” says the expert.
However, the expert says, this encroachment has continued unabated until now, and the numbers of pastoralists from Mwanza and Shinyanga are still on the rise.
“They have re-established themselves in the ranch, digging two new dams, and refurbishing abandoned houses, as well as establishing new settlements across the area,” observes the expert.
Associated with the invasion of the cattle, a corresponding decrease in wild animal populations has been noted, says the expert with vast experience in wildlife conservation.
“This issue has been reported repeatedly to the Wildlife Division in the Ministry of Natural Resources for immediate action, however, this has not been forthcoming,” says the expert.
“We have heard mention of the cattle threat as a national issue, however, we have yet to see an integrated and coordinated government response to this issue at national level,” says the expert.
There have been instances in which the government has removed livestock from protected and environmentally important areas, such as the Usangu Game Reserve in Mbeya Region and the recent eviction of Maasai communities in the watershed catchments of the Loliondo area in Arusha Region conducted by the Field Force Unit of the Tanzania Police Force.
However, industry sources say these operations have been focused at a local level and do not represent a national response to this problem, adding: “This lack of action by the Tanzanian government at multiple levels, together with the strong possibility of corruption within the government in relation to cattle encroachment, represents a direct threat to the livelihood of Tanzanian citizens themselves and the sustainability of the ecosystems upon which they depend.”
“In the meantime we are seeing a systematic, large-scale livestock encroachment into sensitive and protected ecosystems across Tanzania, which are themselves already showing the signs of ecological degradation,” observe the sources.
Due to a lack of integrated management between the different authorities involved, together with a severe lack of resources available to the Wildlife Division and Natural Resource Departments in Kigoma regional districts, very little monitoring and protection of the ecosystem is conducted, remarks a government source, also declining to give his name on the grounds that the issue is “politically sensitive”.
The government official observes that this has allowed for the invasion of illegal alternative land-uses such as agriculture as well as settlement, and in particular high levels of livestock encroachment which now threaten this sensitive and diverse ecosystem.
The Malagarasi River basin is the second largest river basin in Tanzania, also including the Moyowosi, Kigosi, Gombe and Ugalla rivers. These rivers all converge into the Malagarasi River, which in turn drains into Lake Tanganyika, the second deepest (next to Lake Baikal situated in south-east Siberia) and the longest lake of the world.
Habitat ranges from miombo woodland through mosaic open woodland including acacia, combretum and borassus palm stands, to the seasonal floodplain and marshes, permanent papyrus swamps and large freshwater lakes and rivers, including lakes Nyamagoma and Sagara.
The diversity of habitat types is able to support an equally diverse biota, with respect to both fauna and flora, explains the conservationist.
Species of note
Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei)- This beautiful and somewhat rare antelope is specifically adapted to living in permanent swamp areas, thus the disappearance of such habitat, together with poaching for meat, threatens the species’ survival. The site’s population is possibly the largest in East Africa.
According to various sources of information, there are other large mammals to which the wetland provides ideal and important habitat, including elephant, buffalo, hippopotamus, African slender-snouted and Nile crocodile, zebra, waterbuck, topi and reedbuck. There are also predators such as lion, leopard, hyena and wild dog.
The wetland is of particular importance to a number of water birds, including the rare and secretive shoebill (Balaeniceps rex) and the wattled crane (Bugeranus carunculatus).
This site supports 10-20 per cent of the global shoebill population, and between 5-10 per cent of the global wattled crane population.
Conservationists say these statistics illustrate the importance of this particular area and the associated populations to the global survival of these species.
In addition, this wetland provides habitat for several hundred different bird species, a personal list of positive identifications by the conservationist has reached approximately 230 different species while a count of water birds showed there to be in excess of 20,000 birds utilizing this site.
The wetland is important to an estimated 51 indigenous fish species, including an estimated 10 species endemic to this river basin, such as the Orthrochronis malagrasiensis.
The basins provide important breeding habitat for these species, and contribute significantly to the fish populations and species diversity of Lake Tanganyika. The fish species important for food include the Oneochronis spp, Alestes spp, Clarias gareipinus and Synodontis spp.
It is evident that the Moyovosi-Malagarasi Ramsar Site is an important biodiversity hotspot, hosting a large diversity of species of both flora and fauna. It is this diverse biota which sustains the natural process of the ecosystem, which in turn provides important socio-economic benefits to the people of this area.
Socio-economic and environmental values
A survey by THISDAY has found that the most important socio-economic values of this system are derived from the fishing, honey-gathering and subsistence farming which is conducted within the area by local communities.
These activities are conducted legally and monitored by the government through the provision of permits. The cultural values might be seen as the harvesting of medicinal plants and other forest products, according to the survey.
The tourist trophy hunting which is conducted in the area also brings in large revenues and economic stimulus into the local districts, as well as providing employment to the local communities thus further increasing the socio-economic benefits of this environment.
The system also boasts a number of important hydrological functions, including flood control, groundwater storage and recharge as well as sediment retention (vital to the functioning of rivers) and water purification. These functions all provide direct benefits to the communities living within and around such an ecosystem.
The environmental values are evident when one considers the species of note which depend on this ecosystem, and the high levels of biodiversity which the system sustains.
It is widely regarded in current conservation practices that areas with high levels of biodiversity be protected and maintained, in order to ensure that the ecological services provided by such areas, vital to both communities and the environment, are in turn sustained.
Of particular relevance is the proposed hydro-electric power plant for the lower reaches of the Malagarasi River. This project, and thus the electricity which will be supplied to both the Kasulu and Kigoma Districts, depends on the continuing hydrological functioning of this river.
The Malagarasi River in turn depends upon all the rivers which feed into it, as well as the swamp and wetland which form part of the river basin.
Thus if the ecological character of the entire basin is not maintained, the negative effects might change the flow and nature of the Malagarasi River, thus putting the hydro-electric project in jeopardy, say environmental experts..
They further observe that this in turn will set back the development goals of the Tanzanian government for the Kigoma Region, and negatively affect the livelihoods of the people of this region.
Upon accession to the Ramsar Convention in February 1999, and subsequent entry and ratification of the said Ramsar Site by both the Ramsar committee and the Parliament of Tanzania, the Tanzanian government is provided with certain obligations.
These obligations pertain to the wise-use of wetlands and the protection of the associated ecosystem and biodiversity.
They include the designation of at least one Ramsar Site, followed by protection and maintenance of the ecological character of the said site. This is conducted together with the development of a national wetland policy, and the strengthening of the associated management structures.
Further obligations include international co-operation on these issues and the development and implementation of community programs aimed at increasing knowledge and awareness of wetlands as well as developing capacity of local communities to manage such resources.
In light of the current levels of cattle encroachment into this site, coupled with the associated ecological degradation, the question must be raised as to whether the government of Tanzania is fulfilling these obligations?