Mapping the Human Footprint


Jennifer Ridder, International Intern

Date Published

Since 1998, Save the Elephants’ analysis of data from GPS collared elephants has shown that elephants spend significant amounts of time outside of protected areas. Many elephants use parks and reserves less than 50% of the time they have been tracked and are seen to move frequently in and out of reserves through generally unfenced and porous boundaries. It is also known that reserve boundaries are prone to accelerated settlement growth; a process related to employment and tourism activities. Unfortunately, little is currently known about elephant ecology along these protected/unprotected gradients. The growth of settlements along reserve boundaries may have adverse affects on the free-ranging movements of elephants using protected areas. Tracking elephant movements as well as settlement locations and population growth are therefore two critical data sets for collection and analysis.

Therefore, in 2005 Save the Elephants embarked on an extensive mapping survey in Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves to identify, catalogue and quantify anthropogenic influences on the environment. Termed the Human Footprint (HF), Save the Elephants has been monitoring and tracking these changes since. We have utilized available aerial photography and satellite imagery between 2005 and 2012 to map the changes in human footprint from year to year and this March another ground truthing expedition occurred, with the dual purpose of verifying content from satellite imagery and filling in data gaps with local knowledge.

Fieldwork and satellite imagery analysis of a 2KM buffer around the Samburu/Buffalo Springs Reserves revealed that the number of human settlements have increased around the reserve boundary. A particular rise in the number of permanent structures is evident as well as increased development along the highway and areas in close proximity to tourist lodges.

The pastoralist Samburu and Turkana tribes have traditionally inhabited Samburu. Formerly nomadic, many families have now started to change their traditional lifestyles and are settling in villages and building permanent structures made from cement rather than the sticks and mud of traditional dwellings. This change can be attributed in part to the growing presence of the tourism industry. In 2005 when the project started, there were five permanent lodges and one under construction. Currently there are eleven fully operational lodges inside the reserve boundaries and two just outside the park limits. Not only do these lodges employ community members but also tourists visit local villages for photography, and cultural artifacts often leaving behind donations to support community projects. Consequently, there is an economic incentive for tribal communities to make permanent residence near Samburu and Buffalo Springs Reserves.

Additionally, a paved highway boarding the East side of the Reserve was completed in 2010. This highway allows easy access to larger markets and has become a critical line of transportation for the Samburu and Turkana people. Since construction, the villages along the highway corridor have expanded as populations take advantage of their proximity to the road and access to commercial hubs. Unfortunately, the highway runs parallel to the reserve boundaries and has created a dangerous obstacle for migrating elephants.

Despite the increased permanence of villages, many Samburu and Turkana people continue living as pastoralists. The transient nature of nomadic groups makes mapping the Human Footprint very difficult as frequently a village that was present two weeks ago may now be abandoned or families will dismantle their homes to attend traditional celebrations only to return a few weeks later. Consequently, a complete picture of the human impact is difficult to attain and while assessing satellite imagery and ground truthing, one must be aware of the fluid nature of these communities.

The Human Footprint encapsulates much more than simply the spatial distribution of people but also the attitudes of people towards elephants and the overall effect of people on the resources and ecology of an area. Measuring the spatial extent of people is a first step towards quantifying the Human Footprint but more work is necessary to understand the dynamics of human and elephant interactions. Nonetheless, knowing where and by how much these communities are changing will continue to be a key metric to understanding how the range of wild elephant populations will change over time.