When University of Michigan wildlife ecologist Nyeema Harris started her multiyear camera survey of West African wildlife, she sought to understand interactions between mammals and people in protected areas such as national parks.

She expected those interactions to include lots of poaching. Instead, livestock grazing and the gathering of forest products were among the most common human-related activities her cameras captured, while poaching was actually the rarest.

“The common narrative in conservation, particularly in the tropics and African savannas, is the persistent threat of poaching and bushmeat hunting on wildlife and environmental integrity,” said Harris, an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and director of the department’s Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab, which is known as the AWE lab.

“Therefore, we expected to document heavy poaching activity in our camera survey,” she said. “Instead, livestock grazing was the dominant human pressure, and the gathering of forest products—such as wood, grasses and fruit—was the primary human activity that we observed in these protected areas.

University of Michigan wildlife ecologist Nyeema Harris and her crew attach a digital camera to a tree for a study of human pressures on wildlife within the largest protected area in West Africa. Image credit: University of Michigan Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab.

“Historically, the impetus for protected areas was exclusively to promote species persistence and to maintain biological processes and unique landscape features. More recently, contributions or benefits from protected areas have extended beyond an environmental perspective to a more inclusive social consideration.”

Harris’ study is the first wildlife camera survey in the West African countries of Burkina Faso and Niger. It documented human pressures on mammal communities in three national parks that are part of the largest protected area complex in West Africa, the W-Arly-Pendjari, or WAP.

Harris said the study’s findings highlight the need to incorporate livestock husbandry into management plans for the WAP, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One possibility might be the creation of travel corridors for livestock herders to minimize impacts on wild mammals.

 “As the first camera study in Burkina Faso and Niger, we documented extensive human activities with social benefits co-occurring within the fragile mammal community of West Africa,” Harris and her colleagues wrote in a paper published online July 29 in the journal Conservation Letters.

“Our findings constitute a crucial step in shifting the WAP complex from the singular and arguably outdated mandate of nature conservation to a more dynamic coupled human-natural ecosystem approach of sustainable, integrated management.”

Kirby Mills, a new U-M EEB doctoral student, is one of the coauthors of the paper. She’s a master’s graduate of the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

Read full Michigan News press release