Investigating the Silent Menace: Plastic Pollution’s Impact on Land Animals in Kenya

By Editor


Scientists from the University of Portsmouth and The Donkey Sanctuary have embarked on a groundbreaking mission to uncover the pernicious effects of plastic pollution on land-based animals in Kenya, focusing specifically on the vital roles played by donkeys and livestock within local communities.

While extensive research has traditionally concentrated on the impact of plastic pollution in marine ecosystems, its repercussions on terrestrial creatures have remained largely uncharted. This pioneering study marks a significant stride toward unraveling the critical issue of plastic pollution’s impact on terrestrial ecosystems, particularly concerning animals like livestock that often enter the food chain and working animals like donkeys, which serve as lifelines for vulnerable communities worldwide.

A recent examination conducted by University researchers and the Flipflopi Project at a Lamu abattoir revealed a shocking discovery — a slaughtered cow found with a staggering 35 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. This alarming revelation has raised concerns about the potential ingestion of substantial amounts of plastic by donkeys in the region.

Dr. Leanne Proops, Project Lead and Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Portsmouth, emphasized, “The escalating problem of plastic pollution necessitates an understanding of its impact on animals integral to Global South communities.”

The collaborative project between the University of Portsmouth and international animal welfare charity, The Donkey Sanctuary, will encompass a comprehensive examination of various aspects of the plastic pollution issue. Researchers have commenced analyzing the levels of plastic ingested by donkeys to fully comprehend the scope of the problem. This initiative is underway on Lamu Island in Kenya, a UNESCO World Heritage site where subsistence farming and reliance on working animals prevail.

The team has initiated studies on the foraging behaviors of donkeys and cattle in Lamu. Preliminary results underscore the severity of the issue, revealing profound impacts on free-roaming domestic animals, particularly donkeys, due to plastic ingestion driven by their behavior and biology.

With collaboration from the Lamu-based Flipflopi Project, a large-scale survey has been conducted to explore community knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors regarding donkey and livestock welfare and plastic pollution. The upcoming phase involves conducting focus group meetings with local livestock owners, veterinarians, and residents to comprehend the challenges and concerns regarding donkey welfare.

Dr. Emily Haddy, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Portsmouth, leading the community focus groups, expressed, “We recognize growing concern within the community regarding the intricate links between plastic pollution, ecosystem health, animal welfare, and human wellbeing. However, the situation is multifaceted, as livestock owners often cannot afford to feed their animals, necessitating grazing, which exacerbates the issue.”

The focus groups aim to delve into:

The perception and use of donkeys on Lamu

The current welfare status of donkeys on Lamu

Strategies to enhance donkey welfare on Lamu in the future

The impact of livestock ingesting plastics can range from health deterioration and diseases to digestive tract blockages, leading to colic, starvation, and fatalities. Additionally, microplastics infiltrate the soil and plants, thereby affecting the animals’ food sources.

The Donkey Sanctuary’s Lamu base operates a program addressing the root causes of poor welfare in Lamu, including a clinic for chronic and acute donkey health needs. Dr. Obadiah Sing’Oei, Lamu Clinic Team Lead and Lead Vet, highlighted, “In our clinic, we witness firsthand the devastating impact of plastic pollution on donkeys, encountering numerous cases of colic and blockages due to ingested plastics, causing distress to both the animals and their owners. Collaborating with researchers from Portsmouth will shed light on this worrying issue and support community-based solutions.”

Drawing insights from the community focus groups, the project will collaborate with the Lamu Arts and Theatre Alliance to develop art-based initiatives raising awareness about the risks to donkey welfare in Lamu. An ensuing dramatic performance scheduled at the Lamu Cultural Festival’s conclusion in November will serve as an educational tool, spotlighting plastic pollution’s impact on livestock. This performance will offer a platform for community engagement, fostering the co-development of solutions. The annual Lamu Cultural Festival, a three-day cultural extravaganza, enjoys support from both locals and tourists.

The University of Portsmouth boasts a history of leveraging creative methods to drive community behavioral change. Dr. Cressida Bowyer, Project Collaborator and Deputy Director of the Revolution Plastics research initiative at the University, emphasized, “Arts-based initiatives, particularly visual arts, storytelling, and performance, possess broad appeal, dismantling barriers and often reaching challenging-to-access communities. Such culturally and socially relevant approaches can stimulate dialogue and effect enduring change. Collaborating closely with local communities and organizations in project design and execution ensures that the research empowers and benefits the local community.”

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