- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 26, 2004

KITENGELA, Kenya — No other place boasts such a variety of wild animals so close to a bustling metropolis. Lions, giraffes and ostrich- es roam freely against a back- drop of skyscrapers and jets landing at Kenya’s international airport.

But people have been moving in and fences have been going up in areas around Nairobi National Park, threatening an important migration route for zebras and wildebeest — and the lions, jackals and hyenas that stalk them.

Unchecked development could cut off the animals’ annual movement to southern grasslands during the rainy season and their return in the dry season for the park’s plentiful water.

So the government and wildlife groups are paying the Masai, the famed warrior tribe of southern Kenya, not to farm or fence in some land as a way to keep the migration corridor clear. In another conservation step, tribal people also are being compensated whenever a lion kills their livestock, as long as they let the lion live.

The efforts come on a continent that in the past century has lost half its forest and a significant amount of wildlife to land development, agriculture, industry and poachers.

Protected game reserves such as Nairobi National Park make up about 8 percent of Kenya’s land, but more than three-fourths of the country’s wildlife lives outside the reserves.

“A lot of structures are coming up,” said Godfrey Ntapayia, a Masai community leader, pointing to a cement factory at the edge of the 330-square-mile wildlife corridor linking Nairobi National Park to the Amboseli region.

“These industries are encouraging construction around the [migration] area. People are buying land and erecting a lot of fences,” he said.

Wildlife specialists also worry about the migration region between the Serengeti Plain in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara of southern Kenya, whose dazzling array of wildlife has been reduced by 60 percent since the mid-1970s.

But the development problem is most pronounced in the Kitengela area south of the capital, Nairobi, where private property has replaced the Masai’s traditional system of collective landownership and where farming has begun to replace cattle raising.

The corridor is already 70 percent blocked, said Environment Minister Newton Kulundu. This has led to a marked increase in “human-wildlife conflicts,” he said, with wildebeest wrecking fences and crops and Masai tribesmen killing lions that prey on their cattle.

Residents of the region killed 11 lions last year, about the same number as in each of the previous four years. But no lions — a threatened though not acutely endangered species — have been reported killed this year, giving hope that the 2-year-old compensation program might be bearing fruit.

“I like to see lions,” said James Turere, 42, a Masai shepherd. “Other places don’t have so many animals like we do. It’s something special.”

He says he used to kill lions but stopped when he started getting compensation for livestock lost to the predators.

Now, 115 Masai families in the Kitengela area are receiving the equivalent of $4 a month per acre in exchange for not farming or erecting fences on their land.

The program protects 8,500 acres, or about 4 percent of the corridor, said Paul Gathitu Masela, senior warden at Nairobi National Park. But he said the land being protected is often in the most critical areas for animal crossings, near roads and rivers, for example.

Mr. Masela said the authorities would like to increase the protected area to 50,000 acres, but that there isn’t enough money.

Lack of funds has long been a problem for Kenyan conservation efforts. Poor coordination and government support also are factors.

Still, the “lease” program demonstrates a major shift in attitude among Kenyan tribes, which now often see wildlife as a tourism resource to be exploited rather than vermin to be destroyed.

“Twenty years ago, our young Masai warriors used to go around killing the animals,” said David Koshal, a Masai wildlife guide in the Masai Mara reserve. “Things are changing now. They know that there are benefits to be had from these lions, these animals.”

The Masai now seek ways to funnel park entry fees and other tourism-related revenue into their communities. Schools, dams and cattle dips have been built. The government and conservation groups are encouraging tribes to develop campsites for safari-goers and to sell handicrafts rather than cultivate the land.

Some environmentalists say the “lease” program doesn’t go far enough. They want the government to impose a national land-use policy that would forbid human encroachment on wildlife corridors.

Mr. Kulundu says the idea is being considered.

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