- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2006

AMBOSELI NATIONAL RESERVE, Kenya — Elephants, buffalo and other wild animals drink water on one side of a swamp. On the other, Masai warriors watch hundreds of cattle graze as the tropical sun sears the parched land of this wildlife sanctuary.

Balancing the needs of both sides is becoming more complex, and environmentalists fear the wildlife gradually are losing out.

Kenyan officials recently bent stringent conservation regulations to allow cattle into the Amboseli National Reserve — the only permanent source of water in the region — to help the Masai save their precious livestock from a punishing drought.

Conservationists warn that Amboseli’s delicate swamps and streams are threatened by a government plan to hand over management of the park to the local county council. They say the move likely will result in Masai being allowed to gather firewood and use water in the sanctuary and to regularly graze cattle.

People vs. wildlife

Competition for pasture and water could drive wildlife out of the sanctuary and intensify conflict between wild animals and people in a region already scarred by clashes over scarce resources, said Connie Maina of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The prolonged drought has begun to kill animals in wildlife sanctuaries, and has started to drive elephants out of national parks and game reserves to search for food and water near human settlements — triggering conflicts between pachyderms and people.

Dwindling wildlife would discourage tourists from visiting Amboseli, a top earner of tourism revenue. That would hurt the local community, which uses part of the earnings for education, health services and well digging, said Deputy Senior Warden Thomas Mailu.

Conservation groups have sued the government to stop Amboseli’s turnover to the Olkejuado County Council, whose predecessor ran the sanctuary from 1961 until environmental degradation caused by mismanagement and political wrangling prompted the central government to take over in 1974.

Council role criticized

Local and international conservation groups say the council lacks the ability, the experience and qualified personnel to conserve wildlife and their habitat, maintain roads and provide security for tourists and animals in a border region troubled by armed banditry.

Spokesman Alfred Mutua said the government will go ahead with its plan to hand over the park to the council.

“The government is empowering the local community so that they can benefit directly from the resources in their area,” Mr. Mutua said.

Amboseli is essentially a huge salt lake that fills with water during the rainy season and dries up in arid months, except for the swamps and streams that provide water for wild animals, migratory birds, people and cattle. The water comes from rain and melting snow that seeps from Mount Kilimanjaro — Africa’s tallest mountain, which dominates the skyline of neighboring Tanzania.

Amboseli’s new status “is going to be absolutely suicidal as far as the management of wildlife is concerned” because the removal of stringent conservation controls could lead to the drying up of water sources, Mr. Mailu said.

The Masai say they are happy that they will be able to set new priorities over access to water and pastures for cattle and wildlife once control of the park changes. They plan to press the county council to open more parts of Amboseli to livestock.

“We could negotiate with them because they are our people. If it is cows, they have cows like these, so they are people that we could talk to and they could listen to us,” said nomadic herder Saiyanka Mollel after washing a herd of 400 cows that later grazed in Amboseli. “Cows are our life.”

Amboseli is the second-highest earner of revenue among Kenya’s 59 national parks and reserves. Six of the parks make a profit and finance conservation in the others. Taking Amboseli out of the control of the Kenya Wildlife Service would hurt the less popular sanctuaries, Miss Maina said.

A common problem

But tourist guide Saitoti Saibolob said the new arrangement will be fairer to local people, because they will get a bigger portion of revenue from land they share with wildlife and where they often lose cattle to predators.

Kenya is not the only East African nation struggling to ensure that wildlife and people share water and land. Ethiopian authorities have relocated members of tribal groups from the Nech Sar National Park and hired a private firm to manage the park.

The Netherlands-based African Parks Foundation is expected to take over Ethiopia’s Omo National Park, home to the Mursi, towering nomads famous for huge clay plates inserted into the lips and ear lobes of their women.

Government plans to evict them “would severely disrupt their present economy, a seminomadic mix of cattle herding, riverbank cultivation following the Omo flood and bush land cultivation following the main rains,” Survival, a London-based group that helps tribal people, said on its Web site.

Ethiopia’s government says it needs to develop the tourism industry, which is Africa’s No. 2 source of foreign exchange, after oil.

“For the last 40 years, we have totally neglected our conservation areas and wildlife,” said Tadesse Hailu, head of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Department.

In Tanzania, conservation workers are concerned that officials are studying an application by a Dubai-based businessman to build a hotel on the route of the annual migration of more than 1.5 million wildebeest, zebras and other grazing animals — the world’s most spectacular wildlife sight.

The planned hotel in the Serengeti National Park would violate stringent conservation rules that ban the construction of permanent structures inside national parks.

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