Preserving Kenya's wildlife from poachers - and too many people

Ever since the movie ``Out of Africa'' romanticized the glorious vistas and wildlife of East Africa, people have been pouring into Kenya. But the influx of so many tourists deepens the threat to animals already put at risk by rapidly disappearing habitat, poaching, and mediocre management. ``The wildlife and scenic resources that attract visitors to Africa, now a tiny fragment of what once existed, are seriously threatened,'' says Paul Schindler, president of the United States-based African Wildlife Foundation. ``It is difficult for many of them to realize that despite the vastness of Africa, it is remarkably fragile compared to much of the United States or Europe.''

The international conservation community was heartened when Kenya President Daniel arap Moi appointed Perez Olindo director of Kenya's national parks and game reserves.

``The happy circumstance is the remarkable difference one person can make. Perez Olindo is such a man,'' says Dr. Schindler. ``His wisdom, experience, and plain common sense may make a critical difference to the future of these remarkable areas.''

Mr. Olindo is facing complex challenges. Elephant and rhinoceros populations have been devastated by poaching. Wildlife habitat outside national parks and wildlife reserves is vanishing, and commercial tourism grows unconstrained within the preserves.

Park and wildlife management has grown infinitely more difficult in recent decades. Land that once was habitat for myriad wildlife species has been converted to range or agricultural use at a tremendous rate. Wildlife populations are increasingly restricted to the established parks and reserves. But the global demand for wildlife products such as rhino horn, ivory, and fur seems to make poaching irresistible.

The problems of habitat loss and poaching have been compounded by corruption, mismanagement, and neglect. Rangers on foot, armed with World War I-vintage rifles and limited ammunition, are a poor match for highly mobile poachers armed with semiautomatic weapons. Olindo notes, ``When a rhino horn is worth $65,000, rangers, park wardens, and anyone else trying to conserve them is in a dangerous position.'' The trade in illicit wildlife products has had a corrosive and corrupting influence on the operation of Kenya's parks and wildlife reserves.

Lax management and neglect are also evident, as when wildlife areas are not adequately patrolled, gas and spare parts for vehicles and planes are in short supply, or supplies and salaries for staff come late. The negative impact on staff morale becomes obvious.

As the parks and reserves evolve into ecological islands, different and more intensive ``people'' and wildlife management is required. The need for wildlife to migrate onto private lands for part of the year necessitates extensive dealings with local landowners whose livestock may compete for the same forage. More dealings with local politicians are also required, along with more interaction with tourists and various segments of the tourist industry.

The Kenya government expects tourist dollars to help pay the bills for wildlife conservation. But conservationists worry that a higher volume of visitors will adversely affect the remaining wild animals in their last natural sanctuaries. Ultimately, they fear the loss of the very values that originally attracted tourists.

Tourism, long a mainstay of the national economy, has increased dramatically - an annual growth rate of nearly 30 percent over the past several years. More than 350,000 visitors are expected this year. A recent Cabinet minister for tourism and wildlife set an ambitious goal of 1 million tourists per year.

Hotels, tour operators, drivers, park rangers, craft industries, and even local Masai landowners are benefiting from the boom. But tourism is not an entirely benign industry. Too many vehicles, hot-air balloons, hotels, tented camps, and staff and support facilities packed into or near the reserves can have a negative impact.

Olindo has already acted on some of these concerns. A new park warden is to be appointed in Amboseli National Park, one who can be expected to move quickly to enforce rules on off-road driving. This will help to reduce the pressure on lions and cheetahs, which, although few in number, are a primary tourist attraction.

Olindo has negotiated with local officials to place a temporary ban on further development of lodges and tented camps around the Masai Mara Game Reserve. Further expansion of hot-air balloon safaris will be opposed, and stricter rules on their operation sought.

``Parks should be seen as inviolate sanctuaries with windows for us to see into them,'' says Olindo. ``Kenya is the custodian of these great natural resources by accident of geography, but they belong to all humanity and to posterity.''

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