Dramatizing the plight of W. African wildlife. Nations' steps to combat drought spur action to preserve natural habitats

West Africans are beginning to realize what East Africans have known for decades: They need to protect dwindling animal species and their natural habitats. This need is not simply a case of ``for posterity's sake.'' The loss of cropland and vital rain forests to drought, overcropping, and felling trees spells disaster for wildlife - and people.

In recent years, West Africans have organized half a dozen fledgling wildlife protection groups, the first such clubs in French-speaking Africa.

Whereas the venerable East African Wildlife Society was founded in 1957, the first grass-roots wildlife conservation organization in Francophone West Africa, CI.Nature (Ivory Coast Nature), was founded in 1981. ``West Africa is 30 to 50 years behind East Africa'' in its attitudes about preserving wildlife, said Francis Lauginie, director of the Abidjan Zoo and president of CI.Nature. ``But now there's hope that they might catch up.''

His 350-member group publishes a bulletin highlighting environmental problems in the region, and has organized two traveling exhibits dramatizing the plight of West Africa's disappearing elephants and rain forests. Since CI.Nature was formed, similar groups have been founded in a number of other French-speaking African countries.

Also on the drawing board is a Paris-based umbrella organization, which Mr. Lauginie says could serve as a coordinating body and information clearing-house for all the new Francophone groups.

Lauginie, who is French, said the difference between the colonial heritages of British-colonized East Africa and French-colonized West Africa, largely accounts for the reasons that East Africa is more attuned to wildlife protection than West Africa is. ``They had much more of a history of conservation in Anglophone countries than in Francophone countries,'' he noted.

``The British,'' said an environmentalist working in the region, ``are big ornithologists and nature lovers ... You don't see too many French bird-watchers.''

In fact, the few West African nations colonized by the British had game reserves and conservation groups long before their French neighbors. Figures gathered by the Swiss-based International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) show that Anglophone countries in East and Southern Africa have set aside an average of nearly 17 percent of their land as game reserves and national parks. Francophone nations have set aside only 5 percent.

Economics was a major incentive for the East Africans to be concerned with protecting wildlife, said Lauginie. ``The landscape and wildlife are much more spectacular in East Africa than in West Africa. They wanted to protect that to keep the tourists coming.''

West Africa does not have the wide-open panoramic plains that make wildlife-watching so easy in East Africa, and most of its big game animals were killed off before the nations began to restrict hunting. One region in Mali has only two giraffes left. ``The problem was we didn't have the politique of managing wildlife,'' said Oumar Tall, Mali's minister of natural resources.

West Africa's elephants haven't fared much better than its giraffes. There are only 10,000 to 12,000 elephants in West Africa, compared to 500,000 to 600,000 in East and Southern Africa. The IUCN plans to set up a special task force to protect West Africa's elephants.

The animals that are left in West Africa live in isolated pockets of dense, often roadless forest. They are not easily accessible for tourists. But, ``West Africa is an extremely important area from a zoological standpoint,'' said Jeff Goodson, an environmentalist working for the United States Agency for International Development. ``You have an extraordinarily high density of forest species here, many of which don't exist anywhere else in the world.'' Many environmentalists here bemoan the fact that the region has not done more to promote the tourism potential of its wildlife.

Some countries are beginning to encourage wildlife-oriented tourism. The Ivory Coast used part of a World Bank loan for tourism to develop Azagny National Park. Ongoing research, financed by the New York Zoological Society, will probably lead to the park being designated a sanctuary for the endangered West African manatee.

In addition, Ivory Coast President F'elix Houphou"et-Boigny is considering setting up a game reserve - which would include an experimental game-cropping program: raising indigenous game to sell the meat.

Despite the uniqueness of West Africa's forest wildlife, says Lauginie, the new environmental awareness was not prompted by a desire to preserve disappearing species. Instead, the countries have been mobilized to save their dwindling forests because two decades of drought, combined with overcropping and underfeeding the soil, and cutting too many trees has turned vast areas into desert-like wastelands.

During this long dry period, which ended in 1985, fighting these processes became an urgent economic and environmental priority of West African governments. They set up both regional and national programs to fight deforestation and the encroachment of desert wastelands, which has occurred faster in West Africa than anywhere else in the continent.

``I don't think concern about disappearing species made people change their mentality,'' said Lauginie. ``It's more that they're scared of the encroachment of the desert and the damage that causes to the economy.''

It's not easy, said Mr. Tall, ``when you're trying to find enough food to survive, to start setting aside resources to make a reserve for wildlife.

Still, while government programs to stave off the desert have been teaching West Africans to plant more trees and to restrict brush fires, cattle-grazing, and wood-gathering, they have also taught them to respect nature's delicate balance. ``East Africans may have a longer history of preserving animals, but West Africans, because of the big drought, now are much more mature in their understanding of the relationship between man and his environment,'' said Pierre Portas, West African specialist for the IUCN.

The problem in most West African nations now is finding funds to finance grass-roots conservation.

``Ivorians are very sensitive, especially the youth, about the problems of the environment,'' said Firmin Koffi, Secretary-General of the national commission on the environment in Ivory Coast, where 1988 has been designated year of the forest.

``The problem is money. Just this morning I received a call from a mayor telling me that all the school children in his village are going to plant trees. But he wants me to provide him with the seedlings, and I just don't have any money for that.''

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