Kenya's rural growth pits man against beast

Masai near Nairobi have killed 12 lions in recent months to protest 'over-protection' of wildlife.

In these vast golden plains spotted with acacia trees, herds of domesticated cattle graze contentedly beside fleet-footed gazelles, while zebra thunder past homesteads belonging to colorful Masai herders.

Here in the Kitengela Plains, with the high-rises of the capital, Nairobi, visible on the northern horizon, humans and animals share the land. Lately, however, their cohabitation has been anything but harmonious.

For decades, Kenya has aggressively protected its wildlife and turned safari holidays into the country's second-largest source of foreign exchange. Supported by Western donors, they've protected 6 percent of the land in national parks, and placed wild animals, both inside and outside those parks, under government guardianship.

In the process, say a new generation of conservationists, wildlife is being protected more than people, leading to bitterness among local communities that continue to lose livestock, crops, and even family members to protected animals.

"Conservation here has been driven by the West," says Dr. John Waithaka, executive director of the African Conservation Center in Nairobi. "You have activists who have fallen in love with an animal, like an elephant, and that love drives conservation. For a long time, the indigenous people have been left out."

In the Kitengela Plains, Masai have killed at least 12 lions in recent months - showing their severed heads on local television - in retaliation for hundreds of lost cows, sheep, and goats. The high-profile conflict involving one of Kenya's proudest tribes has put the tension between humans and wildlife into the spotlight.

John Marmeres lives with his family a few miles from the booming town of Kitengela, in an area where plains are rapidly giving way to new houses. A month ago, in the early morning hours, he heard the frightened bellow of cows and the barking of dogs, followed by a lion's roar.

By the time he and his wife emerged from their concrete house, it was too late. One of his nine cows was already dead.

"We do not want to kill the lions because we have lived together for all these years," says Mr. Marmeres, who has lost three cows, 10 sheep, and five or six goats to lions in recent years. "But they are coming into our homesteads and killing our livestock."

The 12 dead lions represent about half of Nairobi National Park's estimated population, at a time when wildlife groups have issued dire warnings about the future of Africa's great carnivore. The growing tension between local communities and wildlife is threatening conservation efforts.

An estimated 75 percent of Kenya's wildlife lives outside its national parks, much of it in areas inhabited by the Masai. Unlike the country's other tribes, the Masai do not eat game, and until recently were nomadic and did not grow crops, allowing them to largely coexist with wildlife.

But growing populations and the privatization of communal land have shrunk the land that people and animals share, leading to a greater number of conflicts. Wild animals are the property of the government.

Once there were programs to compensate families for lost crops and livestock, as well as plans to help communities combat diseases that spread from wildlife to domesticated animals. But they were stopped due to corruption. Nor have local communities seen much benefit from tourism.

"It was a protest," says James Ole Turere, chairman of the local Kitengela Ilparakuo Landowners Association or KILA, of the recent lion killings. "We went to the government and they just kept saying there was nothing that could be done. But we as landowners are burdened with a lot."

Increasingly, conservation groups are realizing that local communities must become partners in wildlife protection. They are working to strengthen communal organizations that can advocate for local rights, launch ecotourism projects, and teach local people about the benefits of conservation.

For Morintat Ole Kasio, a Masai elder whose land borders one of the proposed campsites, the calculation is simple: "I can get money from selling a cow, milk by milking a cow, meat by killing a bull," he says. "But I cannot get milk or meat or money from a lion. So it is only if we see a benefit from wildlife that we will protect it."

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