Masai Mara Game Reserve, Kenya — The lioness lifts her nose to catch the wind sweeping across the savanna. Smelling no threat, she cradles her week-old cub in her powerful jaws and begins the half-mile trek - repeated three times for her other cubs - to the family's new shelter in the crook of a dry river bed.
The unusual thing was the lioness's disregard for the rattling four-wheel-drive truck that dogged her steps and the camera-toting tourists who recorded her every move.
It was an example of how man and animal live side by side in Kenya, giving this country one of the world's most abundant and accessible collections of wildlife.
Maybe too abundant. So plentiful has most of the game in Kenya become that sources in the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department say consideration is being given to reintroducing hunting of game on private lands.
With a few exceptions, hunting of game was banned in 1977 because of a serious decline in the population of certain animals. But since the ban, a Wildlife Department official says, ''Stocks have picked up to the point where today they are now conflicting with farming interests.''
Hunting still would not be allowed here in the Masai Mara or any other of Kenya's 47 national parks and reserves under the proposals now being considered. But even a reintroduction of closely watched and restricted hunting on private lands will be controversial.
The government of Kenya is well aware of the value of wildlife to the nation's economy.
A game-viewing safari usually tops the list of reasons tourists come to Kenya. About 500,000 people visit Kenya annually for a look at the country's magnificent variety of wildlife as well as the unspoiled habitat the animals occupy.
Tourism here is big business. In 1981 visitors to Kenya were the country's second-greatest source of vitally needed foreign exchange.
But that economic importance is having to be balanced against domestic concerns with increasing frequency. Kenya has the world's fastest-growing population. If the present rate of growth continues, Kenya's population will more than double by the year 2000.
That rapid population growth is putting huge pressure on domestic resources. Wildlife is affected in two ways.
One effect is that the country's farmers and ranchers are seriously listened to when they claim their ability to produce food is being hindered by wild game, which destroy their crops and spread disease among domestic herds.
Another effect is mounting demands from local communities that they be allowed to benefit more directly from Kenya's wildlife resources. Permitting hunting on private lands, at a cost to the hunters, would be one way of allowing farmers and businessmen to earn something from wildlife.
Already, there is evidence of some conflict of interest between the protection of wildlife and the government's ongoing efforts to feed its exploding population.
Here in the Masai Mara in western Kenya on the Tanzania border, there is mounting pressure from the local Maasai pastoralists to use the reserve for grazing. The Maasai are in need of new grazing land because more and more land on the periphery of the reserve where they live is being used for wheat farming.
Population pressures also exist at other parks and reserves in Kenya, says Nehemiah K. arap Rotich, executive officer of the East African Wildlife Society in Nairobi.
''Areas around the national parks are being occupied right up to the borders due to the population explosion,'' Mr. Rotich says. ''We are wondering if the conservation society should get involved in family planning appeals.''
Although the protection of wildlife has sharply increased the population of many animals, Kenya remains very concerned about the future of the black rhinoceros.
''The black rhino is still a serious concern, so much so that in our parks we have rangers that do nothing but go out each day and identify rhino,'' says a Wildlife Department official. This official estimates the rhino population has dwindled to between 900 and 1,200. Some 75 percent of the rhino population has been killed since 1975, he reckons.
Poaching is the main threat to the black rhino, which are killed for their horns. The horns are used for dagger handles in some Middle Eastern countries, and are still used by some as an aphrodisiac or as a treatment for disease.
While the black rhino remains vulnerable to poachers (partly because its horns are easier to smuggle than are elephant tusks) the government's special antipoaching units have otherwise turned the tide against illegal hunters, conservationists say. Elephants, they note, were on the decline through about 1978 but have since made a comeback.
Still, the threat of poachers requires that the government's antipoaching units, numbering in total about 800 men, remain vigilant. Wildlife conservationists are still pressing for stiffer sentences for convicted poachers.