Chicagoans play polo to save the wildebeests of the Masai Mara

The guests had plunked down $150 each to attend the luncheon. They dined on swordfish steaks. They bid, a little reluctantly, on auction items ranging from a wildlife print to a brand new Mercedes Benz. A live cheetah named Khayam mingled with the crowd until the polo match began.

For all the high-class light-heartedness, however, the benefit held here Tuesday had a serious purpose. Money was raised for the Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya (as well as the Shakespeare Globe Centre in North America, based in New York).

The Masai Mara is a 650-square-mile wilderness area in the southwest corner of Kenya, along the Tanzanian border. During the dry season, 1 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle flow in to feed on the reserve's grasses - an annual event known as the Serengeti migration.

But in recent years, poaching, overgrazing by cattle, and an increasing number of tourists have begun to upset the region's ecosystem, says Jorie Butler Kent, board vice-chairman of Abercrombie & Kent International Inc. The tour company arranges photographic safaris to many parts of Africa, including the Masai Mara.

''We were destroying, by the pressure of tourism, a beautiful area,'' Mrs. Kent says. So, 21/2 years ago, she and her husband formed Friends of the Masai Mara, a project to assist financially the management and planning of the reserve. Last year, they convinced the World Wildlife Fund to direct the effort, while the Friends of the Masai Mara raised money to support it. Including this most recent benefit, about $125,000 has been raised, Kent says.

Besides advising the Kenya government and the Masai on managing the reserve, the project aims to educate the local Masai on conservation efforts and help maintain wildlife populations. Illegal poaching has reduced the reserve's population of black rhinoceroses from 108 to less than 25 in the past 10 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which is based in Washington, D.C.

More education about such threats to natural environments is needed in the United States and elsewhere, Kent says. ''We are not terribly far ahead of some of the third-world nations in our knowledge of wildlife.''

''If anyone of us can do anything to maintain one area . . . then we have to work for it.''

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