IN clear, early-morning air, a pride of lions lay resting, the sun catching their tawny skins, the male off to one side, the females together on a slight rise. Six elephants, four adults and two young ones, came ambling toward my safari minibus, some crossing the sandy road a few yards in front, some behind, tails swinging, great ears flapping, trunks methodically scooping up low bush and grass.
Behind them, as if on cue, a low mass of cloud thinned and lifted. The sun gleamed on the snow-white icecap on the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa's tallest mountain at 19,340 feet, across the border in Tanzania.
This is the stuff of tourists' dreams: one of Africa's great sights, serene, peaceful. But deceptive.
Behind the scenes in this small but colorful game park lies a struggle for resources that experts say has yet to be resolved. It poses sharp challenges for the government and the peoples of Kenya and other African countries.
On the one hand, lions, elephants, buffaloes, antelopes, wildebeests, zebras, and other animals are growing in number in the relative safety of the national parks, protected by a Kenyan government ambitious to increase overseas tourism from 360,000 last year to 1 million by 1988. Drought cost the Masai half their cattle
On the other hand, livestock of the local Masai tribes competes for grazing and water. Drought last year cost the Masai half their cattle. They still have some 100,000. Traditionally the diet of the Masai has consisted of milk and blood, but they now say they no longer have enough because of drought, and need to be sure of famine-relief grain in dry periods.
Static herds mean more animals overgrazing specific areas. Land grows more arid, and livestock competes even more fiercely with wild game for pasture.
With cattle still weak from the drought, the Masai are even more aggrieved these days about the wild game. It can and does roam far outside the park reserve after even brief rain, but tribal cattle are not permitted inside the reserve.
David Western, a Kenyan conservationist, said in an interview in Nairobi that the ratio of wildlife to livestock is 1 to 6 -- 50,000 head of game compared with 200,000 cattle and 100,000 sheep and goats.
But judged by weight, the ratio is higher: 1 to 4. Much of the game (elephants, buffaloes, wildebeests, lions) is heavier than livestock.
Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi says that wild game must be protected because tourism earns more foreign exchange than anything else in Kenya except coffee and tea exports. A full 7 percent of Kenyan land is now set aside for game parks and reserves. Wildlife in parks withstood the drought
Wild game was able to withstand the 1984 drought. Herds steadily built up since 1977-78, when Kenya abolished hunting and the sale of game trophies.
Some wildebeest and zebra herds have grown by 50 percent. Buffaloes have doubled and elephants risen by 45 percent in some areas. (Only the rhinoceroses have diminished -- partly because of drought but mostly because of poachers seeking their horns.)
So what is to be done? Can the competition for resources among wildlife, livestock, and people be solved? Can semiarid areas, such as Amboseli, and its wild game survive many more waves of new tourists in safari vehicles, kicking up clouds of dust and often driving off the established roads?
The same questions face other parts of Kenya and Africa.
The risk in Amboseli is that disaffected Masai will become more sympathetic to poachers -- even as farmers in other areas rail against elephants who trample their fences and lions who kill bulls and camels.
``I'm in favor of hunting being allowed again,'' a wealthy farmer said vehemently. He is unwilling to see his name in print. He owns thousands of acres, hundreds of camels, and thousands of cattle. He told me he had lost 38 bulls and 14 horses to lions in recent years. Elephants had flattened all his perimeter fencing.
``There are no tourists in my part of the country,'' he went on. ``Why can't landowners keep their own land clear of these wild animals?
``I'm only allowed to shoot `vermin.' '' He paused. ``I shoot some pretty big vermin, I can tell you. . . .''
Official Kenyan policy, as described by Daniel Sindiyo, the Nairobi official in charge of conserving wildlife, is to let tribes whose lands have become parks share the money and benefits of game-park tourism. The Masai in Amboseli receive a percentage of each tourist's nightly lodging bill. They use health centers and schools set up on the edges of the park. Officials agreed to drill new water holes for livestock and to pay a ``grazing compensation fee.''
Red tape, inefficiency, and lagging economic growth, however, have slowed the search for water and ended the fee.
Dr. Western urges more economic benefits for the Masai, especially during dry periods. Mr. Sindiyo said plans to let the Masai earn year-round revenue were being considered.
The struggle is to balance conflicting needs to conserve game, to attract tourist cash, to help cattle survive, and to keep local tribes happy. The struggle continues -- sharpened by drought and hunger.