See Africa's Wildlife While You Can

DOUBT has been cast on the future of East Africa's renowned game parks by the forced resignation last month of Richard Leakey, director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service. As the Jan. 14 Monitor article ``Slower, Solo Views of Africa's Game'' indicates, Kenya's dramatic wildlife preserves remain some of the world's great tourist attractions.

According to the Jan. 15 New York Times, Mr. Leakey's move points to the ``corruption and underlying greed prevalent among powerful ministers in Kenya who have mounted the attacks against him in an effort to get their hands on the money flowing into the wildlife agency.''

As the result of Leakey's apparent success in curbing poachers, and his efforts to save the park system's features, Western donors and the World Bank had provided some $150 million to finance the park restoration.

One expert quoted in the Jan. 15 London Daily Mail predicted that in two years there would ``not be a single elephant or rhino left, and that Kenya would lose its attraction as a tourist resort.''

To someone familiar with the current politics of Kenya, the account of Leakey's problems is fully credible. Those seeking to take over the control of wildlife undoubtedly see the possibility not only of profiting from legitimate outside assistance, but also of gains from illicit trade. The animals are highly prized as sources of medicine, aphrodisiacs, and other wonders - especially by traders in Asia.

But corruption is not the only threat to wildlife resources. As the population grows throughout Africa, people and animals compete for the same land. It is hard for any political leader to take the side of animals against that of farmers and herders. The argument that the game parks are a major source of revenue for the state may well be seen by the poorer peasants as an effort to preserve at their expense a hobby for rich foreigners.

Many Africans do wish to preserve the animal resources of the continent. Tales emerged in the late 1960s of courageous African wardens who sought to maintain the parks in Uganda in the midst of turmoil and threat. However, even the efforts of Africans to save this resource from the pressures of population could be futile.

Even among those who share the desire for conservation and preservation, differences exist over how best to reconcile the inherent value of the animals and their salvation from extinction. One approach favored by some wildlife experts working on the continent is to permit controlled hunting under arrangements that give neighboring villagers a stake in the profits.

Some conservationists believe that authorization of some hunting and a sharing of the license fees with the local population would reduce poaching and, in the long run, lead to greater security for the herds. Such experts are reluctant to go this route, however, for fear of the backlash (and reduced donations) from animal rights groups abroad, especially in the United States.

Some strict conservationists may well agree that a pragmatic approach is possible and might even be wise. But they are reluctant to open the door to legal poaching lest it lead to an increase in the commercialization and the threat to existence of the wildlife resource.

To those who have visited the parks of East Africa and have enjoyed the dramatic views of distant herds or the early morning sightings of animals at a water hole, the thought of their decline is saddening. The visitor who is aware that these parks lie not in some uninhabited wilderness but amid growing and demanding populations is also conscious of the inevitability of pressures that will favor people over animals.

The long-range future of these great natural resources depends on finding the means to reconcile greed, politics, population pressure, and conservation. Those who have not yet seen the parks should go while they can. There is not a strong likelihood that the parks will survive.

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