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October 14, 2005 Science Magazine
WILDLIFE CONSERVATION:
Kenyan Edict Threatens Famed Park

Constance Holden

Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki threw Kenya's wildlife establishment into an uproar late last month when he announced that Amboseli National Park, one of the country's prime game reserves, will be turned over to local control. The move, if not reversed, opens the door for the government to do the same with all the country's wildlife and parks, says David Western, former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which has run the park since 1974. "It makes a mockery of our wildlife policies and the rule of law in Kenya," he says.
   Conservation groups say the 29 September decision to relabel the 400-square-kilometer tract a "national reserve" flouts laws requiring consultation with KWS and approval by the National Assembly. The move has been widely interpreted as an attempt to curry favor with the Maasai people, who believe a proposed new constitution that Kenyans will vote on next month will strip them of control over some of their lands.


Change afoot. Elephants gather near Mount Kilimanjaro.
CREDIT: CYNTHIA

   Conservation groups have set up a Web site (www.saveamboseli.net) for people to petition the government. Last week, the East African Wildlife Society and seven other groups held a press conference in Nairobi supporting KWS's continued management of the park. Amboseli would be run by the county council of the Kajaido region. Former KWS Director Richard Leakey says county councils don't have the expertise to administer reserves. He adds, "Why should donors like the World Bank provide support when the government actively promotes the destruction of a major tourist attraction?"
   Western says Amboseli was set up as an open wildlife park integrated into a 5000-square-kilometer ecosystem where migrations of zebras, elephants, wildebeests, and other animals would be preserved. It's the most remunerative one in Kenya, reportedly pulling in $3.4 million from tourism last year. "I've been saying all along that the Maasai should get more benefits from living [near] these wild animals, but this probably isn't the way to do it," says Cynthia Moss, who has been tracking Amboseli's elephants, now numbering 1400, since 1972.
   Western, who now heads the African Conservation Center in Nairobi, says this sets a disastrous precedent: "Every other national park and reserve risks being erased on a political whim at a moment's notice." KWS is not commenting on the situation, and its future role is unknown.
   The immediate impact of the president's action has been permission for the Maasai to allow their cattle, hitherto mostly banned from the park, to graze on the land. Western reports that last week he counted 15,000 livestock. Moss says the tourists "are already complaining that they didn't spend several hundreds of dollars a day to come to Africa to look at cattle."

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