Kenya Reclaims Famed Game Park from Poachers
TSAVO EAST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya Michael Kipkeu sounds more like a soldier than a game warden when he talks about keeping watch over Kenya's biggest national park, Tsavo East.
Kipkeu has more than 100 rangers armed with assault rifles, trucks and airplanes, and he keeps track of his anti-poaching operations on a huge wall map he is careful to cover when visitors enter his office, set amid windswept trees and bushes just inside the park.
The nearly 5,405-square-mile reserve was once home to the two lions known as the "Man-Eaters of Tsavo" which killed nearly 140 railway workers in 1898 and whose tale inspired a 1996 film starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.
Lions still roam the savanna among the rhinos, elephants, baboons and giraffes sought out by tourists the world over, but most visitors have seen only a fraction of the park.
Until last year, heavily armed poachers roaming its northern reaches forced the government to keep the unspoiled expanses closed to the public.
Since the 1980s, rangers and poachers have killed each other in gun battles across the country as Kenya struggled to stop hunters seeking big game like rhinos and elephants, prized for their horns and tusks. In Tsavo East, most of the poachers have come from neighboring, lawless Somalia.
"I have intelligence teams collecting information probably up to, but not into, Somalia," said Kipkeu, an affable 20-year veteran of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in charge of the park, 40 percent of Kenya's total park area, since 2003.
Tsavo East may be one of the best examples of how Kenya has forcefully reclaimed its stunning wilderness for conservation and tourism -- the country's third-largest foreign exchange earner and about 13 percent of its gross domestic product.
KWS last year reopened the northern two-thirds of the park to the public -- contrary to guide books which still list it as closed -- and aims to turn it into a destination for high-end tourists.
"In terms of security, we have taken command of the place. We have a product we want to sell. Tourists will not come if there is no security," Kipkeu said.
KWS rangers have pushed the frontline of the poaching war almost back to Somalia on foot, by plane and four-wheel drive.
"Our intention here is to fight the poachers when they are outside the park. Our strategy is 'Can we meet outside?'," said Kipkeu, KWS assistant director as well as head of the 57-year-old park 186 miles southeast of Nairobi.
More than 215,000 tourists visited Kenya in the first quarter of 2005, and last year brought in $556.3 million - the highest level in 15 years.
HERDING THE HUMANS
There is little question why tourists come.
Drive just a few minutes past Tsavo East's gate, and a visitor is among lush grasslands, verdant rivers and rocky hills populated by herds of giraffes, zebras, antelopes and elephants, troops of baboons and maybe even a pride of lions.
Few tourists who travel thousands of miles and spend big money to go on safari would imagine the arduous and often life-threatening work KWS rangers undertake.
Though a 1980s shoot-to-kill order against poachers has been lifted, "our rangers will not hesitate to use deadly force if they feel it's necessary," KWS spokesman Ngugi Gecaga said.
Since the opening of the north, KWS has built new roads and improved six airstrips to accommodate airborne safaris.
Kipkeu said they would focus on a limited number of high-paying visitors. "We're going to encourage minimal human interference," he said. "If we take them to the northern area, we can ease congestion in the south."
That can often be a problem - it is not uncommon to see a herd of safari vehicles surrounding a single animal.