East Africa People and Wildlife Struggle to Share Precious Land and Water

Elephants, buffaloes and other wild animals drink water on one side of a swamp. On the other, Maasai warriors watch hundreds of cattle graze as the tropical sun sears the parched land.

AMBOSELI NATIONAL PARK, Kenya — Elephants, buffaloes and other wild animals drink water on one side of a swamp. On the other, Maasai warriors watch hundreds of cattle graze as the tropical sun sears the parched land of this wildlife sanctuary.

Balancing the needs of both sides is becoming more complex, and environmentalists fear the wildlife are gradually losing out.

Kenyan officials recently bent stringent conservation regulations to allow cattle into the Amboseli National Park -- the only permanent source of water in the region -- to help the Maasai save their precious livestock from a punishing drought.

Conservation workers warn that Amboseli's delicate swamps and streams are threatened by a government plan to hand over management of the park to the local county council. They say the move will likely result in Maasai being allowed to gather firewood and use water in the sanctuary and to regularly graze cattle.

Competition for pasture and water could drive wildlife out of the sanctuary and intensify conflict between wild animals and people in a region already scarred by clashes over scarce resources, said Connie Maina, spokeswoman for the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The prolonged drought has begun to kill animals in wildlife sanctuaries, and has started to drive elephants to leave national parks and game reserves to search for food and water near human settlements -- triggering conflicts between pachyderms and people.

Dwindling wildlife would discourage tourists from visiting Amboseli, Kenya's second-highest earner of tourism revenues. That would hurt the local community that uses part of the earnings for education, health services and well digging, said Deputy Senior Warden Thomas Mailu.

Conservation groups have sued the government seeking to stop Amboseli's handover to Olkejuado County Council, whose predecessor ran the sanctuary from 1961 until environmental degradation caused by mismanagement and political wrangling prompted the central government to take over in 1974.

Local and international conservation groups say the county council politicians lack the ability, experience and qualified personnel to conserve wildlife and its habitat, maintain roads and provide security for tourists and animals in a border region troubled by armed banditry.

A government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, said the government will go ahead with its plan to hand over the park to the council.

"The government is empowering the local community so that they can benefit directly from the resources in their area," Mutua said.

Amboseli is essentially a huge salt lake that fills with water during the rainy season and dries up in arid months except for the swamps and streams that provide water for wild animals, migratory birds, people and cattle. The water comes from rain and melting snow that seeps from Kilimanjaro -- Africa's tallest mountain that dominates the skyline from neighboring Tanzania.

Amboseli's new status "is going to be absolutely suicidal as far as the management of wildlife is concerned" because the removal of stringent conservation controls could lead to the drying up of water sources," said Mailu, the deputy senior warden.

The Maasai say they are happy they will be able to set new priorities over access to water and pastures for cattle and wildlife once control of the park changes. They plan to press the county council to open up more parts of Amboseli to livestock.

"We could negotiate with them because they are our people. If it is cows, they have cows like these, so they are people that we could talk to and they could listen to us," nomadic herder Saiyanka Mollel said after washing a herd of 400 cows that later grazed in Amboseli.

"Cows are our life," Mollel said as two elephant calves pressed heads together and used their trunks to fight in the distance.

Amboseli is the second-highest earner of revenues among Kenya's 59 national parks and reserves. Only six of these make a profit and finance conservation in others. Taking Amboseli from the Kenya Wildlife Service would hurt the less popular sanctuaries, said Maina, the agency's spokeswoman.

But tourist guide Saitoti Saibolob said the new arrangement will be fairer to local people, because they will get a bigger portion of revenues from land they share with wildlife and often lose cattle to predators.

Kenya is not the only East African nation struggling to ensure wildlife and people share water and land. Ethiopian authorities have relocated members of local ethnic groups from the Nech-Sar National Park and handed over its management to a private firm.

The Netherlands-based African Parks Foundation is also expected to take over Ethiopia's Omo National Park, home to the Mursi, towering nomads famous for huge clay plates inserted into the lips and ear lobes of their women.

Government plans to evict them "would severely disrupt their present economy, a semi-nomadic mix of cattle herding, riverbank cultivation following the Omo flood and bushland cultivation following the main rains," Survival, a London-based group that helps tribal people, said on its Web site.

Ethiopia's government says it needs to develop the tourism industry, which is Africa's second largest source of foreign exchange, after oil.

"For the last 40 years we have totally neglected our conservation areas and wildlife," said Tadesse Hailu, head of the Ethiopian Wildlife and Conservation Department.

In Tanzania, conservation workers are concerned that officials are studying an application by a Dubai-based businessman to build a hotel on the route of the annual migration of more than 1.5 million wildebeest, zebras and other grazing animals -- the world's most spectacular wildlife sight.

The planned hotel in the Serengeti National Park would violate stringent conservation rules that ban the construction of permanent structures inside national parks.

Source: Associated Press

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