Thursday, October 13, 2005

Amboseli National Park (Not!)

Amboseli National Park, one of the largest and best-known wildlife habitats in Kenya, has been abruptly (and possibly illegally) downgraded to a "reserve" and handed over to the control of the local county council and the Maasai tribal community. Critics are saying this is a ploy on the part of President Mwai Kibaki to court Maasai support for the upcoming (and bitterly contested) referendum on Kenya's new constitution.

Whatever else it may be, it's an abrupt change, and one that conservationists are not happy about. Amboseli was under local control once before, from 1948 to 1974, when it was named a National Park in hopes of restoring it from years of mismanagement and corruption. Today Amboseli has one of Kenya's largest elephant populations, and is a popular ecotourism destination. This move means that the Kenya Wildlife Service (the folks moving all those elephants) will no longer be managing the park (reserve. Whatever), and that the national goverment is essentially washing its hands of it.

I'm reserving judgement at this point, because first of all I'm a student of Kenya at this point and not an expert, but also because of the fact of the Maasai. They benefit from tourism and aren't likely to make decisions which would impact it negatively. And while they will undoubtedly use some of the land for grazing cattle, in the past the Maasai herds and elephants were able to co-exist without much trouble thanks to a healthy mutual respect. At that time, however, the Maasai were not so sedentary as they are now (I mean sedentary in the sense of not being migratory), and eastern Africa was much less crowded with humans. So there is cause for vigilance, and possibly concern.

The tension is, as in most conservationist conflicts, between the local people who have to co-exist with the wildlife and the urban and/or foreign organizations who want to preserve and visit it. There is no win-win; the challenge is in balancing the interests of both sides. As romantic as the notion of wildlife roaming the savannahs free of human interference is--and I am as enchanted by it as anyone--protected land is land where food cannot be grown and herds cannot be supported. If the elephants are saved but the Maasai are lost, nobody wins. There is not much danger of that right now, but it is the side of the equation that is often forgotten, particularly when we look at countries other than our own.

There is a possibility that President Kibaki's move will be reversed, but that's not likely to happen before the November referendum. The Kenyan presidency is a position of immense power, and the new constitution does nothing to reduce it, thanks to revisions made upon the draft produced by Professor Yash Ghai, former "Chairperson of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission." I'll be watching the referendum with quite a bit of interest.


Blogger Jeremy said...

I spent some time with the Masaai in Amboseli in 1999. I agree with your assessment.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Really! I would love to hear more, if you'd care to share. What were you doing there, and what was the experience like?

1:45 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home