Karel Prinsloo  /  AP
Zebra's graze in the Nairobi National Park with Nairobi's skyline in the background.
updated 4/9/2004 11:46:36 AM ET 2004-04-09T15:46:36

No other place boasts such a wide variety of wild animals so close to a bustling metropolis. Lions, giraffes and ostriches roam freely against a backdrop of skyscrapers and jets landing at Kenya’s international airport.

But people have been moving in and fences going up in areas around the Nairobi National Park, threatening an important migration route for zebras and wildebeest — and the lions, jackals and hyenas that stalk them.

Unchecked development could cut off the animals’ annual movement to southern grasslands during the rainy season and their return in the dry season for the park’s plentiful water supplies.

So the government and wildlife groups are paying the Maasai, the famed warrior tribe of southern Kenya, to not farm or fence in some land as a way to keep the migration corridor clear. In another conservation step, tribal people also are being compensated whenever a lion kills their livestock, as long as they let the lion live.

The efforts come on a continent that in the past century has lost half its forest and a significant chunk of wildlife to land development, agriculture, industry and poachers.

Corridor being squeezed
Protected game reserves like the Nairobi National Park make up about 8 percent of Kenya’s land, but more than three-fourths of the country’s wildlife lives outside the reserves.

“A lot of structures are coming up,” says Godfrey Ntapayia, a Maasai community leader, pointing to a cement factory at the edge of the 330-square-mile wildlife corridor linking the Nairobi National Park to the southern Amboseli region.

“These industries are encouraging construction around the dispersal (migration) area. People are buying land and erecting a lot of fences,” he says.

Wildlife experts also worry about the migration region between the Serengeti in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara area of southern Kenya, whose dazzling array of wildlife has been reduced by 60 percent since the mid-1970s.

But the development problem is most pronounced in the Kitengela area south of Nairobi, where private property has replaced the Maasai’s traditional system of collective land ownership and where farming has begun to replace cattle raising.

The corridor is already 70 percent blocked, Environment Minister Newton Kulundu says. This has led to a marked increase in “human-wildlife conflicts,” he says, with wildebeest wrecking fences and crops and Maasai tribesmen killing lions that prey on their cattle.

Farmers get paid
Residents of the region killed 11 lions last year, about the same number as in each of the previous four years. But no lions — a threatened though not acutely endangered species — have been reported killed in 2004, giving hope that the 2-year-old compensation program may be bearing fruit.

“I like to see lions,” says James Turere, a 42-year-old Maasai shepherd. “Other places don’t have so many animals like we do. It’s something special.”

He says he used to kill lions but stopped when he started getting compensation for livestock lost to the predators.

A total of 115 Maasai families in the Kitengela area are now receiving the equivalent of $4 a month per acre in exchange for not farming or erecting fences on their land.

The program protects 8,500 acres, or only about 4 percent of the corridor, says Paul Gathitu Masela, senior warden at the Nairobi National Park. But he says the land being protected is often in the most critical areas for animal crossings, such as near roads and rivers.

Masela says authorities would like to increase the protected area to 50,000 acres, but there isn’t enough money.

Lack of funds has long been a problem plaguing Kenyan conservation efforts, along with poor coordination and government support.

Tourism taking root
Still, the “lease” program demonstrates a major shift in attitude among Kenyan tribes, which now often see wildlife as a tourism resource to be exploited rather than vermin to be destroyed.

“Twenty years ago our young Maasai warriors used to go around killing the animals,” says David Koshal, a Maasai wildlife guide in the Masai Mara reserve. “Things are changing now. They know that there are benefits to be had from these lions, these animals.”

The Maasai are now seeking ways to funnel park entry fees and other tourism related revenue into their communities. Schools, dams and cattle dips have been built. The government and conservation groups are encouraging tribes to develop camp sites for safari-goers and to sell handicrafts rather than cultivate the land.

Some environmentalists say the “lease” program doesn’t go far enough. They want the government to impose a national land-use policy that would simply forbid human encroachment on wildlife corridors.

Environment Minister Kulundu says that idea is being considered.

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