Karel Prinsloo  /  AP
Zebras pause in Kenya's Meru National Park in May.
updated 9/18/2005 12:57:55 AM ET 2005-09-18T04:57:55

A lion calls to others in booming, short moans during a night’s downpour. Just after dawn, a group of rhinos forage for the day’s first meal.

Meru National Park — the place where “Born Free” conservationists George and Joy Adamson began their work with orphaned lions — has only recently begun seeing such scenes again after decades of poaching obliterated its rhino population, devastated elephant herds and scared away most other animals.

Tourist numbers dropped to 6,000 last year from a peak of 40,000 visitors a year in the 1970s.

Poachers and bandits operated with impunity throughout Kenya in the 1980s, taking rhino horn and elephant tusks to be turned into folk medicine and high-priced ornaments and jewelry. Poorly paid and equipped rangers and park administrators across the country became susceptible to corruption and worked with the poachers.

The government abolished the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department in 1989 and created the Kenya Wildlife Service as an autonomous organization that is allowed quicker and more independent decision-making. Poaching has subsided, helped by a 1989 global ban on the ivory trade that has seen prices drop.

'A checkered history'
The Kenya Wildlife Service still struggles, but there are signs of progress in places like Meru.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has spent $1.25 million over the last five years to restore Meru, buying binoculars, GPS locators and other equipment for the rangers. The organization also financed the restocking of several types of animals and bus tours for Kenyan schoolchildren to the park.

“Meru did face its upheavals. It had a checkered history ... but it doesn’t mean it has lost it entirely. Basically the habitat was more or less intact. What was lacking was the biodiversity, the animals,” said James Isiche, East Africa regional director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Today, zebras, antelopes and gazelles trot away at the sound of an approaching vehicle, nervously twitching their ears, unlike game in other Kenyan national parks that have become accustomed to motor traffic.

Over the 1980s, poachers killed all the park’s black rhino, Senior Warden Mark Jenkins said.

Rhinos are back
Five years ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service began introducing white rhinos into the park with funding from the Boston-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, he said.

“This was a statement to the country that the Kenya Wildlife Service organization believes Meru is safe,” Jenkins said.

Today there are about 40 white rhinos in a sanctuary in Meru National Park.

Park visitors can also visit the grave of Elsa, the lioness made famous by the 1964 film “Born Free.” The Adamsons began their experiment preparing orphaned lion cubs for life in the wild on Mugwongo Hill in the park.

George Adamson — following the trajectory of many of his generation, from hunter to conservationist — was the warden of Meru from July 1938 to September 1961. He is buried in neighboring Kora National Park, where he continued his conservation work until he was killed by bandits in 1989.

The Kenya Wildlife Service is now so confident Meru is on the path to recovery that it has plans for four lodge sites, aiming to increase capacity from 24 beds to 240, Jenkins said.

The manager of the upmarket 24-bed Elsa’s Kopje built on Mugwongo Hill is happy at the prospect of more lodges.

“It would be nice to have some company,” said Ava Paton. “And also opening up other lodges will be more revenue for the park and therefore more conservation.”

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