Science: Time to take the bull by the horns

The new head of Kenya's Wildlife Service believes we must take a less sentimental approach to conservation, says Richard D North
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T urn to any guide book and it is clear enough where one can find Africa's wildlife. It is in the great national parks such as the Masai Mara in Kenya or the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. These are the remaining shards of Africa's wilderness, where plains animals graze and are hunted by the killers we find glamorous. The spectacle takes place in parks, we are inclined to think, because there the perennial conflict between man and animal has been resolved, mostly by removing the former.

Behind these enduring images and ideas, however, there are complexities that a new generation of ecologists and managers is trying to unravel, often while under fire from campaigners who prefer the older stereotypes.

As Daniel B Botkin writes in his Discordant Harmonies: A new ecology for the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press, 1990), we risk being blinded by a view that sees nature as stable and harmonious and man always malign. Botkin, a University of California professor, notes that by the Seventies, Tsavo - one of Kenya's national parks, and about the size of Wales - was overpopulated by elephants, which had turned the place into a near desert. They had for years been managed on the premise that wildlife would establish a balance of its own. But, Botkin writes, "even Tsavo, large as it is, is too small to sustain an elephant population 'naturally'." In times of drought-stress, elephants could no longer migrate to areas where they might survive.

Botkin stresses that nature is in flux and full of tensions. Man's hand can be benign, and even, in a crowded world, vital. In Africa's case, the management of parks needs to take account of the fact that most of the continent's animals are not within them. Well over 70 per cent of Kenya's wildlife lives outside the parks. The division between farmland and parkland is more blurred than a European mind readily imagines: The division is invisible to the animals, but dominates the thinking behind national parks.

The animals' neighbours, on the whole, loathe the beasts. Most weeks, a Kenyan is killed by an elephant somewhere in the country. Animals, especially - but by no means exclusively - elephants, destroy crops on a big scale.

Dr David Western, a conservationist who took over from the charismatic Dr Richard Leakey as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in 1994, is engaged in a fascinating battle. At home, he must persuade poor farmers that they can profit from the presence of wildlife. Abroad, he must explain to conservationists that peasants should be allowed sometimes to kill, or sell licences to kill, lovely wildlife.

"The trouble is," he says, "we've disenfranchised the landowner. We've said: 'The animals have rights and you don't'." Local people - commonly the Masai - have received a few advantages from being near wildlife parks. Quite apart from lucrative, if dispiriting, opportunities for begging, there have been goodwill gestures such as school-building. "What we are achieving now is quite different. It is recognising the landowner as a legitimate voice in decision-making," says Dr Western. Rightly or wrongly, it is sometimes alleged that Richard Leakey had not been adept at this sort of micro-diplomacy.

"Tourists don't like fences," is one of Dr Western's maxims. Yet, oddly, as Brian Leith, a film-maker*, points out: "It was Leakey's success with anti-poaching measures that created a new need for fences. But now it's to keep the growing numbers of animals in, rather than poachers out."If the new arrangements defuse the animosity of local farmers towards wildlife, fences will be far less necessary to keep animals in the parks. And when wildlife outside the parks is profitable to locals, they will be less likely to poach, or condone poaching, inside or outside parks.

"Cattle make grassland; elephants make bush," is an old Masai maxim. Its interest lies in the fact that it is the exact reverse of what is said in the guide books. There, one learns that elephants make grassland. But they do so only when they are under intense pressure and overpopulate the place. Dr Western's vision is of big areas of countryside in which cattle and wild animals engage in a very ancient ritual of land-sharing. "The diversity of Africa's savannah depends on space," he says. "It's the slow movement of animals which creates diversity. When we created parks, we banished fire and cattle and pushed in elephants. Then poaching further concentrated elephants in parks as they retreated there."

Dr Western says he is often told by local landowners, large and small: "Yes, bring the elephants out of the parks, provided you let the tourists come with them." If this approach succeeds, tourists will be able to enjoy the sensation of being in working countryside: cattlemen and park-rangers, livestock and wildlife, will be seen to co-exist in a dance in which man and nature are not antagonistic.

But hearts and minds will have to be won over, especially abroad. "Welfare" conservationists dislike the hunting and culling that will be a part of the mix of incomes in many areas. And yet more incendiary, one day, if Dr Western has his way, part of the profit from the new arrangements will include cash from the sale from the ivory of culled elephants. The trade was stopped by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species in 1989.

In Kenya, whose wildlife is well known and where the tourist industry is a huge foreign exchange earner, the position is made difficult by a history of very aggressive poaching. By 1989, under pressure from Western conservationists, and especially from World Wildlife Fund members in the US, the WWF changed its policy to favour ending the ivory trade. Dr Leakey joined them in supporting a ban. At the same time, he reformed the parks' policing. Now, many knowledgeable people believe it was the patrols, not the ban, that did the trick. Anyway, the campaigners feel they won a great victory and their prejudice against any sort of culling or hunting is firmly in the ascendant.

This may change. Dr Western and others are trying to convince the world that they are no longer merely defending animals in parks that can never really work, but instead have a strategy for hugely extending the opportunities for wildlife across vast tracts of countryside. In exchange, they feel are they are right to stress that the African people must benefit, too, even at the risk of upsetting Westerners for whom the issue is one of armchair admiration rather than everyday survival.

*Brian Leith's trilogy of films, 'Africa's Big Game', will be shown weekly starting Wednesday 19 July, on BBC2 at 9.30pm.