'Illegal' decision puts Kenya's wildlife heritage in jeopardy

If they look closely enough, they may often see a young Masai boy in traditional dress, hiding from wardens as he grazes his family's goats within the boundaries of the park.

The 400sq km park cuts right through traditional Masai grazing grounds and in the dry season young goat- and cowherds surreptitiously bring their animals into the park to feed them. If the Kenya Wildlife Service wardens spot them, they drive them out and occasionally fine them.

But this month, the Kenyan government under President Mwai Kibaki decided to hand over management of the park to the local authorities, which the Masai run.

Predictably, this has caused uproar from environmentalists who fear the park's stock of big game will suffer.

It has also angered opponents of President Kibaki who suspect the park is being sacrificed for electoral purposes.

The government insists the move rights a historical wrong. The land was first allocated as a game reserve in 1906, when Kenya was a British colony. But for several decades, the Masai were still allowed to graze their animals there.

But as the 20th century progressed, environmentalists became more concerned with securing the environment for wild animals, perhaps, than for the local people.

In 1974, Amboseli was officially turned into a national park and the Masai lost all rights to graze or benefit from the land.

David Western, a former director of KWS, admits the Masai were not treated fairly. "The wildlife in Amboseli has flourished largely because of the protection afforded by the local community, not KWS rangers," he said. "The elephant population has grown from less than 500 in 1977 to around 1,400 today. Over two-thirds are outside - on community land protected by Masai scouts." But critics insists the move has nothing to do with ethics; there is a referendum coming on a new constitution for Kenya that - if it succeeds - would increase the powers of the President. They claim Mr Kibaki merely wants to buy Masai votes.

Either way, conservation groups, most of them based outside Kenya, are furious.

Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, which is leading the campaign to stop the action said: "I am fearful that Amboseli National Park, which is so important to Kenya and to Kenya's wildlife, is the victim of an arbitrary and illegal decision which puts the wildlife of this world-famous area at risk." It is easy to see why Amboseli raises such passions. The park hosts one of the largest and most important elephant populations in Africa, and has been featured in numerous wildlife documentaries.

But it is also home to lions, leopards, rhinos, cheetahs, and around 400 species of birds.

The park raises more than $3m worth of revenue annually, which the KWS uses to subsidise less lucrative parks elsewhere in the country.

Under Mr Kibaki's plans, these funds will go to the local Olkejuado county council. The Masai have long complained that the KWS and foreign environmentalists forget they have lived alongside wildlife for centuries and are their natural custodians. If they regain Amboseli, they will have the chance to prove they still are.