Two legends of conservation vie for the soul of Kenya's hallowed national parks

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, June 1998

When Elephants Collide
Two legends of conservation vie for the soul of Kenya's hallowed national parks
By Kevin Fedarko (with Ilona Eveleens and Sarah Friedman)

The view from Tsavo is one of the most impressive in Africa: a vast expanse of red-hued savanna rolling in gentle waves that break against the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, whose distant summit is adorned with a mantle of snow. It's a worthy frame for some of the grandest concentrations of wildlife in the world — a spectacle richly befitting what many consider to be the crown jewel of Kenya's park system. And this season, almost no one will be there to savor it.

Since October, a barrage of El Ni±o storms has been churning Tsavo's 3,000 miles of dirt roads into muck, making visits to the park all but impossible. Meanwhile, a squad of rangers, whose job it is to protect a park the size of Israel from poachers and bandits armed with AK-47s, is down to half a dozen vehicles and a monthly fuel budget of $308. "I don't think I can ever remember the park in such dire straits," says Daphne Sheldrick, whose late husband, David, was Tsavo's first warden. "We just hope something will be done before it collapses. The parks are Kenya's hope for the future. If they go, we've lost everything."

Alas, the story is much the same in most of the other 36 preserves directly overseen by the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Meru, known as the Gem of the North, is plagued by Somali poachers. In the Kakamega, Kenya's only tropical rainforest, locals are felling trees. In Samburu, bandits are robbing tourists. And in Tsavo West, cattle have turned sections of the park into desert. Such disarray reaches all the way to KWS headquarters in Nairobi, where the payroll has been cut by 30 percent, the halls have been plastered with notices ordering employees not to talk to the press, and a worker is now subsisting on the aid of a $13,000 court-ordered settlement to compensate for the fact that his penis was bitten off by a baboon.

The crisis besetting the KWS involves an insidious confluence of bad weather and financial misfortune, as well as a bitter clash of ideas and personalities. It is a tale that combines charges of mismanagement in Africa's most renowned network of game preserves and a feud between two titans of conservation: Richard Leakey, who built the KWS in 1989 and saved many of Kenya's animals from extinction, and David Western, who inherited the quasi-government agency from Leakey in 1994, and has since transformed it into one of the boldest and most important wildlife experiments ever attempted.

As director of the KWS at a time when poachers were gunning down an average of three elephants a day, Leakey treated his mandate as sacrosanct: protect the animals in the parks at all costs — even if it meant arming his rangers with automatic weapons and enforcing shoot-to-kill orders. His successor's approach has been very different. Western is shy, introverted, and unlike the charismatic Leakey, regarded by many as a poor manager. But 27 years of field research distinguish him as the world's leading authority on community-based conservation, an elegant and ferociously compelling idea whose appeal resides, among other things, in its willingness to confront issues that the "fortress" approach often sidesteps.

One of its basic tenets is that true ecological protection requires addressing the political and social problems animals create when they charge across park boundaries to raid crops, kill cattle, and menace villagers, as elephants, lions, and buffalo are wont to do. At its heart, this is a mission to prevent the parks from becoming biological islands and mega-zoos by turning local people into the principal custodians of both the animals and their migration corridors. "Only 4 percent of the country's biodiversity is contained in the parks," says Western. "If we just put money into the parks, we won't have any wildlife left."

The key to this approach is sharing the wealth that wildlife generates, primarily by building schools, clinics, wells, and ecotourism camps in communities outside the parks. The theory is that if people can partake of the profits, they will have a stake in protecting the animals. In practice, the results are often mixed. Critics claim that the KWS tends to act like a social welfare agency, lavishing communities with money that shows little immediate return. "The idea is wonderful," says Richard Kock, chief KWS veterinarian under both Leakey and Western, "but Kenya can't afford this right now." Supporters respond that ideas, like seeds, need patience and nurturing before they can take root and flourish. "Of course there's going to be failure," declares Western. "If there wasn't, I'd be astounded."

Unfortunately, this debate on the merits and flaws of Western's ideas was recently overwhelmed by a profound financial crisis within the KWS. The problems actually started with Leakey, who endorsed a plan intended to make the agency financially self-sustaining by 1997. Unrealistic at the time, this expectation unraveled last year when political violence surrounding Kenya's general elections, and the El Ni±o storms, sharply exacerbated a three-year slump in tourism, which supplies one-third of Kenya's foreign exchange and 95 percent of the KWS's budget. Since September, monthly receipts have dropped from $1.7 million to $583,000.

To stem the resulting tide of red ink, Western has shelved all unnecessary research, rented out KWS real estate, and begun selling old equipment for cash. In November, he applied for an emergency overdraft of $5 million from the Kenya Commercial Bank to meet the agency's payroll. Awash in debt and mortgaged to the hilt, the KWS is now "in serious, serious trouble," in the words of one World Bank official. Leakey, predictably, is more blunt. "If you're borrowing money to pay wages," he says, "you're going out of business."

For Western's opponents, the fiscal emergency has offered a battering ram with which to lay siege to the idea of community-based conservation. Since December, there has been a steady drumbeat of newspaper articles attacking Western's leadership. The negative coverage peaked with a story in last winter's issue of Swara, an organ of the East African Wildlife Society, that excoriated Western's management style and his conservation philosophy. The story was written by Robert Shaw, a Nairobi businessman who is an associate of Leakey's. Although Leakey denies putting Shaw up to the piece, he makes no effort to hide the fact that the story lays out his views on Western's approach. "I don't believe community-based conservation has a hope in hell," he declares.

Beleaguered and vilified, the KWS director could eventually find himself forced out — a possibility that evokes despair among many conservationists because Western, for all his alleged shortcomings, is revered as one of ecology's most innovative thinkers. Even more important, perhaps, his work in Kenya is a bellwether for similar projects around the globe, from Indonesia to Nepal to the American Southwest. In fact, many experts regard community-based conservation as the best and perhaps last hope for promoting planetary biodiversity in the next century. Thus if this approach is seen to have failed in Kenya, the effects would be "colossal and immediate, like the recoil of a highly loaded spring," says Charis Cussins, a professor of science and technology at Cornell University and an expert on community-based conservation. "This is one of the greatest experiments we've ever had. To lose this case study in local custodianship would be a tragedy, and a tremendous loss to the world."

E A R   T O   T H E   G R O U N D
"Even though they don't technically suck blood, we're still going to refer to the little bloodsuckers as 'bloodsuckers.'"

Parenthetical note from chapter one of the newly published a compendium of 'skeeter facts and folklore that, among other things, predicts an El Ni±o-induced mosquito plague across the United States this summer.

Illustration by Michael Bartalos

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