/ 26 June 2003

The fruit of a mismanaged park

They had come to see lions, but not like this, decapitated, pawless, bloody and spear marked.

Visitors to the park saw the carcass of a beast that was speared to death and mutilated on the edge of Nairobi National Park, Kenya’s oldest game reserve.

One can count on sightings at close quarters of the country’s finest wild fauna, but not lions, which are rarely spotted in the park itself these days. Eighty percent of the tourists who visit it say they don’t see their favourite beast, and if they do, it’s only cubs and sub-adults.

To the dismay and disgust of those who went to the Safari Walk last week, the only visible lion, a young adult female, was dead, the 10th lion to be killed over the last month and the 49th since 1999, park officials and wildlife activists said.

Their deaths highlight the ever increasing difficulties of balancing wildlife conservation with the demands of a fast-growing human population, hungry for land.

At the windswept edges of the park live warlike Masai herders, who have broken ranks with wild animals, notably the remaining seven lions, over territory limits.

The lions, said to be starved, frequently prowl at the edges of their unfenced territory, waiting to attack easy prey — the Masai livestock that have a liking for greener undergrowth inside the jungle.

The lions’ favourite snack, untamed grass-eaters, have migrated off the park, measuring about 117 square kilometres, in pursuit of fresh, short and chewable grass, according to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) officials.

”As a result, the lions are malnourished,” conservationist Lesley Hannah said.

And the herders, who are getting angrier by the day, have sharpened their spears and machetes to confront the predators that have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of tame livestock.

”We are going to kill a lion for each cow killed,” Joseph Nenenjeu said, after recovering morsels and bones of his Samburu Argus bull, his only inseminator that served close to 50 cows.

”The latest butchery of lions bears the semblance of a well-orchestrated plot to extract trophies — mane, paws, canines and flywhisk — from the beasts,” Ian Cowie, whose father Mervin started the park in 1946, said.

Most herders say they are proud of the lions’ death, but insist that the pursuit of trophies and bounty-hunting is unlike their typical hunting style. Now who is to blame?

Natural Resources Minister Newton Kulundu on Friday said unknown people, with unknown intentions, are behind the Masai’s decimation of the lions.

”There is some evidence of incitement of the local community by certain ill-motivated people and it is because of the restraint shown by armed KWS rangers in the face of great provocation that there have not been human casualties,” Kulundu said.

He said the government will swiftly arrest and charge anybody who kills lions on whatever pretext, but again, the herders insist that they won’t be scared by arrests.

An informed source in conservation circles said that ”there are plans to get rid of the park forever in order to grab that vast land the park lies on”.

”It is the fruit of a mismanaged park,” the source, closely linked to KWS, said.

As the masters of the jungle confront starvation and deadly attacks, the government, conservationists and interested parties are wrangling in boardrooms on whether to seal off the unfenced southern edges of the park or isolate the lions and start feeding them. – Sapa-AFP