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Trouble in Paradise

It is dark. I am sitting on the veranda on a cold morning, listening to the night sounds die down. A hyena whoops out across the plains as it heads for a communal cubbing den beyond the airstrip. Somewhere by the swamp, a jackal yips sharply. Slowly the sky lightens toward the Chyulu Hills, and a dead tree takes form by the house, its broken limbs pointing like signposts to the fading stars. The upper branches are spiked with orange as the gathering light unveils the familiar landscape, suffusing it with warm, deep colors. A crested francolin yammers harshly behind the house; a hoopoo, barely visible, pecks in the soil underneath the tree. Every dawn brings the same refreshing peace and renewal to Amboseli. It is a time to enjoy the sights and sounds and take stock.”

Thus does the conservationist David Western describe a morning at his research camp in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park in his impassioned autobiographical account of a career dedi-cated to conserving East Africa’s wildlife. Western is one of the world’s leading conservationists. His story concerns the Amboseli Game Reserve, long the most popular spot on East Africa’s tourist circuit. It is the place you have seen in those alluring posters showing countless zebra, wildebeest, and gazelles placidly grazing on an acacia-dotted savanna at the foot of looming Mount Kilimanjaro.

Western’s account is fascinating and suspenseful, even if roughened here and there by an occasional trite phrase or verbal overindulgence. Slicker conservation books have appeared recently, but most of them were written by journalists or academics, mere bystanders to the main events. Western is truly a front-line warrior. Past director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, he has seen the battle for conservation from every vantage point—researcher, advocate, negotiator, and chair of international commissions.

In the Dust of Kilimanjaro is far more than an autobiography. It is an eloquent brief for achieving wildlife conservation under a variety of pressures, national and international. But can people and wildlife live in harmony, as Western fervently wishes to believe? It is still too early to say, but the problems of conservation are constantly changing and few formulas hold any long-term certainty of success. The Kenya of 1999 is a far cry from the Kenya of 1967 in which Western started to formulate his approach to conservation.

Born in England, David Western grew up in Britain’s Tanganyika colony in East Africa, where his father had gone to find freedom and adventure while working for the British colonial administration. Western’s family lived in a modest cottage in the bush near Dar es Salaam, and the young David accompanied his father and brother on weekend hunts. He imagined himself growing up to be a hunter like his father, yet he found he lacked the necessary blood lust. His taste for hunting evaporated in a chance encounter with a sable antelope that stepped out of the bush directly in front of him. Staring into its brown eyes, the boy felt himself in touch with a being whose fears and emotions he could recognize as similar to his own.

The vision of the sable antelope is the book’s leitmotif, serving at times of stress to remind Western of his primal commitment to saving Africa’s wildlife. During the same period, he learned Swahili and bushcraft from Mohamad Mbwana, a skilled and taciturn tracker who was his father’s regular hunting companion. He felt a passionate affinity for wildlife—Professor E.O.Wilson would call it biophilia. At the same time he had a feeling of common purpose with the Africans with whom he shared his childhood.

The idyll of growing up in colonial Africa ended abruptly when a formally dressed constable arrived at the door to tell the family that his father had been killed by an elephant. Arthur Western had moved from one job to another in the colonial administration, but had never become prosperous. His true passion was hunting, ostensibly to supply meat for the family. When young David and his brother were enrolled in boarding school, the family income did not suffice to pay school fees, so he took up ivory hunting to make up the difference. One close call with an elephant left him badly shaken, but he persisted until he had pushed his luck too far. An elephant ambushed him and jabbed a tusk through his rib cage while he was pinned to the ground.

The family returned to England, but David, still a teenager, was anxious to find a way to return to Africa. Although he had no higher education he obtained an assistant’s job at the British Museum, organizing the museum’s considerable collection of tapeworms. The biologists on the museum’s staff led him to see the connection between getting an education and achieving his hopes of going back to Africa. He could, he decided, return as an ecologist to study the relationships of animals to the environment. Driven by this idea, he began to take night and correspondence classes, and found he could earn top grades. After winning honors in zoology at Leicester University, he won a coveted Leverhulme Travel Fellowship that allowed him to fulfill his dream of returning to Africa.

After he enrolled in the University of East Africa in Nairobi, a faculty adviser suggested that he study the dilemma of the Amboseli Game Reserve, which was beset with problems viewed as intractable. As a game reserve (which offers less protection to animals than a national park) it was open to Maasai who moved through the territory with their cattle. A popular opinion in the capital was that overgrazing by Maasai cattle was turning the reserve into a dust bowl. Conflicts between Maasai and animals (especially lions and elephants), in turn, caused problems with the reserve’s administrators.

The contentious situation immediately appealed to Western, who was eager to prove that conservation can be successfully achieved in complex human situations. Separating people from nature is entirely artificial, he maintains. Heretical at the time, Western’s approach marked a sharp break from the tradition of keeping wildlife inside rigidly protected parks and keeping people on the outside. After all, he argues, human beings evolved in East Africa, and they or their evolutionary forebears have been part of the scene for millions of years. The Maasai themselves had been there for hundreds of years; and their cattle had always grazed side by side with wild herds to the apparent detriment of neither.

Western set up his base camp in a stand of fever trees well off the Amboseli tourist circuit. There, he could enjoy solitude and commune with the animals that were drawn to the shelter of his campsite. Lizards, rats, birds, even elephants became his everyday companions, a welcome diversion in his otherwise lonely life. Amboseli contained one of the most dense and diverse concentrations of wildlife anywhere in Africa. During the dry season, 50,000 head of wildlife and Maasai cattle were packed into 1,260 square miles. How, Western asked, could so many animals occupy such a small area, and where did they go in the wet season?

From hilltop promontories, he mapped the mosaic of different habitats of the animals and counted herds, keeping track of their day-to-day movements. With the onset of rains, the herds drifted away, leaving the protection of the reserve for fresher pastures on Maasai land. Months later, as drought turned the grass to golden straw, animals began to return to Amboseli in a regular progression: elephants, followed by zebra, then buffalo, wildebeest, and finally, gazelles. Amboseli and its swamps, oases in a parched and barren landscape, were a hub of life for both Maasai and wildlife.

Immersed in tallying herds, Western was jolted one day by a Maasai warrior in his scarlet shuka (robe) who approached him with the question of why he had come to Amboseli, and what he was doing there. These sorts of questions always put a scientist on the spot because they can be answered in so many ways. He was there to study the wildlife and its migrations, he answered. “Come, let’s go to my boma [home compound],” Parashino replied, “I can tell you a lot about Amboseli and wildlife, if you really want to know.” Sharing curded milk in the darkness of Parashino’s smoky hut, Western formed a lasting friendship with him. Western, Parashino insisted, had to learn to see the world through the eyes of a cow, for that would open his mind to many things. Only then would he understand the Maasai and their relationship to wildlife and the environment of Amboseli.

Parashino did teach Western many things, among them where the animals went in the wet season. As soon as fresh grass sprouted in the dusty plains, animals would begin to appear. The grass was tender and nutritious. Since the growing season was brief and marked by unpredictable rains, there wasn’t time for the grass to grow tall and coarse. Long-lived plants defend their foliage with tough fibers and toxic compounds designed by natural selection to deter herbivores, but the short-lived grasses of the East African plains inhabit a capricious environment, with a highly variable rainfall.

For grasses to defend themselves against herbivores takes time and continuing energy, neither of which is easily available when the next rain could be the last of the season. In order to mature, flower, and produce seed before drought forecloses the opportunity, the grasses must put all available energy into growth. Their foliage therefore tends to be tender and highly palatable, so it is favored by wildlife over the coarser species found in Amboseli’s swamps.

Gradually Western came to see that the Amboseli Reserve, for all its deserved reputation as a wildlife mecca, was merely a retreat that offered adequate but unexceptional foraging during normal dry seasons. When it was raining on the plains, the wild herds spread out over adjoining Maasai grazing lands, using lands outside the reserve that were many times larger than the reserve itself. The Amboseli ecosystem included this entire area. The reserve could not be isolated from the rest without putting the wildlife in severe jeopardy. It was this insight that lay behind Western’s efforts to create a new region that would incorporate reserve and tribal lands into a single unit. “My true mission…lay in finding a way for people and wildlife to share [the savanna] amicably in the modern world as they had in the past.”

While it was obvious to Western that cutting off Amboseli from the adjoining Maasai lands was biologically untenable, powerful voices in Kenya’s conservation movement, as well as in the government, wanted Amboseli to become a restricted national park. In their view, excluding the Maasai and their livestock from the park would reduce conflicts between people and wild animals, simplify administration, improve the habitat for wildlife, and present a more authentic spectacle for tourists. Some tourists were upset at the sight of the Maasai and their cattle. “We’ve paid good bucks,” one said, “to visit a national park, not a cattle ranch.” Western was thus in the paradoxical position of opposing a national park as the best solution for conserving Amboseli’s wildlife.

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