“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.

Administrators in Nairobi took the traditional view of parks as places without people. Moreover, the Maasai were regarded as troublemakers. Not only did their cattle, sheep, and goats flood into Amboseli by the thousands at just the season when the reserve was most appealing to tourists, but they were regarded as hotheaded and uncooperative, an opinion backed up by several incidents in which angry Maasai warriors had speared elephants, lions, or rhinos in order to spite the authorities. Western was faced with an uphill battle in persuading government officials that conserving Amboseli’s ecosystem would not be possible without the cooperation of the Maasai. Since the proposed park was too small, only 200 square miles, and included only the core area used in the dry season, conflicts between the Maasai and wildlife at other seasons would be inevitable. Moreover, no less than the wildlife, the Maasai depended on the swamps of Amboseli as a watering place in the dry season. Excluding the Maasai would destroy their livelihood and ensure their hostility.

On the other side of the issue were the Maasai themselves. Once fierce warriors whose dominion extended from northern Kenya to central Tanzania, they had suffered a series of dramatic comedowns and were bitter at their loss of power over their own destiny. Earlier in the century, the British had appropriated half of the region in which they lived, the best half, and distributed it to colonists for farms and ranches. The British also imposed decrees that prohibited Africans from killing game. Maasai custom held that wildlife were their “second cattle.” Under normal conditions, they thought it improper to eat game. Only when drought decimated their herds did custom permit them to hunt animals, as a matter of survival. A severe drought in 1960 that killed three quarters of their cattle delivered another blow to their pride. They were obliged to become recipients of international food relief.

With Kenya’s independence in 1963 came a government controlled by their archenemies, the Kikuyu, whom they trusted even less than the British. For the Maasai, the national park proposal, by excluding them from Amboseli’s swamps during the dry season, spelled disaster. Outraged at the prospect, they announced that they were implacably opposed to a park; they vowed to kill Amboseli’s remaining rhinos and terrorize tourists if their wishes were not respected.

Western, who had gone to Amboseli merely to study wildlife, found himself at the center of this controversy. He was the one person who both understood the relevant scientific issues and could talk to both sides. But science alone would not persuade the government to change its views. To governments, the persuasive power of economic interests far exceeds that of science. Western was convinced that his vision of a greater Amboseli that combined the reserve with Maasai grazing lands would yield greater economic benefits than the proposed 200-square- mile national park. To prove the point, he teamed up with the economist Frank Mitchell to create a plan for the integrated economic development of the entire ecosystem. Their analysis decisively favored integrated land use over partitioning off separate areas for wildlife and livestock. Even when presented with a detailed statistical argument for the plan, the government remained skeptical. To win their case Western and his allies had to engage in political maneuvering.

After a decade of lobbying, Western’s dream of an integrated management project became a reality in 1977. The Maasai agreed to vacate 150 square miles of Amboseli—abandoning their set-tlements and withdrawing their cattle—so as to provide the cattle-free wildlife spectacle that tourists were demanding. In addition, the Maasai agreed to share their grazing lands with wildlife and promised to provide “2,000 pairs of eyes” to thwart the Somali poaching gangs that were killing off Kenya’s elephants and rhinos. For these concessions, the government agreed to dig wells, build schools, permit limited hunting on Maasai lands, and share tourism revenues with the Maasai people.

As novices in the world of politics, the Maasai were unaware that governments do not always keep their bargains. Four years after concluding the agreement, the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife reneged on its commitments. The government stopped its annual payment to the regional council, quit pumping water for livestock, and imposed a ban on hunting that cut off the Maasai’s last source of wildlife income. In angry reaction, Maasai killed wild animals and drove their cattle into the park. Some parts of the original agreement were reinstated years later, but the mutual trust needed to conclude further agreements had been dissipated.

What will the future bring? Western’s book concludes almost euphorically in projecting a state of harmony between people and wildlife, financed by shared revenues from an expanded tourist industry. The upbeat ending clashes with several of the main points in Western’s book: how difficult it is to consolidate gains for conservation in an ever-changing political situation, and how demographic, economic, and political changes in Kenya are transforming the Maasai. The combined pressures of drought and a quadrupling of population have already driven large numbers of Maasai off the range and onto the streets of Nairobi in search of work. Western himself concedes that “the entire fabric of Maasai life had been frayed thin by population growth.” Unable to buy television sets and educate their children if they cling to their traditional, pastoralist way of life, Maasai are giving up the old ways and starting farms and businesses.

Such changes, moreover, are only the beginning of a continuing process of assimilation into the national economy. Amboseli’s herds may be safe for now, but their continued existence hinges on whether the Maasai will accept an agreement that formally locks them into their old ways of life. Maasai traditions call for collective decision making and communally held land. In the modern world, individual families and citizens decide their destinies. What will happen when the Maasai discover the institution of private property and more of them become farmers instead of herders? Individuals define their rights with fences, so one can fear that fences will some day put an end to Amboseli’s free-ranging herds.

Migratory herbivores once roamed all the continents, but migratory herds are an extreme rarity today. The American bison is extinct as a migratory species. Many herds of African wildebeest are restrained by fences and no longer migrate. The camels of South America and Asia have all but vanished as migratory species. The migrations of bearded pigs in Borneo are highly endangered. One of the few ungulate migrations remaining on the planet is that of the “porcupine” herd of barren-ground caribou in northern Alaska. It survives because the extreme climate and remoteness of the Brooks Range have so far kept people away. Special measures will be necessary to protect ungulate migrations, because most parks simply aren’t big enough to contain them. Such migrations are rapidly becoming a biological relic. As they disappear, traditional parks are a better bet for biodiversity than parks compromised by concessions to growing and developing human populations.

To participants in the current debate over conservation strategy, David Western’s advocacy of “community-based conservation” can be viewed either as nostalgic romanticism or as a way of achieving conservation while promoting social justice at the same time. Which view is more realistic? Although Western bases his philosophy on his own experience, Amboseli’s situation is highly unusual, not least because the coexistence of Maasai herds and wildlife is demonstrably sustainable; it does not need to be promoted or engineered. The consumption of grass and water by Maasai livestock certainly must have an impact on the wildlife, but how large an impact cannot be determined because of the prohibitive social cost of experimentally removing the cattle.

Still, Maasai herds as well as wildlife clearly are limited by the unstable environment, in which wet-dry cycles naturally recur. Cattle are unable to win decisively in a competition with wildlife, and vice versa, because both are subject to the same natural limits. But the most distinctive feature of the Amboseli case is that the Maasai will not kill wildlife, except during periods of extreme drought when there is a decline in the numbers of both wildlife and cattle. At such times, killing wildlife for food causes almost the same reduction in the population of wild animals that would occur anyway. Thus, the impact of the Maasai, while not insignificant, is held within limits by custom, climate, and the environment acting together. How typical is such a situation, and can Western’s ideas be transferred to other places in the developing world?

I am skeptical that they can. Blurring the distinction between park and non-park is a policy fraught with dangers. Yes, local people may benefit from use of the land, but what is the point of a park if not to give primacy to nature? If they have the opportunity to do so, people are likely to take over a park. Once one starts talking about the “sustainable use” of park land there is no logical stopping point. Administrators will be under increasing social pressure to relax limits. As the inevitable conflicts arise, who is to decide when sustainable use transgresses the invisible line between sustainability and nonsustainability? And who is to bear the burden of proof? If there is doubt, and there nearly always is, nature is the inevitable loser.

If conflicts between people and nature were not so common, it might not be necessary to have parks at all. But the facts of life are otherwise. Where would you go in the US if you wanted to see bison, elk, moose, or bighorn sheep in their natural habitat? To parks, of course, where else? The tolerance of the Maasai for wildlife is almost unique in the world today. Nearly everywhere else local people eat wild animals and try to destroy any species that raids their crops, damages fences, or preys upon their livestock. Thus, as a rule, people and wildlife don’t mix and have to be kept apart.

Behind the claims and counterclaims in the debate over sustainable use is the question of whether nature conservation is best achieved through a “bottom-up” (grassroots) or a “top-down” (government-mandated) approach. Western is a leading advocate of the bottom-up style of conservation, in which local people are active participants—just the opposite of the system in the US, where national parks are created in Washington (to be sure, with the political support of local members of Congress) and administered from Washington. Top-down approaches have worked reasonably well in the US and there is hardly any deep social conflict over them.

Why doesn’t the US model work in developing countries? The difference in systems of land tenure is telling. Whereas in the US every acre of land has a registered owner, in large parts of the developing world there is no organized land registry. People have occupied the land since prehistoric times. Farm plots are individually claimed and recognized at the village level; but the land peripheral to a village that may be used for grazing, hunting, fuelwood gathering, or other purposes is unclaimed by any person, though it may be used by many. When a government decrees a park in such a place, the people feel deprived of a birthright, and display their resentment by disdaining to accept to park regulations.

Apart from Amboseli, and perhaps a few exceptional places like it, wild animals will have to be protected from people in strictly enforced preserves. In the absence of strong financial incentives, such a separation cannot be expected to come about as an initiative of local people. Where such incentives may exist in the form of revenues from ecotourism, the prospects for successful conservation are good, at least in the short run. But in the long run, I find depressing the idea that the future survival of nature on earth must rest on ecotourism. One dip in the economy could spell disaster.

Stronger mechanisms are needed to hold the line against the destruction of wildlife, and such mechanisms can, in my opinion, only come from the top down. National governments are currently responsible for assuring the survival of wild animals, but all too often, governments lack the necessary resolve and financial resources. The existence of hundreds of “paper parks” throughout the world attests to the failure of many governments to take the protection of nature seriously. If even tattered remnants of what we call nature are to survive the twenty-first century, something quite different will be needed. Every year there is less habitat and more species become extinct, without any compensating gains. In the face of this discouraging reality, I believe that conservation, if it is to succeed outside of a few prosperous countries like our own, will have to become a concerted international effort.


In March 1994, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi appointed David Western as Director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, following the resignation of the paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey. Western made many changes in the KWS, including decentralizing administrative functions, increasing the use of scientific technology in conserving Kenya’s biological resources, and expanding his concept of community-based conservation to areas beyond Amboseli. Yet today, all is not well with conservation in Kenya. Some major donors, skeptical of the long-term value of the community approach, have withdrawn support. At the same time, Kenya is suffering an economic downturn and a 60 percent drop in tourism, the country’s leading foreign-exchange earner. The budget of KWS has collapsed, and Western had to cut more than a quarter of his staff of 4,100. The budgetary woes of KWS have added to the discontent of more tradition-minded conservationists, who have criticized Western for spending scarce resources on conservation outside parks at a time when the infrastructure of parks is crumbling and poaching and other violations are on the rise.

In May 1998, a month after these criticisms were publicly aired in Science magazine, David Western was sacked by President Moi. He was reinstated after an international outcry, but only temporarily. Later in the year, President Moi removed him again and reappointed his predecessor, Richard Leakey, to the director’s post.

Conservation must be a continuous process, if nature, or any part of it, is to be bequeathed to posterity. Can nature survive the frailty of the human institutions charged with preserving it? That is the question no one can answer.

This Issue

February 18, 1999