February 13, 2006

Starving Cattle Put Kenya Wildlife at Risk

By Fredrik Dahl

TSAVO WEST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya -- Desperate Maasai herdsmen are driving cattle into one of Kenya's largest national parks in search of scarce water and pasture, threatening its famous wild animals and the habitat that brings the state much-needed tourist revenue.

Armed rangers in Tsavo West National Park are engaged in a cat-and-mouse game with red-robed Maasai who have trekked long distances to escape Kenya's worst drought in years.

Wildlife officials say Maasai have brought at least 20,000 cattle to the park boundary and they must not be allowed inside.

Officials say the cattle would harm natural habitats where elephants, lions, giraffes and zebras roam free, and could also spread disease.

"We are trying our best to keep them out, chasing them back," one guard said, as he and a dozen camouflage-clad colleagues sought shelter beneath the scorching sun, their AK-47 automatic rifles leaning against a tree.

But, he said, "there are too many."

Robert Muasya, assistant director of the huge national park in south-eastern Kenya near the Tanzanian border, said: "It is very destructive. It is a threat to the wildlife."

A few kilometers (miles) from his office on the outskirts of Tsavo, scores of emaciated cattle slowly trudge across a dusty dirt road into the protected wildlife area. The half-rotten carcasses of those that did not make it in time lie nearby.

The sight of cattle may irritate tourists who have paid to see undisturbed wildlife in a park boasting sweeping savannah, brushy plains and volcanic hills, with the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro glistening in the distance.

"When the Americans come, they want to see wild animals, not cows," said a ranger, trained to confront armed poachers and wild beasts but now busy stopping invading cattle.

Muasya said 60 of his men patrolling on foot and in a small plane were working day and night to stop them coming into Tsavo, which still has grass and water despite prolonged drought.

He said the rangers had so far managed to keep most of them outside the park, which promotes itself as "the ancient land of springs, lava and man-eaters," but that it was hard work.

"It is giving us a big challenge. It is a full-time job."

His deputy said the influx could also push elephants and other wild animals out of Tsavo into inhabited areas, where they trample crops and sometimes attack people.


A century ago, maneless lions spread terror among Indian railway workers in this area, killing and eating nearly 140 and inspiring the 1996 movie "The Ghost and the Darkness" starring Hollywood actors Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

No lions were spotted during a recent trip to Tsavo. But a small herd of cows could be seen peacefully grazing among flat-topped Acacia trees near its edge.

"They are not supposed to be here, but you can't arrest cows," one park guide said.

Their owners were nowhere to be seen, fearing fines if caught. The cattle normally find their own way back.

The roaming Maasai, who depend on cattle and often live on just milk and fresh blood, say they have no choice but to feed their starving cows wherever they can. Thousands of cattle have already died.

One herdsman -- carrying a traditional Maasai sword and wearing colorful bracelets and earrings -- said he had trekked with his herd for 11 days to reach Tsavo.

"I went to Nairobi and to Tanzania but there was no grass. This is the only place where there is grass," he said just outside the national park. "We don't cause any trouble."

Another man said he had lost 20 cattle on his long journey. "I came here in search for pasture and water, and I found it."