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Kenya Conservationists, Government Clash Over Park Management

Conservation groups in Kenya have voiced concern over a recent move by the government to hand over the management of a national park to local authorities saying the move is detrimental to conservation and the tourism industry in the country.

The decision to involve local council authorities in the management of Amboseli National Park was reached late last month after a meeting between elders from the areas bordering the national park and President Mwai Kibaki.

But conservation groups in Kenya term the move illegal.

Steve Itela is a program officer with Youth for Conservation, a group of young Kenyans working to preserve wildlife in Kenya.

"There are very clear procedures involved in the act that give direction as to how a national park can be de-gazetted and in this particular case there was a complete violation of the wildlife and conservation and management act that is cap. 378," he said.

Mr. Itela says that section of the law prohibits the conversion of national parks into other land use patterns without exhaustive debate by all stakeholders including parliament. He says the government did not consult conservation groups, the public nor parliament before turning Amboseli National Park over to local management.

Amboseli National Park lies to the south of the capital Nairobi and is one of the most visited parks in Kenya. It was declared a national reserve in 1948 and given to the Maasai community, but because of conflict between them and the wild animals it was converted to a national park in 1974.

The government's move to return its management to local authorities has been seen by some as an attempt to lure the Maasai into voting for a draft constitution prepared by the government, but which risks rejection in national referendum mid-November.

But in downgrading Amboseli National Park to a national reserve and vesting its management to the local Olkejuado County Council, Tourism Minister Morris Dzoro evoked the wildlife conservation and management act and denies playing politics.

"As far as am concerned there is no politics in it," he said. "This is something that has been going on before and it should not be read in the outlook of politics. We reached at this stage after the leaders had approached us and it was after a very long discussion that we reached such a stage."

Mr. Dzoro says his office is ready to talk further with the stakeholders in wildlife conservation arguing that the Kenya wild life service will assist the local communities manage what is now known as Amboseli National Reserve.

Mr. Hadley Decha, deputy director at the East African Wildlife Society, says the governments move has motivated more local authorities to demand that management of national parks in their neighborhoods be handed over to them, despite the fact that they lack the skills to manage the wildlife.

The conservation groups are asking President Mwai Kibaki to rescind his decision or they say they will take the matter to court.