KENYA: April 20, 2007
NAIROBI - A controversial proposal to help save Kenya's wildlife by scrapping a 30-year ban on sport hunting split delegates at a conference in the east African nation on Thursday.
Tens of thousands of tourists flock to Kenya each year to see lions, leopards, elephants, wildebeest and other wildlife roaming the parks and reserves. But animal numbers have fallen by at least two-thirds over the last three decades, and experts blame poaching plus human destruction of their habitats.
Those backing sport hunting say it would preserve wildlife by encouraging better management and earning big money that could be ploughed back into conservation. It would also bring Kenya into line with neighbours Uganda and Tanzania, and with South Africa, which all profit from restricted hunting.
Opponents have denounced any moves to re-introduce the blood sport and accused elitist hunters of colluding with wealthy local landowners.
"It is such an emotional issue right now," Sarah Macharia, a Kenyan environmental consultant, told Reuters at the meeting.
"Every time they try to count our animals there are fewer and fewer. I am against hunting because we don't have the capacity to enforce any rules on it. Maybe later, but not now."
Last year, Kenya's government appointed a committee to formulate a new wildlife policy. The draft report, completed in February, recommended lifting the ban on hunting, but its publication has been delayed by the wrangling.
Tempers have flared, and one Kenyan journalist recently protested at the idea of Arab royals and rich Americans, "bored by ordinary living", blasting away at big game while children in rags look on from the doorways of mud huts.
Opponents say locals want a bigger share of tourist revenues from the parks and reserves, which go mostly to the service sector, and compensation for loss of property or crops caused by wildlife -- but not hunting.
Supporters of hunting include not only ranchers and sports hunters themselves, but also some veteran conservationists who have worked in the country for decades.
They say countries like South Africa and Tanzania have prospered hugely, partly because hunters spend thousands of dollars, many times more than regular tourists, and partly because they have experienced an increase in animal numbers.
Mike Norton-Griffiths, an expert on the economics of wildlife management, says natural habitats in Kenya are being destroyed by landowners because the returns from agriculture are currently much higher than from wildlife.
Money-making activities like selling animals, culling locally abundant populations, marketing trophies and -- most valuable of all -- sport hunting, should be allowed, he says.
Well-funded foreign animal welfare groups, mostly based in the United States, have muddied the debate, and even "subverted democracy", in Kenya, he says.
These groups seem determined to make sure hunting never returns, apparently regardless of whether this leads to further falls in wildlife numbers or continued rural poverty, he says.
"If they succeed in derailing the wildlife policy review, the decline in the country's wildlife will carry inexorably on," he wrote in the magazine New Scientist last month.
"That would hardly be a victory for conservation."
Story by Daniel Wallis