Page last updated at 09:21 GMT, Tuesday, 29 April 2008 10:21 UK

Tourism crash threatens big cats

Leopard on Maasai Mara (BBC)
The compensation scheme has been very successful

Big cats living in Kenya's Maasai Mara game reserve are being threatened by a collapse in revenues from wildlife tourism, it has been claimed.

The Mara Conservancy says tourists have stayed away since the violence which followed last year's disputed election.

The group, which manages a 510 sq km area called the Mara Triangle, can no longer pay pastoralists compensation for cattle killed by lions or leopards.

This could force local people to kill the cats in order to protect livestock.

It may be only a matter of time until rangers won't be so lucky in stopping cattle owners from taking their own measures to protect cattle
William Deed, Mara Conservancy

William Deed, from the Mara Conservancy, told the BBC that it was facing a shortfall of $50,000 (25,000) per month.

The non-profit organisation relies on a percentage of park entrance fees paid by tourists.

Since it was founded in 2001, and the compensation scheme established, the number of lions in the reserve has doubled to 80.

Strained situation

But now the fund has been suspended, some Maasai have threatened to resume hunting the lions and leopards which kill their cows, goats and sheep.

"We have now had several close calls with locals hunting lions and leopards in return for the cattle that have been killed by these predators," said Mr Deed.

"Previously, the cattle compensation scheme we had in place would help placate such situations, however with no funding to pay for such a scheme the local communities are no longer seeing the benefits of living so closely with the wildlife."

He said the current situation was leading to strained relations with local communities.

The Mara Conservancy has met with local elders, but each time one of their animals is killed with no money for compensation, the "tension mounts", Mr Deed explained.

"It may be only a matter of time until rangers won't be so lucky in stopping cattle owners from taking their own measures to protect cattle," he added.

Slow recovery

Cuts in electricity are also making the job of rangers increasingly dangerous. Part of their job involves catching armed cattle rustlers who often make their escape through the Mara Triangle.

But the area now lacks power for 11 hours out of every 24, meaning that communications are often down between the main station and patrol teams.

The dire funding situation has also forced the organisation to stop night patrols.

Poachers were already profiting from the situation, said Mr Deed: groups of men had been seen using torches to hunt Thomson Gazelles at night.

Last month, the rangers have caught five poachers, including three men who killed a hippo for its meat.

Even though the worst of the violence in Kenya has subsided, Mr Deed said it would take time for the tourist trade to pick up again.

For now, he explained, the organisation was operating only on small donations from individuals across the world.




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