Published: February 2006

Online Extra

Maasai Youths Dance

Playing Politics Over Amboseli

By Karen E. Lange
National Geographic Senior Writer
Photograph by Randy Olson

The question of who owns Amboseli, one of Kenya's most popular and lucrative national parks, will go before a court February 7, 2006. Kenya's High Court—the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court—will set a date to hear arguments over whether President Mwai Kibaki acted within the law last September when he changed Amboseli's status from a national park to a less-protected national reserve. The move gave Amboseli to the Olkejuado County Council, which represents the Maasai people in a large area south of Nairobi that includes those living around Amboseli.

Conservationists immediately challenged Kibaki's action, arguing that it was made without the required 60-day public notice and approval by parliament. In response to the challenge, the High Court suspended the change in Amboseli's status until the justices can issue a ruling on its legality.

The ruling, however, was delayed in late November when Kibaki dismissed almost his entire government—including the minister of tourism and wildlife—after the proposed constitution he backed was rejected by more than half of the voters. Members of Kibaki's own cabinet split with him over the constitution and urged Kenyans to vote against it.

If the High Court rules the change in Amboseli's status was illegal—widely expected as it seemingly violates Kenya's Wildlife Act—Kibaki may still try to turn the park over to the Olkejuado County Council by following due process of the law. But he may just abandon the plan. Some observers believe he only downgraded Amboseli to gain Maasai votes for the proposed constitution. Now that the constitution has been rejected, the president may see no reason to change the park's status.

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