MAASAI MARA, Kenya (Reuters) - A rocky cliff overlooking the Maasai Mara Game Reserve marks a new front line in a conflict between people and wildlife that threatens the revival of Kenya's $1 billion tourism industry.
Riots and ethnic violence that exploded after a disputed December 27 vote scared away almost all the foreign holidaymakers who had made the sector the top earner for east Africa's biggest economy.
The disappearance of tourist dollars has disturbed the delicate balance between predators in the reserve and the Maasai tribesmen living next to it, by causing the breakdown of a compensation scheme meant to stop them hunting lions.
And this could have long-term effects.
A few tourists have begun to return to Kenya, but numbers are tiny and the political uncertainty is far from resolved.
This week, opposition supporters took to the streets again to vent their anger at a deadlock over forming a power-sharing cabinet, a key element of a deal to end the violence that claimed at least 1,200 lives after President Mwai Kibaki's re-election.
Pictures of police firing tear gas at protesters and tires burning in the streets of Nairobi's largest slum made headlines again, threatening to further damage the country's image abroad.
The Maasai of the Oloololo Escarpment, that looms over the reserve, have been hit hard, with only a trickle of visitors now coming to the park. It used to attract about 300,000 a year.
"We used the benefits we got from tourism to build schools and pay tuition fees," said Maasai elder Manie Kipas, wrapped in a traditional checked red robe, in Enkereri, a "cultural village" near the escarpment.
Kipas and a dozen other elders had just held a crisis meeting with a ranger from the Mara Conservancy, the non-profit organization that manages the west of the reserve.
Gate receipts have plummeted 80 percent and the Mara Conservancy is facing a monthly shortfall of at least $50,000.
This means it is unable to pay the Maasai when predators kill valuable livestock. Some Maasai are now vowing to hunt down the big cats stalking their animals, even though many realize this would ultimately hit their earnings.
"It's very important that we live alongside the animals," said Kipas.
The Maasai Mara reserve, an expanse of savannah grassland with some of Africa's best game viewing, covers 1,500 sq km (580 sq miles) and is held in trust by the government for the indigenous Maasai, a semi-nomadic, cattle-herding community.
Most of Kenya's post-election violence has been in isolated places, far from where tourists stay. But several local people were hacked or clubbed to death in Narok, a gateway to the reserve, during attacks involving Maasai tribesmen.
Last year, Kenya earned more than $1 billion from tourism for the first time. Most lodges in the Mara had already penciled in 90 percent bookings for much of the first six months of 2008. Less than a third of rooms are filled.
Riton Ole Naigero, 60, has lost more animals recently than anyone in the area: seven cows and three donkeys that would once have been worth more than $1,500 from the compensation scheme.
He lives with other Maasai high on the escarpment, where zebras, gazelles and other animals come to graze in the rainy season. They mingle with domestic cattle, and at night lions and leopards follow them up and kill both.
"I am asking the world to help the Conservancy so that it can help us locals deal with the problem," Naigero told Reuters through a translator, pinching snuff from a plastic wrap as he sat on a stool near his now-empty thorn bush enclosure.
As well as suspending the compensation scheme, the Conservancy has had to cut back on anti-poaching patrols since January, and halt work on various improvements around the park.
"We're absolutely on our last legs," said staff member Will Deed. "The rangers we have are just working on trust that they're going to get paid."
Around a quarter of a million people were uprooted by the ethnic violence, and tens of thousands are still homeless. This has driven up demand for cheap "bush meat" like hippo and buffalo, found in the Maasai Mara.
Poachers sneak into the reserve after dark, aware that the authorities have had to stop more expensive night patrols.
Leading a squad of rangers through thickets where poachers have been known to hide, Senior Sergeant John Olarikoni, 44, cocks his rifle and keeps an eye out for dangerous animals.
His men know poachers might be hidden in the vast expanse of waving golden grass and flat-topped acacia trees. A Reuters reporter finds a wire snare within minutes.
"We're struggling to make sure we arrest (the poachers)," said Olarikoni, sitting next to a pile of animal skulls at his Ngiro-Are base camp in "Cobra Corner," the isolated western extremity of the park.
"If we don't, they'll kill and finish all the animals."
It can be a very dangerous task. While the poachers normally only carry spears, gangs of cattle rustlers armed with assault rifles sometimes cross through the reserve from Tanzania to raid livestock on the escarpment.
Pursuing those thieves and helping the Maasai recover their cows had been an effective, if perilous, way for the rangers to encourage the Maasai to support conservation and tourism.
Those kinds of operations are also now in jeopardy.
"We have to mount a campaign to persuade people that this country is perfectly safe again," said Brian Heath, head of the Mara Conservancy. "There's no risk to tourists, and the national parks and game reserves are as secure a place as you can go."
But the breakdown in political talks this week -- and return of violent protests -- makes that a hard story to sell.
Heath's organization has won some support from Kenyan firms and raised about $85,000 with online appeals including a blog by a veteran ranger (here).
But it remains in financial crisis, with potentially dire consequences for relations between locals and wildlife, and for tourism and the long-term health of the Kenyan economy.
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)
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