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Commercialism may be the way to save African wildlife

One of Africa's foremost conservationists suggests setting up an African cartel for exporting animal skins and ivory. Another suggests setting up wildlife ranches for meat. Still another urges thinking about rare species purely in terms of the tourist dollars they bring.

Have these conservationists sold out? Actually, they represent a growing school of scientists who say that commercialism may be the best way to preserve Africa's species.

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Africans ''should exploit every last nickel'' from wildlife, writes Dr. Norman Myers, a leading proponent of the economic approach to conservation. ''If it pays its own way, some of it will survive. You either use wildlife or you lose it.''

As Dr. Myers and other conservationists explain it, the idea behind this controversial approach is to link wildlife and local economies so tightly that governments and local people have a stake in preservation. That means using African wildlife for food and artifacts, and to draw tourists. Seen this way, wildlife would become a commodity increasingly worth saving.

Critics have decried this approach as being overly commercial, but in several instances over the last decade it has counteracted some of wildlife's most serious threats. In Kenya, for example, Dr. David Hopcraft used gazelle ranching to fight habitat destruction caused by grazing cattle. Funded by the National Academy of Science, Dr. Hopcraft fenced off 300 acres of dry land and stocked half of it with cattle and half with gazelles.

After three years of cropping both populations for meat, he found that not only had the gazelles provided far more protein than the cattle, but that the area the gazelles lived in had at least 30 percent more ground cover than the cattle's side. Furthermore, the gazelles flourished at virtually no cost, because they were naturally adapted to the local environment.

Dr. Hopcraft has proposed setting up a 20,000-acre commercial gazelle ranch near Nairobi - for meat, habitat protection, and preserving the species.

In another part of Kenya, Dr. David Western of the New York Zoological Society found that the economic approach could also stop poaching. Kenya's Amboseli preserve had long been harassed by the native Masai tribesmen, who overgrazed their cattle on the preserve and killed wildlife that wandered onto their land. To alleviate the problem, Dr. Western suggested giving them a stake in the preserve. Soon the government gave the Masai grazing fees to compensate for damaged caused by wildlife. Tourist concessions were moved from the center of the park to the edges, providing the Masai with jobs and a chance to sell crafts. Since the program began, according to Dr. Western, ''poaching has virtually ceased.''

Critics acknowledge that the new approach can work, yet warn that the results may be fleeting. What happens to the animals, they ask, when economies change? Furthermore, says Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, vice-president for science at the World Wildlife Fund, the economic approach can ''distort the original purpose of the parks'' - namely, to preserve certain ecosystems without human tampering. Others add that without seeing an intrinsic value in wildlife itself, human beings can never show it adequate care.

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Yet supporters argue that the economic approach gets at the root of conservation: Money, after all, is why animals are killed. That holds true especially now, when rare-animal products are seen as a hedge against inflation. Elephant ivory, for example, now sells for about $40 a pound on the world market. Rare rhino horn - prized as dagger handles in oil-rich Yemen - sells for about $14,000 a pound. Leopard skin coats are reportedly the rage in Japan; wildlife experts say each five- to eight-skin coat sells for up to $100,000.

Thus, economic temptation makes poaching all but irresistible, the experts say, especially among the poorer people who often live around preserves. Always a steady local enterprise, poaching sometimes explodes into orgies of brutality, as, during the final months of Idi Amin in Uganda, soldiers slaughtered an estimated 30 percent of the large mammals in that country's Ruwenzori National Park.

Added to that pressure is that of Africa's rapidly increasing population - expected to double by the year 2000 - which gobbles up habitat at an unprecedented rate. It all spells danger for Africa's large mammals. Elephant populations are thus declining in every country in which they are found, according to a recent World Wildlife Fund report. Rhinos, so prized for their horns, are at alarmingly low levels where they once thrived.

Traditionally, the solution has been to put wildlife in parks, keeping the animals from humans' and harm's way. But despite stepped-up enforcement, illegal poaching persists. Moreover, the very act of enclosing wide-ranging animals can ruin their habitat. In Kenya's Tsavo National Park, for example, more than 6,000 elephants are thought to have perished after overgrazing the land to which they were confined.

Proponents of the economic approach thus argue that parks alone cannot work in a continent populated by nomadic people and animals, especially in areas where the people are so desperately poor. ''When you see 2 million wildebeest running cheek by jowl to starving people, something's not right,'' says Robert Smith, director of the Washington-based African Wildlife Leadership Federation.

Certainly one of the more commercially successful approaches in linking wildlife with money takes place on the Londolozi game preserve run by John Varty , a South African. Once a dried-out grassland, the restored African bushveld is now a stopping point for international celebrities such as Cheryl Tiegs, Tina Turner, and the Bee Gees. Visitors there pay up to $100 a day to participate in photographic safaris.

They can also pay up to several thousand dollars to ''sponsor'' one of the elephants on the property - that is, have the right to name the animal and ensure that it's cared for. Mr. Varty says sportsmen also pay considerable sums to participate in occasional hunts. At the same time, local tribespeople have little need to poach, because Mr. Varty hires them as trackers and lets them take meat from the kill. Finally, an additional stream of money comes from a nonprofit fund he set up to receive conservationists' donations. That money generally goes to relocating threatened animals onto his land from other areas.

Lest this all seem too commercial, remember that by shuffling all this money Mr. Varty has restored hundreds of acres of habitat and saved hundreds of threatened animals. Does this mean he and others like him are true conservationists at heart? Well, yes, with certain provisions. ''Wildlife is a form of industry,'' says Varty, a stalwart supporter of the economic approach to conservation. ''I have to compete with any other industry for the best use of the land.''

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