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Africa: Blueprint for survival, part 1. Breaking the drought of ideas. One man's battle against desert encroachment

THE tall, lean figure of Hugh Lamprey, in khaki shirt and shorts, climbed into the pilot's seat of a tiny, 23-year-old, one-engine Cessna plane to fly off the top of a mountain. We careered faster and faster downhill on a strip of grass toward a precipice. Lifting off what seemed like inches from the edge, Dr. Lamprey glanced down at rocks hundreds of feet below and then at me.

``Passengers,'' he said laconically, ``always like that part.''

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For days at a time Hugh Lamprey flies in and out of similar makeshift airstrips across the arid north of Kenya: high, low, short, sandy, rocky airstrips almost invisible from the air.

He cooks his own meals, sleeps in the open outside wooden sheds, often only a short distance away from roaring lions, and nurses his high-winged plane over mountains at 115 miles an hour. To survey camels, sheep, and goats, he flies at 400 feet 12 hours a day for a week or more.

For the last eight years the mission of this erect, kindly man with his impeccable British accent and manners has been to solve the challenges of desert encroachment -- to understand what makes the desert spread, what kinds of plants can grow on it, how many head of livestock it can carry, where water lies, how local tribes live.

He and his colleagues in a UNESCO arid-lands project (largely financed by West Germany) have put together one of the most complete management studies ever done on desert conditions. They believe it applies to other African deserts as well: to Ethiopia and Somalia, to Sudan, and to the other countries of the Sahel to the west.

Among their findings: Famine relief is concentrating the formerly nomadic Rendille tribe around two centers, and their animals are eating and trampling large areas into sand. Fast population growth means more animals -- and more trampling. Every effort should be made, the researchers say, at least to move the herds around for grazing.

They show just how many animals can live on a given area, what can be planted there, how water holes should be spread out to leave plenty of grazing room in between. They also show how tribesmen should be taught, slowly and patiently, to thin their herds and to leave certain areas free from grazing for lengthy periods to let grasses, shrubs, and flat-topped acacia trees put on growth.

The ideas are widely praised as ways to fight the desert. But so far the Kenyan government has done little to use them.

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One urgent need is for the government to provide security to the east, where the Rendille are so afraid of roaming Somali bandits called shiftas, armed with automatic rifles, that the Rendille refuse to take their herds there.

Yet the quiet, low-key Dr. Lamprey, whose boyhood ambition was to be a game warden, and who served for years as director of research in Tanzania's national parks, continues to hope.

``Reversing desert encroachment cannot happen overnight,'' he says philosophically. ``It takes decades. Our job is research and education -- in part, to teach the Rendille that the degradation they see in the land is simply not irreversible, or God's will.''

Lamprey's detailed knowledge of flora and fauna and his endless absorption in all aspects of the land reveal his long career as a conservationist and woodland specialist.

Three times a month he flies the ancient UNESCO Cessna north for two hours and 15 minutes to project headquarters at remote Mt. Marsabit.

Then it's off on 20-minute, 115-m.p.h. hops to tiny outlying collections of corrugated-iron shacks -- bumps on the face of the desert -- where field research is carried out across almost 9,000 square miles (5.7 million acres).

During five days I spent with him, we taxied right up a small stony hill to park outside the hut that serves as his local office at the Rendille tribal village of Kargi.

At minuscule Olturot, where the grazing habits of 130 camels, 650 sheep and goats, and 100 cattle are studied, we slept on camp beds in the open, keeping alert for lions attracted by the livestock. The shower was a water-filled bag hung from a nail outside his office: a hut no bigger than a garden shed.

Political action in Africa is, alas, as slow as Lamprey's droning Cessna. Translating his and others' findings and ideas into programs takes time, money, and a large measure of political will.

Lamprey remains one of those people in Africa and across the third world who have devoted their lives to laying the research groundwork for future action.

To other eyes, the desert below the plane is bleak and lifeless. To Hugh Lamprey, it is an open-air laboratory. Properly managed, with strong political leadership, this desert could eventually bloom, he believes -- or at least be self-sustaining, even in drought.

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