THE poachers struck again last week, wiping out a group of white rhinos in Kenya's Meru National Park. Rangers guarding the animals were overwhelmed by the bandits. Kenya itself has to a degree been overwhelmed by the poachers, whose main target, elephants, are being slaughtered at the rate of 150 a week. Some put the Kenyan elephant population as low as 11,000, down from more than 140,000 a decade ago. The killers are kept in business by a lucrative market for rhino horn and ivory. International sanctions against that trade exist and ought to be more diligently enforced.
Developing countries like Kenya have many pressing needs - jobs, health care, and education. Wildlife conservation hasn't always come first. It has sometimes been seen as a kind of luxury.
But that's changing. Informed Africans have come to recognize that the continent's biological richness is one of its greatest assets. Tourism tied to wildlife is Kenya's No. 2 earner of foreign exchange. President Daniel arap Moi has declared war on the poachers, ordering them to be shot on sight. He has also talked of using troops to help protect the animals.
These policies could bring their own kind of excesses, and should be applied with caution. But the commitment they imply is welcome.
Another problem that has to be tackled is corruption among officials who collude with the poachers. But it's equally important to recognize that many officials are honestly devoting their energies and resources to fighting the poaching scourge. They shouldn't be tarred with broad charges of corruption.
The Meru incident indicates the poachers' eagerness to launch their attacks before the government gears up its own offensive. It's small consolation, but worth noting, that the six rhinos destroyed were an imported, nonbreeding group. Their loss represented more rhinos than were lost all of last year, indicating some success in protecting rhinos.
What happened should only intensify efforts to preserve one of Africa's, and the world's, great natural treasures.