for National Geographic News
As a young man, David Western spent four years herding cattle and goats with red-robed Masai tribesmen in the Kenyan bush. There, he found something remarkable.
While cattle grazing is believed to lead to deforestation and the destruction of wildlife, Western learned what the Masai already knew: his cattle fertilized the land and actually improved its diversity.
The experience shaped Western's outlook on conservation. He increasingly believed humans (and their farming activities) and wild animals (and their habitat) could co-exist and benefit from each other. Western became a leading advocate for involving local communities in conservation efforts.
His philosophy has pitted him against those who have argued that wildlife must be protected from humans. Integration or separation? How best to promote environmental diversity? It's a classic conservationist dilemma.
In Kenya, Western, a shy academic, appears to have emerged a victor. As a director of the Kenya Wildlife Service in the 1990s, he channeled resources away from anti-poaching and policing activities and into efforts supporting wildlife associations in communities bordering the national parks.
In recent years, Kenya's wildlife has rebounded. The elephant population, at an all-time low of 19,000 in 1989, is now close to 30,000. Kenya's mushrooming eco-tourism business, which seeks to give local communities economic incentives to save wildlife, suggests a turn toward the integrationist school of thought.
"I got into this because I like wildlife," Western said over chicken pie recently at the Carnivore Restaurant on the outskirts of Nairobi National Park. "But I have no interest in saving wildlife at the expense of human development."
Western, a Kenyan citizen, is the son of British settlers, and grew up in Tanzania. He teaches "Conservation and the Human Predicament" at the University of California in San Diego. He's a senior conservationist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City and helped found the private Africa Conservation Center in Nairobi.
Together with photographer Ray Turner, Western recently embarked on a project, funded by the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, to replicate photographs of Kenya's landscape taken 80 to 100 years ago. Such "repeat photography" is considered an easy and effective tool for reconstructing environmental change.
Western has already made important discoveries. Similar to what has happened in the United States, much of Kenya's grasslands has turned into thick shrub. On the other hand, as more people have acquired land titles, they have helped curb deforestation by planting trees and terracing their farms.
"It's a surprising conclusion," said Western. "More people, less erosion."
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