Although it’s a prominent part of the country’s tourist portfolio, Amboseli has been at the centre of some controversy over the past decade. In 2005 then President Kibaki attempted to downgrade it from a national park to a national reserve, which would have transferred its administration from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to local authorities. Supporters claim that the move would rightfully return control of the land to the local community, although conservation bodies argue that it could be the beginning of the end for Amboseli. More than that, they fear that degazetting national parks could undermine Kenya’s whole wildlife preservation system. Kenya’s High Court ruled the move illegal in 2011, but that hasn’t put an end to questions over the park’s future.
In October 2011, Tourism Minister Najib Balala threatened to close Amboseli for three years to allow the park to recover from drought (much of the park is a dustbowl in the dry season and thousands of animals died during the 2009 drought), over-exploitation by tourism and a massive elephant population; Amboseli’s elephant population is now believed to be over 1200, almost double the figures of a decade ago. The vegetation here used to be much denser, but rising salinity, damage by elephants and irresponsible behaviour with safari vehicles has caused terrible erosion.
If you come for a short visit during a year of good rains, you may wonder what all of the fuss is about. But increasing pressures from a growing Maasai population and their epic herds of livestock surrounding the park – it is not uncommon to see the Maasai and their herds within the park – are signposts to a potentially troubling future.
A moratorium on new tourist developments is a more likely outcome than closing the park, but clouds continue to gather around Amboseli’s future as a sustainable national park.