"You are walking into the teeth of a wolf," a Ugandan politician once told a Catholic missionary about to set off for Karamoja Province.

The politician was not referring to the current drought that is killing hundreds of Karamojong daily in northeastern Uganda but rather to what he felt was the nature of the people.

The real long-term problem for the Karamojong is not the famine but the attitude of most of their fellow Ugandans towards them. They are regarded as illiterate, savage people.

As a result, in the almost two decades of Ugandan independence no development plan has been set for the province, there are only five doctors for 350,000 people, only 9,000 children in school and virtually no roads or communications. For years it has simply been regarded as a land of exotic nomads who wore no clothes and preyed on each other's cattle.

Now the combined impact of the drought and burgeoning cross-border cattle raids is threatening the Karamojong way of life. The drought is killing them at the rate of hundreds daily and the disappearance of their cattle is destroying their society. They are changing from a proud independent people to a nation of beggars.

Cattle are central to the lives of the Karamojong, who originally entered the area from southern Ethiopia's Omo Valley about 1,000 years ago. Regarded as nearly human, the cattle provide the main source of protein for the people through their milk and blood, which is periodically drunk by cutting the neck vein.

In effect cattle are the granary for the Karamojong but they also represent "psychological security" for them, according to the Rev. Bruno Novelli, who has studied the people while serving at a Catholic mission here.

Cattle provide the basis of the social system. A man's status is determined by the size of his herd. A young wife can be worth between 50 and 100 head of cattle, said Novelli, who has written a Karamojong-English dictionary.

"The consider cattle almost like relatives," the priest said. "They never count their cattle when rounding them up at night: they recognize them like a mother would recognize her children."

Normally, the animals are only slaughtered for sacrificial purposes and not for satisfaction of hunger.

For centuries, two sub-tribes of the Karamojong, and the Dodoths and the Jias, raided each other's herds, but there was little impact on other Ugandans. There main weapons were spears and few persons were killed.

All that changed last year, however, with the ousting of dictator Idi Amin. Amin's soldiers threw open the armory at Moroto, the largest town in the province, and it is estimated that 12,000 weapons, including four artillery pieces and 2 million rounds of ammunition, were taken.

The result has been the escalation of intertribal skirmishes formerly limited to Karamoja Province. Now, there is large-scale international cattle rustling on the scale of the Wild West.

The feared "Karamojong raiders" are now made up of Amin soldiers and tribes coming from as far away as Somalia, southern Ethiopia and Sudan and western Kenya, as well as the Karamojong. Instead of a few dozen cattle changing hands, thousands are stolen in raids organized with military precision. The settled people of the area, mainly women and children left behind by the nomadic men, are frequently killed.

Many of the cattle, according to missionaries and relief workers, are sold into Kenya or to Tanzanian troops still in Uganda following their overthrow of Amin. Often the payment is more arms and ammunition, further escalating the fighting.

The number of cattle rustled would qualify for a Hollywood epic. One relief worker temporarily detained by the raiders said he counted 4,000 head of cattle being driven past his place of captivity in one day.

There is a report, most likely exaggerated, of 30,000 cattle being taken in one raid in northern Karamoja.

In Kaabong, near the Kenyan border, raiders recently blocked off the town, fired tracer bulets to isolate the Army barracks, moved in and took 300 cattle.

That kind of military operation, said Novelli, is hardly a trademark of the Karamojong and shows the influence of outside parties. Reportedly two large "warehouse" areas, called awis in the province are where the cattle and other stolen goods are kept for eventual marketing.

Nevertheless, other Ugandans tend to blame all raids in their territories on the Karamojong who dare not venture westward into the provinces dominated by two hostile tribes, the Acholi and Langi.

A reporter and a photographer came upon a retaliatory raid near the town of Abim, just a few miles from the Langi province border. Langi militia, who are basically self-appointed vigilantes, had attacked a Karamojong village and were about to take away four residents when the police showed up.

The arrival of the police, even though outgunned by the militia, probably saved the lives of the Karamojong. Even so the militia had looted the people's huts, carting away bicycles, mattresses, sacks of clothing, and a radio.

The militia frequently try to intercept food relief supplies routed to the starving Karamojong, who often walk as far as 40 miles to missions to get food.

In Abim, there have been harsh counterattacks on the Karamojong at the government hospital where scores of starving people beg daily for food. The hospital is run by an Italian, Pierre Luigi Rossanigo, 31, the only doctor in northern Karamoja.

In the best of times, people must walk for days to get to the hospital, but now they are hardly coming at all -- for very good reasons.

Last month, Rossanigo said, five patients including a baby and an old man, were shot dead in the hospital, simply because they were Karamojong.

Dr. Rossanigo blamed the killings on Tanzanian soldiers, who he said possibly were avenging an earlier battle.

Then, one week later, five Karamojong members of the maintenance staff were kidnaped and killed by Acholis.

Rossanigo, who originally went to the Abim hospital as an alternative to service in the Italian Army, said at one time 35 to 44 patients in a ward were gunshot cases.

He said that he had seen much more war than he ever would have in the Italian Army. Poorly trained troops guarding the hospital often fired right past or over his house into the bush if they hear a strange noise.

Although the doctor has satisfied Italy's military requirement, he signed up for a second tour, explaining: "They didn't have a doctor and would have had to close the hospital if I hadn't come back. It'd be a pity to close such a hospital," the only one for 125 miles.