NAIROBI, KENYA -- Last spring, nine Arab sheiks jetted to Kenya for a holiday. They made camp on the grassy plains outside the Masai Mara national reserve, one of the world's great wildlife parks. Then they proceeded to gun down more than 200 wild animals, among them lion, water buffalo and cheetah.
Game hunting has been outlawed in Kenya for more than a decade, but the illegal carnage was not the worst of it.
The poachers' tour guide, it turned out, was a senior official in the government department charged with protecting the animals. Other officials in the same department had provided the sheiks with bogus hunting licenses and even loaned them a vehicle.
The sheiks' hunting spree, widely reported here, focused outrage on the lamentable state of Kenya's once-envied wildlife management system. It also strengthened the case of conservationists and a few government officials who for years have been warning that Kenya's game parks -- cornerstone of the country's lucrative tourism industry -- are in trouble.
"The parks are suffering from terrible neglect," said a senior representative of one of the half-dozen international wildlife organizations operating here, speaking on condition that he not be identified.
Perez Olindo, a Kenyan recently appointed by President Daniel arap Moi to put the parks back on track, put it more succinctly. Kenya, he warned, is in danger of "killing the goose that lays the golden egg."
Kenya is partly a victim of its own success. Last year, tourism surpassed coffee as the number one industry, bringing in more than $300 million, according to the government. Most of that money came from the hundreds of thousands of tourists who paid to view one of the last great populations of wildlife on earth.
Unlike its neighbors -- Tanzania, with struggling tourist facilities, and Uganda, whose once-magnificent system of parks has been battered by decades of civil war -- Kenya boasts a sophisticated tourism industry. Visitors' choices range from unspoiled wilderness areas to luxurious tented camps that offer four-course meals and vintage wines.
While Kenya has come to rely on the revenues that the parks generate, the government has been careless about keeping them up.
"A great deal of the problem is due to gross underfunding," said a conservationist who has worked in Kenya for more than two decades.
Throughout the system, the infrastructure is fraying. Park vehicles, critical for stopping poachers, have fallen into disrepair.
"This is one of the main problems with the whole system -- masses of broken vehicles," said one conservation consultant. "You go to see the maintenance areas, and it's just rows and rows of junk."
Kenya has many spectacular smaller parks, but poorly maintained roads make them unattractive to tourists. As a result, hordes of visitors swamp the handful of better known parks.
In Masai Mara, minibuses and Land Rovers jostle one another for glimpses of wildlife. One luxury tour operator gloomily described the crush as "10,000 people looking at a poor old lion so bored you'd have to drive right over him to get him to look up."
In many of the parks, tour bus operators routinely violate prohibitions against off-road driving. In Tsavo East and West national parks, elephant poaching is rampant. It is believed to have reduced the elephant population by as much as two-thirds in the past decade.
"I think we have unique resources which are faced with sometimes staggering problems," said Olindo, the new director of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department. "But this government has now sent a very clear signal, and we have the political will and understanding to solve them. You listen to our president. He is totally convinced."
Others said they are more pessimistic.
"In the next five to 10 years, the survival of this resource will depend on having it properly funded," said a prominent conservationist, who declined to be quoted by name, fearing that public criticism might dampen official enthusiasm for reform.
Until the mid-1970s, the parks were run by a board of trustees that functioned more or less outside the government. Its staff was small, efficient and considered to be among the best in Africa.
In 1976, however, the parks system was folded into the national government. Within a year, conservationists say, red tape and corruption pushed many experienced game wardens and administrators out of the wildlife department.
The change also meant that gate receipts and other revenue earned by the parks, which had been used for maintenance and conservation work, were turned in to the central treasury. Only a small fraction of those receipts came back.
It became almost impossible for wildlife managers to fire incompetent or dishonest employees. Gate receipts were routinely embezzled. Conservationists said that senior Kenyan officials, relying on cronies in the wildlife department, grazed their own herds of cattle in restricted game-park areas. All of this coincided with a surge in tourism.
"The boom caught us unaware, with no people and no funding in place," said David Western, a conservationist who works closely with the Kenya parks system. "It's going to be an enormous job to catch up, but there's a very great effort now to do so."
Last year President Moi, who exercises near absolute political and police power in this country, declared his personal interest in protecting wildlife.
Prompted by conservationists, Moi removed the head of the wildlife department (who operated a safari tour company on the side) and replaced him with Olindo, a respected wildlife manager. Moi also replaced the Cabinet minister responsible for the parks.
Last month, Olindo fired seven senior parks officials, including those implicated in the sheiks' hunting expedition, and placed a dozen others under investigation. He said a new code of discipline will soon make wardens and rangers personally accountable for their firearms, ammunition and vehicles.
The department also has imposed a moratorium on new lodge construction while previously approved projects are reexamined. It is a delicate task because several senior government officials have money invested in the safari business.
Kenya's game parks face problems that cannot be solved simply by routing corruption or improving management.
The country has too little arable land and too many people. Only about 17 percent of the country is suitable for farming and nearly all of that is now under cultivation. With one of the world's highest population growth rates, there is mounting pressure in Kenya to plant crops or run cattle on the open range that abuts most game parks.
If that happens, migration routes for game will disappear and the parks could become isolated pockets of wildlife.
Conservationists make a convincing argument that wildlife tourism is a far more profitable use for marginal lands than farming or ranching. But the wildlife department here has lacked the clout and the technical knowledge to argue its case effectively. In Kenya, as in many African countries, conservation and wildlife management tend to be dismissed as white men's hobbies.
"We need a resource economist who can go toe to toe with the agriculture people and say that one dollar spent on the parks will yield 'x' number of dollars," said Western.
Kenya's economy, squeezed by falling prices for coffee and tea and by a massive foreign debt, can ill afford to squander what has proved to be its most dependable source of hard currency.
"We can't compete in so many spheres with so much of the Third World -- not in agriculture or light industry, but we do have one glittering resource," said one tour operator. "It's renewable and there's no competition -- nobody's got anything that touches this. It's just a question of this country's realizing it."