If pieces of land could speak, that’s the question the 155 sq. mile Amboseli National Game Reserve in Kenya might be asking itself. The Game Reserve was, until earlier this month, a National Park — it was run by national authorities. President Kibaki, breaking half a dozen laws and procedures, degazetted Amboseli. He downgraded it to a Game Reserve, and gave control and management of it to the Maasai people who live in the area. The Maasai have no training or background in wilderness management or infrastructure maintenance.Amboseli is dead gorgeous. It has vast golden plains and views of snow-capped Mt. Kilimanjaro across the border in Tanzania, not to mention huge herds of tusked elephants that enjoy the views while grazing on the plains. The Park has been a top tourist attraction for a country that needs all the camera-toting, funny-hat-wearing, dollar-spending tourists it can get.

The Presidential move is many things, but it is not inexplicable. Kibaki is trying hard to win votes in the upcoming referendum for the Wako draft of the Constitution, which would give vastly enhanced powers to — who else? — the President. The degazetting of Amboseli is a political give-away to the Maasai, a group whose support Kibaki needs.

And already, the move has unleashed demands for local control of protected lands from other tribes and groups. To many, control means getting a bigger share of the tourist dollars that are collected through entrance fees. The fact that tourism is a hard way to earn money, requiring as it does managing wildlife, dealing with demanding people, and maintaining facilities, is easy enough to ignore.

The move has been criticized in Kenya, but the tide of referendum politics is too strong to be stopped. Politics wins again. What the elephants (and the country) will lose remains to be seen.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.