There is a growing conflict between people and wild animals in this East African country that conservationists say poses a serious threat to the survival of wildlife.

Over the past 20 years, aerial surveys show, wildlife has been disappearing steadily as the human population expands and farmers encroach on lands that were once wild. At the same time, small-scale poaching for meat by impoverished people has also increased, conservationists say.Although Kenya sets aside 8 percent of its land for national parks, the protected areas are not large enough to accommodate the animals' migration.

Since 1977, when hunting was made illegal here, at least 40 percent of the range animals have disappeared from Kenya's savannahs, and they are continuing to disappear at a rate of 2 percent to 3 percent a year, according to an analysis of government surveys.

For some species - the Thomson's gazelle, the waterbuck, the greater kudu, the oryx and the elephant - the declines have been steeper, far above 50 percent.

Debate is raging over how to reverse the trend.

One camp, led by the current director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, David Western, wants to make wildlife profitable for local people and give them a reason to protect the animals.

Another, led by former head of the wildlife service, Richard Leakey, argues that Kenya should instead fence off wild lands, more strictly enforce anti-poaching laws and, in essence, give up on trying to stop the decline of wildlife elsewhere.

Ranchers argue that they have the right to use the wildlife on their lands, so they will have a financial interest in maintaining them. Under current Kenyan law, the state owns all wildlife. Giving landowners custody would allow profitable ventures such as sport hunting and exporting animals to zoos and game reserves.

For Kenya the stakes are extremely high. The country's beauty and picturesque wildlife are among its few natural resources. Tourists spend about $400 million a year, the largest single earner of foreign exchange. But most of those earnings never find their way to small farmers who must tolerate the destruction wild animals cause on their lands.