NYAGATARE, Rwanda -- "On this road, wildlife is a priority," reads a huge billboard at the entrance of Akagera National Park. But not a single zebra or gazelle is to be seen on the paved road that winds for miles along the park border to the rolling savanna HTC -- just two cranes hiding behind a bush.
Instead, the hills and plains are dotted with long-horned cattle -- hundreds of thousands inching across the tawny grass at the prodding of dogs and boys with sticks.
The cattle herds have arrived from Uganda in recent months with their owners, ethnic Tutsi who have lived in exile since fleeing massacres in Rwanda in 1959. With arable land at a premium, the government had little choice but to let them settle here, on the arid savanna bordering the 925-square-mile park.
If it looks like an idyllic grazing area now, the area will soon bear all the signs of a catastrophe, Western relief officials warn.
As the influx has gathered momentum in the past month, the herds have advanced 15 to 20 miles into the park, threatening its fragile ecosystem and pushing many of the wild animals into Tanzania.
Alternating among swamp, savanna, forest, valleys and hills, Akagera National Park's remarkable topography has fed a diverse ecosystem of wildlife, from lions and leopards to gazelles, giraffes, elephants and birds.
More than 250,000 people and 700,000 head of cattle are now living in the Domaine de Chasse, a 130-square-mile hunting area bordering the park. Dry and infertile, this land can support only one-tenth of the present cattle population, wildlife officials say.
Already it is infested with tse-tse flies, hoof and mouth disease and many other threats to the animals.
And when the rains end next month, the water holes and the savanna will dry up, and the cattle will begin dying, Rwandan government and relief officials say.
There are no easy solutions. No arable land is available for these Rwandans, and the government lacks the money to provide the basic services to support them here.
The Rwandans do not want to go back to Uganda, and the Ugandan government does not want them.
One idea would be to start slaughtering the cattle now and sell the meat. But there are no slaughterhouses here in Nyagatare, and no way to transport the meat.
In any case, the herders are pastoralists whose culture is based on their cattle, and they are resisting efforts to cull their herds.
"Eventually the cows will be dying in thousands," said Chris Kille Kigezo, a Rwandan field assistant for the World Food Program whose own family fled to Uganda in 1959. "Here everything is seen in cows. A man would rather have five sick cows than three healthy ones. Cows are the center of life."
The land shortage is one of the biggest problems facing Rwanda's fledgling government. For decades, the struggle for what little arable land is available has contributed to ethnic hatred between the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi.
Reintegrating the more than 1 million Tutsi who fled to Burundi, Uganda and Zaire in 1959 and have now returned with about 2 million Hutu who fled the advancing Tutsi rebel army last summer is the immediate challenge for the government.
With one-seventh of Rwanda's territory consisting of national parkland, the government has begun to resettle some returnees in forests previously used by the military and in the Akagera hunting area.
The government acknowledges that the influx threatens the land and wildlife but says that any delay in resettling people will only aggravate tensions. Ultimately, they say, the park might well be a necessary victim.
"We are saying this is a mother to all the problems," said Christine Umutoni, the deputy minister of rehabilitation and reintegration. "It is very urgent to resolve if we are to avoid other social clashes.
"Our objective is not to destroy the park, but to resettle people, we might be forced to use the park."
The Rwandan government has begun a campaign to persuade the pastoralists to cull their herds in exchange for larger plots of land. If there was a slaughterhouse and a way to transport frozen beef, that might prove a success.
The rest of Rwanda has hardly any cattle, and the government is thinking about using some of the beef to feed the army.