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By Allegresse Sasse
COTONOU (Reuters) - Benin is hiring scores of extra park rangers and bringing in conservation scientists to rehabilitate a part of West Africa's largest wildlife reserve, which contains big cats and thousands of elephants that have largely died out elsewhere in the region.
The W-Arli-Pendjari (WAP) complex is the region's biggest remaining expanse of savannah, covering more than 30,000 sq km of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.
The tiny nation has partnered with NGO African Parks for the 10-year project centred on the 4,800 sq km Pendjari National Park, part of WAP and seen as the most viable tourist hub for the area, officials involved told Reuters on Thursday.
The complex contains by far the largest elephant population in the region, several thousand, and is thought to house most of the few hundred remaining West African lions, as well as some cheetahs and hippos.
As with other parks in Africa, they face grave threats from poachers and encroachment by a surging human population.
"Pendjari is an opportunity for Benin and the region," Jose Pliya, director of Benin's national tourism agency, told Reuters by telephone. "This partnership ... will help us make it a sustainable tourism destination (and) a lever for development and employment for the Beninoise."
But boosting ecotourism faces challenges, not least because jihadists are thought to have infiltrated parts of the wider reserve. France, former colonial master of the three nations that straddle the park, has advised it citizens against all travel to the Burkina Faso side of the expanse.
A tourism ministry spokeswoman, when asked about the jihadist threat, said only that Benin had never been attacked and "security measures are being put in place," to prevent one.
To better police the park, the project will recruit 10 officers or specialists, train 90 guards, set up a satellite communications network and put a 190 km fence around it, a joint statement from African Parks and Benin said.
A spokesman for the presidency said there were as of yet no plans to work with Benin's neighbours, although experts say cross border cooperation is key to conserving large wildernesses.
"Regional cooperation always makes sense (for) ... better management of the larger landscape and the species that move within it," African Parks spokeswoman Fran Read said in an emailed response to questions.
"But equally ... Pendjari National Park is a sufficiently large ecosystem to successfully conserve all its key species."
(Writing and additional reporting by Tim Cocks in Dakar, editing by Pritha Sarkar)