By Salisha Chandra @salisha_ww (MD, KUAPO TRUST) Text First Published in Mazingira Yetu – October 2016 Edition
Today, in Kenya, we stand at a crossroads. One path could lead us to our ultimate destruction as we move away from our natural instincts of living with and conserving wild life and wild spaces; the other could see Kenya continue to lead from the front as we learn and show the world how a win-win situation can be attained between development and the environment. Bang smack in the middle of it all is the first park to be gazetted in East Africa – the world-renowned Nairobi National Park (NNP).
Nairobi National Park became an officially protected area in 1946, when Maasai pastoralists agreed to move off these lands so that they could be used solely for conservation. Today NNP remains the only park in a capital city attracting in excess of 100,000 visitors annually and generating more than Kshs 45,000,000 per year. It’s home to the endangered Black Rhino and another 100 odd mammalian species, over 400 bird species and endemic plants that are only found within the park confines. The park is an education hub for students from all over the country as well. But over and above these are the ecosystem services that the park provides for Nairobi city and its environs – it is a carbon sink that sucks in the noxious fumes from our industrial area and turns it into oxygen. NNP also acts as a water purifier for one of our key rivers and it is also a breeding-site for the white-backed vultures – nature’s own recycling machines.
At only 117 sq. kms, NNP is one of the smallest parks in Kenya but its size belies its importance. It is a core area in a larger ecosystem and one that once supported the second largest annual migration of large herbivores. In the past, wildlife would disperse up to Kilimambogo (Ol Donyo Sabuk National Park) in the north, Amboseli in the south, Narok in the west and Machakos in the East.
But for many years now, Nairobi National Park has been facing an onslaught. An onslaught from development. From growing population pressures to land subdivision, the advent of flower farms and gypsum quarries, development has slowly but surely led to these corridors becoming blocked. The wildlife around NNP has decreased more than 70% since the early 70’s, so the core protected area – the park itself – has become even more important.
However, since 2014, NNP has had to contend with a new and growing threat – large-scale infrastructure development. It started with pieces being hived off for the Southern Bypass and Phase 1 of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). Both of these developments could have been re-routed to leave the park un-touched but through impunity and corruption of due-process, NNP had to give up close to 350 acres of her land. So when the bombshell dropped that KWS had nominally approved a route that would cut through the centre of the park, it sent a tremor through conservationists and pastoralist community members living adjacent to NNP. And our reaction was unprecedented – a cry to save our park echoing from the depths of our hearts.
On September 13, 2016 we learnt that the modified-savannah route (as it is being dubbed) will cut right through the middle of the park. To our shock, we also learned that this route had been approved by KWS. The KRC have proposed several supposed mitigation measures to lessen the impact on Nairobi National Park including having the SGR raised on average 18 meters above ground and a phased construction process that would see it take 18 months to complete. But what we are all wondering is why does the SGR have to go through the park, when there are other route options available? Why have KRC and KWS not thought about the adverse and ill effects of the actual construction process. There was a spate of increased human-wildlife conflict at the time when the southern bypass works were going on – we cannot begin to imagine what that would mean for 18 months of construction right through the centre of the park. Wouldn’t the park be well and truly be dead by the end? The cynics amongst us say that actually may be that is the end game here; that behind all of this is a ploy to grab this premium land for development…
It is hard to know or even try to understand ulterior motives. As conservationists, we are not opposed to the SGR in principle – we all want a functioning cargo rail service in our country. But we do not want it at the expense of our heritage, our health and our environment. Kenya has the chance to set the right precedent – that, in fact, there can be a win-win situation for both development and environment. One does not have to lose for the other to win. Our vote goes not only to NNP but also to SGR.