The Nairobi National Park is Kenya’s oldest and only wildlife park in a capital city. The 117 km2 wilderness has an amazing biological diversity with more than 100 free-roaming mammal species. There are iconic animals such as lions, leopards, cheetahs, the endangered black rhino, buffalo, giraffe and a huge variety of birds. Elephants are the only megafauna absent from the park as it is not big enough to accommodate their long-distance ranging habits.
In 2015, the Kenya Railways Corporation and the National Land Commission decided to route Phase II of the new Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) into the park because it would mean huge financial savings from compensating residents and industries lying along the originally intended route. A massive uproar followed from conservation groups and concerned people, and since that time, several alternative routes have been reviewed by the authorities, including one that would have traversed a prime rhino breeding zone.
Richard Leakey, chairman of the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) which is in charge of state parks and all wildlife, said at a news conference that “Ideally, there should be no transportation in a national park.” But he added that development in Kenya was necessary and that the SGR route, which was a done deal before his appointment to the board, must be done with due consideration to the wildlife estate.
Finally, an agreement was reached between the lands commission, the railway authorities and KWS. The decision was made to construct a railway bridge going through the middle of the park and rising 20 meters above ground with underpasses for animals.
In June 2017, President Uhuru Kenyatta rode on the maiden trip of the SGR train from the coastal city of Mombasa to the capital, Nairobi. Red carpets, live bands and traditional dancers gave the occasion a festive ambience. But the SGR has not been celebrated by all.
Controversy surrounds the second phase of this high-speed passenger and goods train, which will extend to neighbouring Uganda, because it is slated to pass through the Nairobi National Park. This is where battle lines have been drawn, with supporters of the park fearing the potential damage to the ecosystem by the SGR.
Seen as a flagship transport project of Kenya Vision 2030 – the national blueprint for long-term development – and costing $3.8 billion dollars, the 472 km SGR has been funded primarily by the government of China, and is also being laid down by Chinese companies.
Agreeing to have the railway pass through a state park also raises concerns about KWS’s ability to protect wilderness areas under its mandate.
In early 2016, one of the most famous lions of Nairobi Park, a 13-year-old black-maned male called Mohawk, was shot by KWS rangers in broad daylight after moving out of the park into an inhabited area and becoming agitated before a gathered crowd. The following day, a 2 ½ year old lion called Lemek was found speared to death in neighbouring community land. A few weeks prior, another lion had strayed out of the park onto a busy highway and attacked a pedestrian.
“While constructing at night, there were times when the fence would be knocked down which would reduce or cut off the electricity to the fence,” explained former Director General of KWS, Kitili Mbathi, after the incidents following railway works.
A joint statement by Kenya Railways, the lands commission and the KWS claims there would be only minimal disturbance to the environment. Should the construction proceed, builders and equipment are expected to be inside the park for 18 months exacerbating the change in wildlife behaviour due to noise pollution and disruption that has already been assessed.
Sceptics believe the true extent of the habitat disruption is not being revealed.
Akshay Vishwanath, board chairman of Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP), a conservation society working to preserve the integrity of the park is concerned that the planning, design and construction of the railway has not been properly thought through.
“The claims by the Kenya Railways Corporation that the bridge will not have an impact on the wildlife is unsubstantiated by any facts, and is not based on reliable science,” says Vishwanath. “The Environmental Impact Assessment was poorly done and ignores many crucial areas of concern that have been consistently raised by stakeholders.”
Others have criticised the environmental assessment as being hurriedly concluded with non-disclosure of important information. Conservationists are also concerned that as animals attempt to escape the disturbance there will be an increase in human-wildlife conflict
This is not the first time that national infrastructure is crossing the park. An underground oil pipeline from Mombasa traverses the park. Tall pylons supporting electricity lines cross from north to south. A section of the northern bypass, a major motorway that diverts heavy traffic away from the city centre, navigates through the northern end of Nairobi Park. Now the SGR looks to be the most disruptive development yet.
Established in 1946, not only is Nairobi Park an important destination for Kenya’s tourism industry, the second highest source of foreign exchange for the country, but it is one of the few green spaces remaining for recreational use by Nairobi’s residents.
Besides the infrastructure, the park faces external pressure from a growing city. The southern side of the park remains unfenced to accommodate the seasonal migration of wildlife. But the migration corridors are under increasing pressure from encroaching settlements, fencing of private plots and other urban land uses. The inflow of trash and effluents from neighbouring townships and industries is another major concern.
Furthermore, some people view the park as unutilised land that should be degazetted and developed. “The park serves as a valuable watershed and also provides important ecosystem services purifying the air we breathe in Nairobi,” says Vishwanath. “Many insects and birds emanating from the park are the pollinators in peri-urban farms, playing a vital role in food production.”
While SGR opponents are not against the development, they question legal compliance by the project’s proponents and why such a major project must go through a protected area when there are alternatives to circumvent the park. Kenyan conservationist Dr Paula Kahumbu has warned that, “If the railway crosses Nairobi Park, it will set a very dangerous precedent for national parks in Kenya.”
Save Nairobi National Park, which FoNNaP is part of, is a campaign opposing the SGR in the park by using the courts to tackle areas where the law has been clearly flouted. The campaign wants to persuade the government to map out an alternative train route in consultation with the relevant stakeholders.
Vishwanath believes the choice to pass a railway inside the park is essentially a political decision for which leaders must be held accountable. The SGR is extremely important as the legacy of President Uhuru Kenyatta who has even threatened the death penalty for people caught vandalising the SGR. “Hence, we intend to use public advocacy, media and PR to help Kenyans understand the true cost and implications of this project,” he said.
In April 2017, the Kenya Coalition for Wildlife Conservation and Management together with activist Okiyah Omtatah succeeded in getting a court order to temporarily halt construction in the park until the National Environmental Tribunal determines if a proper environmental assessment was done. Unconfirmed reports say that construction work continues in the park in contravention of the stop order.
Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, once said that “The natural resources of this country – it’s wildlife, which offers such an attraction to visitors from all over the world, the beautiful places in which these animals live, the mighty forests which guard the water catchment areas so vital for the survival of man and beast – are a priceless heritage for the future.” Ironically, the construction of a railway through the Nairobi National Park is endorsed by his son, the current president.