• Feature

Meet the environmental activists campaigning to save Nairobi National Park

Kenyan conservationists are mobilizing to stop luxury development projects inside Nairobi National Park that threaten its abundant wildlife.

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The Nairobi National Park is a rare gem that defines the Kenyan capital and it is the only national park in the world that shares a fence with a city. It boasts of abundant wildlife, including the “big five” animals — the lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo — that can, in places, be viewed against a backdrop of city skyscrapers and planes coming in to land at the local airports.

Despite the park being only a five-minute drive from the Nairobi central business district, the Kenyan government has a history of approving development projects inside the park, which threaten its existence and that of the wildlife that inhabits it.

One major project was the more than four-mile-long stretch of the standard gauge railway cutting across the park that activists and conservation experts say has disturbed the wildlife. These encroachments have always led to conflicts between humans and animals, with lions and pythons roaming the neighboring city estates from time to time.

As a result, environmental activists are pushing back to stop the government from pursuing these development projects that threaten to wipe out the park and its wildlife.

“They want to build an amphitheater and a high-end boutique hotel inside the Nairobi National Park on the forest area, which is the black rhino breeding site,” said Reinhard Bonke, the founding executive director of the African Sustainability Network. “And Nairobi National Park is the only highly-endangered black rhino sanctuary in East and Central Africa!”  

Bonke was referring to the plan by the Kenya Wildlife Service, or KWS, to build a state-of-the-art amphitheater and a hotel inside the park — complete with swimming pools and other amenities. It also plans to construct a house for the director-general within the conservation area. They call it the Nairobi National Park Management Plan 2020-2030.

The announcement had rubbed conservationists the wrong way and they have staged protests in Nairobi against the decision.

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Protests to protect the park started in 2016, when the then Kenya Wildlife Chairman Richard Leakey approved a plan by Chinese contractors to build the standard gauge railway across the park, oblivious to a court order stopping it. Protesters marched to the Chinese embassy in Nairobi, calling on the China Exim Bank to stop funding the destructive project.

In 2018, the conservationists led street protests and filed lawsuits and appeals against court rulings after contractors started the construction of the railway inside the park. On March 1, protesters marched in the hundreds, demanding that the Chinese-built railway be rerouted around the park.

But this May, the protests were different. The demands of the protesters were no longer about the railway, but rather about the planned construction of a hotel, an amphitheater and a house by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Also, they were not able to physically protest in the street, since the country was in partial lockdown and movement was restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Patricia Kombo, an environmental enthusiast and founder of Patree Initiative — an environmental startup that fights for green spaces — took part in the May protests. She says that the decision by the government is ill informed and that it will cause a lot of damage to the biodiversity inside the park.

“Building the hotel poses a threat to biodiversity as there will be a lot of pollution, and it will reduce the number of green spaces,” Kombo said. There will also be an issue with sewage disposals.”  

“The hotel will benefit the elite economically at the expense of the rest [of us].”

The Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife then directed KWS to pause construction and give a one month period for public participation to gather the views of the concerned parties. The participation came to an end on June 30.

But conservationists are now raising concerns about how KWS carried out the public participation, citing a lack of involvement of the local Maasai community who have been the custodians of the wildlife for centuries and are the rightful owners of the park. The service held some stakeholder meetings online, which the community could not access due to a lack of technology.

“KWS’ role is to manage our animals, plants and protect their territories from human interference,” said Brian Waswala, an environmental science lecturer at Maasai Mara University. “The hotel will benefit the elite economically at the expense of the rest [of us].”

The park was once part of the greater Nairobi-Athi-Kapiti plains ecosystem, and animals could migrate in and out of it, depending on seasonality and resource access. But now, the park is fenced on the southern side — meaning that wildlife movement is restricted — and the standard gauge railway now passes through it.

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Waswala is also concerned that KWS has not thought through the many possible negative ramifications on the park and its natural resources that its planned construction is likely to pose.

“Have they considered the behavior of wildlife? What about the environmental aspect? How much would be affected during construction and after?” he asked. “Hotels are not just buildings, but also transport (food delivery and ferrying of guests), and a source of waste (noise, solid and liquid, including human effluence and food waste). The machinery will also compact the soil, and this is known to have a negative impact on soil water infiltration.”

Bonke’s organization is challenging the legality of the process of drafting of the park’s management plan in court and questioning the deal between KWS and the private developers, some of whom have illegally encroached on the park.

“We also focus on creating more awareness among Kenyans on matters of wildlife conservation, and inform them about the values and challenges facing such areas of ecological importance,” he pointed out. “Through the court we hope to get a proper legal moratorium preventing further encroachment into the park and call for a more ecosystem-based management plan.”

“After the hustle and bustle of activities in a city, one needs a place to relax, rejuvenate and connect with nature.”

Josphat Ngonyo, the chief executive officer at the Africa Network for Animal Welfare says that this is an unwelcome move by the government. “The park is only 117 square kilometers,” he explained. “It’s too small to host a hotel, and we do not need to have a hotel in the park while we have so many hotels around Nairobi that can host anyone who would want to visit Nairobi National Park.”

The population in Nairobi has been steadily rising and the city has struggled to find land to accommodate the influx of people. This has led some to see Nairobi National Park as space for the city to expand and provide amenities for those who live there. Ngonyo strongly refutes this argument.

“Whoever is saying that is making a huge mistake, because a city needs such a place,” he said. “We can’t afford to live in a concrete jungle. After the hustle and bustle of activities in a city, one needs a place to relax, rejuvenate and connect with nature.”   

Currently, the African Sustainability Network is engaging the public on scrutinizing the park’s controversial management plan. The organization is training members of the community to understand what the draft management plan means to the park and their livelihoods. As such, they will be better informed of their rights and what they stand to lose if KWS goes forward to build a hotel inside the park. They will then join in the protests and make it a stronger force, since they are the original custodians of the park. They are also starting a long-term science-based initiative to conduct an ecological survey of the park to showcase what they stand to lose from an ecological perspective and how this links to public health and wellbeing.

The network is also working on a more sustainable strategy to control the invasive species in Nairobi National Park, with a key focus on parthenium, which is the second most serious threat to the park — aside from infrastructural encroachments, followed by solid and liquid waste pollution.

From his experience, Bonke says the fight to save the Nairobi National Park has made him realize that there has never been good cooperation between the policy makers and the concerned organizations to provide the basis of an integrated approach towards wildlife conservation.

“Saving wildlife and the entire habitat is a climate change mitigation process and a public health issue, which makes the silence from these two groups — when wildlife habitats are being destroyed — a huge concern,” he said. “There needs to be proper implementation of land use policy to gauge the type of human activities allowed in protected areas and other areas of ecological importance, otherwise the word ‘protected areas’ will be rendered a joke.”

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With Westernization, Bonke points out that many African communities have gradually drifted away from conserving wildlife, which used to be a more integral part of their lives.

“We are so focused on becoming like Europe who realized the same mistakes we are making and are working on a ‘regreening Europe’ initiative,” he said. “If this continues, then Africa will lose its pride in being the richest continent in terms of biodiversity, health and natural resources. Let’s embrace our roots and develop a more sustainable approach.”

The timeline for when the project will begin, and therefore how long activists have to stop it is currently unknown.

“There is no time frame really, Nairobi National Park will be facing challenges year in, year out. So the protest is an ongoing process,” Bonke said.

Currently, the organization is advocating for an ecosystem-based approach, one that promotes the nature of the park and aligns with the national wildlife strategy.

“We are working with the adjacent community and the relevant stakeholders,” Bonke explained. “The community itself is playing a key role and have even taken the legal route to file a case in court against the planned construction.”

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