A glance behind the curtains..
“There’s a passing of judgment from some that we’re doing the wrong thing, because Kenya is a poor country, and we could use the $150 million-odd dollars that they claim the ivory is worth to develop our nation .. But I would rather wait for the judgment of future generations, who I am sure will appreciate the decision we have taken today.”
This statement by Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, dramatically staged on the backdrop of 105 tons of blazing ivory undeniably bears a strong commitment, an unambiguous pledge to the non-negotiable and long-term value of Kenya’s wildlife heritage not only for those witnessing this record burn but, as clearly stated, for future generations to come.
The forceful and controversial ceremony did not fail to capture global awareness and even stimulate ovations where it was perceived as a distinct engagement for wildlife from the very midst of a continent struggling to take a stand for bio-diversity as emerging market dynamics are gauzing the need for long term decision making.
But let’s zoom out onto to the very setting of the ceremonial scene, the Nairobi National Park. From the borders of this globally unique urban wildlife sanctuary there is a very different, almost inaudible message arising. There, massive construction schemes – city bypass highways and railway systems are carelessly encroaching into rare breeding grounds for endangered species such as the black rhino and conclusively bringing the park to fall if nothing is undertaken soon to voice and stop these developments – developments that unambiguously to represent a large-scale wildlife trade, approved and ratified by the same ivory burning protagonists – inevitably, this time however, behind closed curtains.
..and under the carpet
Since the park was gazetted in 1946 the vast 117 square kilometres of abundant wildlife, savannah grasslands, forests and wetlands bordering Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi, have always been a strong symbol of Kenya’s inherent dedication to the nation’s natural heritage. No other scene would have channelled the country’s ivory burning statement more boldly than the capital’s National Park.
But after decades of surviving the pressure of urban expansion, Nairobi National park and the 400 bird and 100 mammal species it harbours are now at risk of succumbing to property speculation and ill-advised, short term planning. All this is happening in camera, excluding adequate public consultation and consequently biasing the interest of the very future generations Uhuru Kenyatta was referring to in his ivory burning speech earlier this year.
The importance of infrastructure projects like the Standard Gauge Railway for the economic development of the country and the East African region is obvious and beyond dispute. Highly questionable however are the costs of hastened implementation and poor planning of such mega-projects not only to the tax payer but also and irreversibly to unique wildlife conservation areas such as the Nairobi National Park.
The Southern Bypass Saga
The Chinese sponsored traffic decongestion project was approved in 2012 with blue prints distinctly featuring a trajectory along the north western border and outskirts of the park. However, ahead of implementation the allocated construction area was irregularly divided and sold to private developers.
Failure to resolve the illegal land acquisition and property development in court and increasing financial pressure arising from project interruption led to an ad hoc relocation of the bypass through the park with completion end last month.
While the illegal structures occupying the originally approved sites are still standing, 53 acres of the globally unique natural heritage were meanwhile yielded to a four lane highway, to strategic chaos, dubious mismanagement and corruption.
Were there really no alternatives as we are made to believe by government and partnering Chinese sponsors? And the profits arising from this deal will they truly benefit future generations and will the judgement of these generations honestly ‘appreciate the decision we have taken today’?
Whilst these questions remain unanswered the next epic is well on its way transforming the Nairobi National Park into a vast rug covering yet more irregularities and mismanagement in the implementation of infrastructural projects.
The SGR Saga
Since the beginning of this year and as the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway between Nairobi and Mombasa is approaching the capital, reports have started circulating that the construction of the railway, similarly to the Southern Bypass, now too is to be ‘re-aligned’ through the National Park.
A first re-alignment proposal for the original trace between Athi River and Mlolongo feeding the capital city is already under construction and in addition to the manifest intrusion by the Southern Bypass cuts off further 90 hectares from the park ‘to – as stated in the underlying Environmental Impact Assessment – avoid demolishing culturally significant developments and economical high value installations that will require heavy compensation, and to make it more economic to construct the railway line.’
Whilst we await proof of the culturally significant developments and economically high value installations and how they would have had to be demolished by the original plan approved in 2012, we need to ask – again – if this irreversible trade, adding an ecologically unviable pressure to the park truly represents ‘doing the right thing’?
But the entrenchment plans do not end here. In addition to the Mlolongo stretch already under construction another controversial proposal surfaced earlier this year, this one carving an outrageous 50kms deep into the park. With public information and the media now finally tuning into the debacle this proposal however could be stopped in parliament last minute.
We sincerely hope this turn of events can establish a trend as yet another plan to cut off the entire southern park boundary, the only open boundary constituting important migratory routes, is still alive.
Where there is no plaintiff, there is no crime
The good news is that legal tools for preventing such encroachments are well in place.
Kenya since 2010 boasts a new constitution and a strong environmental act including many notices that can efficiently protect the country’s wildlife heritage. Phase two of the SGR, for example, foresees constitutionally guaranteed public hearings which, however, to date have not taken place. Where there is no plaintiff there is no crime.
A draft master zoning plan endorsed by the ministry of lands in 2010 to protect the southern boundaries of the park is also in place. This plan demarcates areas for building and others which must be left untouched to allow wildlife to migrate. The zoning plan, however, has not yet been enforced and with infrastructural development rapidly advancing needs public attention and support to be in place before further permanent damage is done.
Local problems, a global concern
In times of climate change and the continuous loss of global biodiversity ecological concerns such as the down grading of the NNP have long ceased to be a national cause only but require global awareness and support, starting with international guests who have experienced the park’s uniqueness first hand.
The protection of Nairobi National Park over the past decades from the great pressure it is exposed to by the growing African metropolis is a unique and grand cultural tribute of the Kenyan people to their natural heritage and as the largest and one of the last urban wildlife sanctuaries in the world we believe the park deserves a global effort to support and protect its survival and encourage all efforts geared towards declaring it a UN heritage site.