Protecting Kenya’s Oldest Conservation Area

Whenever I sell Nairobi to visiting friends and family, or justify to them why I choose to live here, I usually gloss over the city itself and describe how easy it is to escape from it. It’s the places around the city that keep me drawn to it – the likes of Naivasha, Nakuru, and other nearby and interesting weekend destinations. But Nairobi is unique, in that one of its best escapes lies within its sprawling limits.

The existence of a 117 square kilometre national park – populated by hundreds of species of birds and animals – within the precincts of a capital city really is remarkable. Last Sunday we decided to take advantage of this proximity, and dragged ourselves out of bed at 4:45am for an early morning game drive.

Experience had taught us that the queue to go into the park builds very early, and that when it’s busy the Safari Card entry system can be painfully slow, so we made sure we were first in line well before the park opened at 6am.

One of the extraordinary things about the park, apart from the fact that it lies within earshot of the city’s busy highways and is lined by towering skyscrapers, is its incredible concentration of biodiversity.

And this is immediately clear within the first 10 minutes of being in the park – as you drive under the Croton and African Olive trees of the small stretch of upland dry forest, and descend into the tall-grass plains beyond the ivory burning site. This sliver of grassland runs through the heart of the park to its south-western border, flanked most of the way by open low shrubland and tall riverine woodland.

The forest patch in the north-west is a remnant of the once-extensive Ngong Forest, and is well worth exploring – particularly in the early morning or evening when the chances of spotting the park’s more elusive animals are at their highest. During our drive last weekend, the forest belt was cloaked in mist, but I glanced in my wing mirror just in time to see the drooped backend of a large hyena disappear into the undergrowth.

Once the morning mist had burnt off, we snaked deeper into the park towards Lion Valley, where, true to its name, our path was blocked by two young lionesses striding purposefully in the middle of the road, unfazed by the long line of minibuses jostling for space behind them.

Crowded sightings of the ‘Big Five’ often bring out the worst in people don’t they? When a large white Prado at the front of the queue blocked everyone off quite a distance from the lions, chaos ensued, as drivers hooted and shouted and veered off-road to get the best view possible. We tolerated this for three hours, and watched the lionesses make their way towards Hyena Dam in the north-west of the park, clumsily hunting along the way. One of them, called Neema, had a large wound on her back right leg from a nasty encounter with an antelope’s horn, which may have dampened her confidence.

They eventually disappeared into a thicket of reeds by the dam, so we turned around and made our way towards the Athi Basin. I was hesitant to explore the basin though, as I was concerned about the extent of recent infrastructural development in this portion of the park. On 19 October President Uhuru Kenyatta launched Phase 2A of the construction of the Nairobi-Naivasha Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), solidifying plans to route the railway along a 6km stretch through the heart of the park.

The proposed route within the park involves the construction of a bridge with an average height of 18 metres, supported by huge pillars 32m apart with noise deflectors to divert the sound of passing trains. Although the economic benefit of the SGR is clear, conservationist group Friends of Nairobi National Park (FONNAP) has underlined that the decision was made to route the railway through the park without an extensive Environmental Impact Assessment, and without adequate opportunities for public scrutiny of all the proposed routes.

The construction of the SGR is just one in a series of worrying developments around the park: the encroachment of the Southern Bypass, the proliferation of informal settlements, industrial developments and quarrying operations within the traditional wildlife dispersal areas to the south and east, and the rise of human-wildlife conflict – epitomised by the avoidable death of the iconic lion Mohawk earlier this year.

For a protected area the size of Nairobi National Park within the expanding boundaries of a major capital city, such issues are sadly inevitable. But, with proper management, this proximity need not be a disadvantage. It may still be possible, with a comprehensive EIA and the wider involvement of conservation stakeholders, to find a cost-effective solution for the railway that also minimises its impact on the park and its wildlife.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation