Planned Rail Line Would Intersect Kenya’s Nairobi National Park
Conservationists worried Chinese-backed project will threaten safety of wildlife, integrity of ecosystem
Nairobi National Park has become the focal point of a conflict between national development priorities and environmental conservation in Kenya. Established in 1946, this 117-square-kilometer wilderness area is the oldest state park in Kenya, and home to incredible biodiversity. Animals such as buffalo, giraffe, lions, leopard, white rhino, the endangered black rhino, and more than 600 bird species live inside the protected area, which is also the only national park in the world within a city.
Photo courtesy of EAWLS
But a mega infrastructure project is about to change the face and future of this wilderness. A new standard gauge railway (SGR), for transportation of freight and high-speed passenger service between the seaport of Mombasa and the capital city of Nairobi, is proposed to cut through Nairobi Park.
The SGR has been presented as a key project for Kenya’s long-term plan to become an industrialized country by 2030. Constructed at a cost of $3.8 billion, the 484-kilometer railway is primarily funded by the government of China and is being built by Chinese companies. The new track runs parallel with the old meter-gauge railway built in 1904, which crosses into Nairobi before continuing west into Uganda.
In order to avoid the huge cost of compensating Nairobi businesses and residences that were in the original path of the train and were slated for demolition, the Kenya Railways Corporation and the National Land Commission decided in 2016 to run part of the second phase of the SGR through Nairobi National Park. Several park-based options were considered initially, including one that would have cut through a rhino-breeding zone, before the authorities settled on raising the track onto a bridge with underpasses so that animals could move around the rail line.
Already, 216 acres of park land have been dedicated to 12 kilometers of railway. This decision has conservationists and nature lovers up in arms over the long-term integrity of this ecosystem.
Akshay Vishwanath, chairman of the conservation organization Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP), has been a vocal critic of the project. “The claims by the Kenya Railways Corporation that the bridge across Nairobi Park will not have an impact on the wildlife is unsubstantiated by any facts, and is not based on reliable science,” said Vishwanath.
He refers to findings in 2016 by the organization Save the Elephants, which was authorized by the Kenya Wildlife Service to survey the effects of another SGR project in southern Kenya’s Tsavo National Park, where 120 kilometers of rail for the same train line have been built.
Faced with the new railway, some elephants in Tsavo have successfully used the underpasses and culverts to cross the tracks, but others have avoided them. Giraffe have almost entirely stayed away from the underpasses, and according to Save the Elephants, there has been a significant increase in elephant deaths from train and vehicle collisions during railway construction.
Photo by Kari Mutu
Vishwanath says the Tsavo findings points to the lack of consideration for wildlife movement and the environment during the planning, design, and construction of the railway. “FoNNaP sees the same mistakes being carried forward to Nairobi Park.”
“Ideally, there should be no transportation in a national park,” Richard Leakey, chairman of the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) that manages wildlife and all national parks in Kenya, said during a news conference. But he also noted the national importance of the railway and called the park route a “pragmatic alternative.” (A 2013 World Bank study, however, called into question the financial reasoning behind the project, noting that the costs of refurbishing the old rail line were substantially lower than building the SGR, and that the new line made poor economic sense unless there was more than a ten-fold increase in freight volume by 2030.)
The train isn’t the only threat to Nairobi Park, which is under pressure on several fronts. The population of Nairobi has burgeoned from 2 million people in 2000 to over 3 million at present, and residential and commercial districts surround the northern, eastern, and western borders of the park. Trash and effluence in rivers flowing through the park is of concern. An oil pipeline runs below the park, and pylons of electricity lines stretch from north to south.
In 2011, a section of land was hived off the park to build part of a large motorway. The southern park boundary, historically left unfenced to enable the seasonal movement of animals, is constantly under threat from encroachment and land development, which, if not controlled, could turn the park into more of an oversized zoo. The question remains whether this small and delicate ecosystem can sustain any more infrastructure.
Environmentalists are not convinced by an environmental impact assessment report for SGR, not least because it was carried out after railway construction had commenced. They argue that the process was rushed, that there was insufficient stakeholder engagement, and that the assessment was short on many specifics. Railway work inside the park is expected to take 18 months, but it remains unclear what effect noise pollution, building works, and escalated human traffic will have on the habitat and wildlife behavior in the short and long term.
In addition to impacts on wildlife, the train could also impact tourism. Nairobi National Park attracts the third highest number of visitors in Kenya and is one of the few green spaces for city residents. Tourism is the second highest source of foreign exchange in Kenya and KWS primarily generates its income from park entry fees.
“The park also provides valuable ecosystem services of purifying the air in Nairobi and serving as a watershed. Insects and birds from the park are pollinators in peri-urban farms, hence playing a vital role in food production,” says Vishwanath.
Given the many impacts of the train, environmental advocates have taken their battle to court. In April 2017, Kenyan activist Okiya Omtatah and the Kenya Coalition for Wildlife Conservation obtained a court order to suspend construction works inside the park on the basis that the environmental impact assessment was insufficient. The case is still being heard.
Kenyan conservationists are not against infrastructure projects but question the government’s commitment to sustainable development and public participation as enshrined in the Constitution. And they worry about the precedent the SGR project may set when it comes to other mega projects in or near Kenya’s national parks.
The first president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta once said, “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.” His son Uhuru Kenyatta is the current president of Kenya, who, ironically, has sanctioned a railway slated to run through a state park.
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