Nairobi National Park under threat

Once land of the Maasai community, today a commercial and business hub, Nairobi — covering an area of 696 km² — is inhabited by over 4 million people, as set out in a recent Demographia World Urban Areas report. With rates of urbanization as high as 4.36% annually, most migration from the countryside to the city or from other cities to the capital city, is absorbed by informal settlements. In a city where it’s estimated that slums are housing between 60% and 70% of residents, environmental degradation is unfortunately an essential feature of urban development.

Since the birth of Nairobi in 1900, urban land use has cohabited with other usages: agriculture, rangeland, open/transitional areas, and remnants of evergreen tropical forests. But the rapid urban growth and building boom the Kenyan capital is experiencing is limiting many of these uses, if not putting them at risk. Pastoral activities and peri-urban agriculture for cultivation are sectors that have been hardest hit, according to a recent dissertation study by Kenneth Wagia Mubea.

Nairobi boasts of being the only city within a game reserve but the environment is suffering terribly due to the growth of one of the largest African capitals. Economic development comes with structures that will improve cargo and commercial transportation and the decongestion of the galactic traffic in the city. The Kenya National Highways Authority is building different bypasses, which are exerting pressure on the Nairobi National Park. The northern bypass will take a bite out of the northern section of the National Park, near one of the runways for Wilson Airport; and a southern bypass is being built right through Kitengela – a dormitory town that is home to a hastily growing cement industry and skyscrapers south of the National Park boundary.

But these are not the only construction projects that are threatening the park. There are several menaces, as Ali Tanvir, chairman of Friends of Nairobi National Park explained in an interview.

Pylons have been put up for high voltage power lines and the Standard Gauge Railway is due to cut off the park, explained the preservationist. “There are settlements and general encroachments taking parts of the NNP (houses, informal settlements and factories), some of which have been built on road and rail reserve. And the Nairobi Animal Orphanage is growing also into NNP terrain, threatening it.”

Nai_nat park_bypasses map
Map of planned bypasses in Nairobi National Park. Supplied by Friends of Nairobi National Park.

As a UNEP report highlights: “In the Athi-Kaputiei ecosystem, the wildebeest migration between the Nairobi National Park and the adjoining Athi-Kaputiei Plains declined by more than 90%, from over 30,000 in 1978 to under 2,000 by 2011 as a result of increasing urbanisation, fencing, settlements, mining and other developments.” Apparently, many of the new projects that the Kenyan government is conducting are impeding the movement of the animals in times of migration, severely affecting the local ecosystems.

A number of migratory corridors linking the Nairobi National Park and the Athi-Kaputiei Plains have been blocked by fences.

“The risk of inbreeding becomes more pervasive as the park gets cut off and fenced further: previously animals could migrate up to the Amboseli ecosystem on one side as well as Magadi and Shompole on the other,” explained Tanvir.

“Decrease in size of territories as animals are forced to move further inward – this in itself has ripple effects,” he said. “It will increase turf wars resulting in animal injuries and animal death in some cases as animals are now fighting over a smaller area with lesser space for all. Lions, rhinos and a lot of other endangered animals are territorial in nature – if forced to move they will need to oust another member of the same species.”

Several members of civil society have already shown their rejection of plans that cause development to encroach on the park, launching awareness campaigns and meetings. But it seems that Nairobians are not giving much attention to the fears shown by environmentalists.

“The Kenya Wildlife Service stated that further land will be acquired to increase the conservation area but nothing further has been heard on this and we are not sure where (and if) this land will come from,” notes Tanvir. “It does seem that we are fighting a losing battle as most of the nation seems more concerned with easing traffic rather than conserving nature and biodiversity.”

The unsustainable urbanization that Nairobi is experiencing is largely responsible for the current ecological imbalance. The consequences of urban planning including construction of roads and railways encompassing the city are very thorny today. The loss of habitat for lions, rhinos and other endangered species are devastating the ecosystem balance.

As the park reduces in size, human-wildlife conflict will become even more rife, warns Tanvir. “This will include poaching, livestock predation and direct conflict.”

As urbanization is affecting the dynamics of nature, city planners, policy makers and the real estate sector should prioritize the goals of ecological balance if they don’t want to cause irreversible damaged to one of the largest national parks in the country, as well as to the dynamics of local ecosystems.

“The Nairobi National Park is in crisis. It is at the brink of death if we do not act now,” said Tanvir. “With the park being chomped away at left, right and at both ends, these animals will have nowhere to go — no fresh genes coming in, fighting for land — the animal population will naturally decrease substantially. Eventually due to general choking the park will cease to be an ecosystem, which has the long-term effect of it becoming a glorified zoo.”

Gemma Solés i Coll holds an M.A. in Social Science of Development South of the Sahara (URV) and graduated in Philosophy (UB). She specializes in artistic and cultural trends and urban dynamics in Africa. She serves as chief editor for the music and performing arts section of Spanish online magazine WIRIKO, of which she is the founder.

Main image courtesy Ali Tanvir, chairman of Friends of Nairobi National Park.

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