Last Wednesday, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the second phase of the standard gauge railway. Speaking at Embulbul, Kajiado county, the President took the opportunity to speak out on the contentious issue of the SGR passing through the Nairobi National Park.
"The construction of the SGR will not cause any disruption to the Nairobi National Park. Every measure has been taken to ensure there is no environmental degradation, and the animals will be taken care of," the President said. In the governments view, the construction of the 18 metre-high 6.4km single-line elevated bridge will not disrupt wildlife, or compromise the ecological integrity of Kenya’s oldest national park.
President Uhuru's remarks were directed to the conservation community and some politicians, who in his view are “inciting people against the project passing through NNP”. According to the conservation groups, building the single-line bridge across NNP will not only destroy the park’s ecosystem but also displace wildlife from their natural habitat.
Uhuru's remarks are weighty, especially after the National Environment Tribunal ordered the China Road and Bridge Corporation (K) to stop construction of the SGR's Phase 2A until the appeal filed by activist Okiya Omtatah' and the Kenya Coalition of Conservation and Management against Nema is heard and determined.
In the President’s view, we have a big opportunity to grow our economy. His position is perhaps informed by some experts who claim the completion of the SGR will contribute an additional 1.5 per cent to the country's GDP while boosting trade by — surprise, surprise — supporting the tourism industry. But according to some conservation groups, hiving off sections of NNP erode wilderness quality and attractiveness of the park negatively affecting tourism.
Conservationists and the government are digging in for battle. What do ecologists know about conservation and infrastructure? The impact of infrastructure on biodiversity has spawned a new and active field of study known as road ecology.
Known impacts of roads, railways and pipelines include effects on species diversity, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. For these impacts, there are standard pre-construction mitigation measures including enhancement and creation of replacement habitats and management of pests and weeds.
What ecologists do not know is how infrastructure corridors — on the surface or elevated — reduce habitat permeability, or the ease with which wildlife moves through the landscape. Moreover, ecologist knowledge about how transportation infrastructure affects behavioural responses and within or between species interactions. Such interactions could have huge consequences on mortality through predation or breeding success among major groups of wildlife.
Acting in combination with the increasing isolation and reduction in size of the NNP, the impact of infrastructure on wildlife could touch off an inexorable and catastrophic extinction of significant biodiversity in the park. In my view, the NNP is the quintessential fragile wilderness on the precipice. We must not push it.
Now is the time to heed the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “Come now let us reason together” for the sake of posterity. We can preserve the riches of nature and grow our economy.
Dr. Awiti is the director of the East African Institute at Aga Khan University.