JUNGLE IN THE CITY

Nairobi National Park: More than meets the eye

Facebook post lamenting the ‘waste of space’ that is NNP depriving people of habitat draws strong reactions from conservationists

In Summary

• The belief that nature is collateral damage in development is ignorant and dangerous

Lion cubs
Lion cubs
Image: KWS

A little bird’s recycled Facebook post — wondering about the rationale behind the very existence of the waste of space that is NNP, while her borders are ‘literally bursting with people’ — reared its head recently, prompting me to pose her musings to the rangers in that park’s Rhino Monitoring and Protection Unit.

My colleague Elizabeth and I were embedded with this team on a five-day assignment in the park. During this time, I discovered hitherto unknown muscle groups in my body as we partook of gruelling (for me, routine for them) three-hour patrols and bunkered down in sleeping bags — in tents — at night.

The level of perseverance required to be successful in this line of work points to people whose sense of duty and purpose is so sharp, it could balance on a rapier’s edge. I doubt that these men would extend their best foot forward for a lost cause.

 

Based on the stunned-halibut expressions I observed when I showed them the post, I’d like to tell the bird that such ponderings are like a needle dipped in acid and repeatedly poked in a conservationist’s eyeball.

The rangers had much to say about the opinions put forth in the post, likening its content to a person wading in where any hardy soul would hesitate. These men — one of whom has been employed in KWS since 1992 — attributed this apparent show of ignorance to its composer being stricken with an acute case of conservational tone-deafness. Beliefs such as these, they averred, rendered conservation an exercise in tilting at windmills.

 
Coke's heartbeast
Coke's heartbeast
Image: KWS

These self-proclaimed conservation warriors wished for the bird to be aware that national parks and other protected areas provide refuge for earth’s biodiversity, more especially endangered species. Their distaste at the Disney-villain arrogance of those who cling to the belief that this world is for homo sapiens alone was evident. The Western black rhinoceros (Cameroon), Red gazelle (Algeria), Quagga (South Africa) and a gazillion others became extinct under our watch. Many more are teetering on the precipice (critically endangered, vulnerable, threatened), which is why areas like NNP exist — to offer protection.

The post ridiculed NNP’s only selling point as being the superficial ‘only national park in a capital city in the world’. Does this fact alone not make it an area worth protecting? No need for product differentiation; it’s the only one of its kind! Tourists do indeed come from near and far to experience this heaven in a bell jar hemmed in by a concrete jungle. At the risk of sounding like a rebel with too many causes, I daresay the little bird could focus her impressive energies on how to better market the park to achieve satisfactory profitability levels.

Of equal importance to the ‘an apple a day’ on one’s to-do list of preventive measures is an abundance of fresh air, exercise and communing with nature. From experts to the decrepit old grand-someone in the back of beyond, there is an overwhelming consensus as to its importance. Ever heard of nature-deficit disorder? While it is not a formal medical diagnosis, it eloquently describes the psychological, physical and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years. How to treat it? Include outdoor activities (like game drives/camping/picnics in NNP) in your life. Not all benefits in life have to be tangible or have a healthy price tag attached to them.

KWS’ Conservation Heroes’ Day is commemorated annually on December 16 to pay homage to those men and women who suffered injury or lost their lives while working to protect our wildlife. It also recognises staff who go above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of conservation.

That wildlife trophies are worth obscene amounts of money is a fact that anyone with a nodding acquaintance with news reports is aware of. To then imply that NNP holds little value is to rubbish the lives of these fallen men and women — and those who make a living from the park’s existence — simply because there appears to be no one smiling all the way to the bank.

Burgeoning populations do, indeed, require space to thrive. The amounts of money and power commanded by real estate and other infrastructure would make any Mafia don blush. The post gave credence to those moguls, conglomerates and Fortune-500 company owners who think in exclamation marks, while dismissing nature as collateral damage in the race to prove who has the deepest pockets, even as Kenyans are inured to the shock and ugh! that is land grabbing in our country.

NNP is a unique ecosystem — replete with fresh air and a pristine environment — that has a right to exist. City planners should be able to work around such an all-important heritage site. Terminal displays of foot-in-mouth syndrome from those who should know better probably fuel the Mexican standoff seen between conservation and development.

If Dante Alighieri had conceived a tenth circle of hell, a dearth of protected areas, more especially Nairobi National Park, would be it to a T.

Edited by T Jalio