Will our oldest National Park survive the SGR?

Standard gauge railway at tsavo bridge on August 5,2016.Photo Courtesy
Standard gauge railway at tsavo bridge on August 5,2016.Photo Courtesy

The Nairobi national park is the oldest National Park in Kenya established in 1946 by the then colonial government. In the 19th Century the present park was part of an expansive savannah plain in the southern part of the now present Nairobi city. The area had so much wildlife spreading all the way to airport. It is said that sometimes planes landing at the Embakasi Airport could be delayed in order to drive wildlife from the runaway. Now the only wildlife remaining has retreated to Nairobi National Park.

The Park is only approximately seven kilometres south of the centre of Nairobi Metropolis. It covers an area of 117.21 square kilometres (28,963 acres) and is small in comparison to most of Kenya’s and Africa's national parks. It is surrounded by an electric wire fence in many parts although the southern parts are not fenced to allow wildlife dispersal. The proximity of urban and natural environments has caused conflicts between the carnivores (especially lions) and local Maasai pastoralists in the neighbourhood but the Maasai community have happily embraced the park despite the challenge. The park is very sensitive to any activities in the park including carnivore wars, indeed last year, Kenyans were stunned to find a pride of lions in the city outskirts which had strayed from the park. The parks migration routes in the south are threatened due to human settlements.

On the other side of the park, in the north it has experienced land excision to allow the newly launched Northern bypass. This road opened by the Tanzanian president in October this year has cut a chunk of the park after its hitherto reserved route for the road bypass was grabbed by the so called developers and converted to housing estate.

The parks major value
In spite its proximity to human settlements and relative small size for an African national park, Nairobi National Park boasts of a large and varied wildlife population. Migrating herbivores gather in the park during the dry season, and it is one of Kenya's most successful endangered rhinoceros sanctuary. The Park due to its centrality, hosts most visitors of all the parks in Kenya, ranging from students from Kenyan schools to visitors who have some time to spare before they catch a plane in the nearby JKIA airport. It is in this park that the first haul of illegal ivory and rhino horns was burnt by President Moi in 1989 covered by all the world media. This spectacle was repeated early this year by the current president Kenyatta. These two occasions have brought fame to Kenya as a world leader in conservation. This good name in conservation is however going to end courtesy of the Standard Gauge Railway Phase 2A (Nairobi – Naivasha) once it cuts through the park.

Now what is the problem?
The latest onslaught on the Park is the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). This is by far the largest infrastructure project the Kenya government is involved in. Phase 1 is ¾ complete. It is Phase two which has raised a lot of storm in conservation NGOs as it proposes to cut Nairobi National Park into two almost equal sections as it moves from Nairobi South Station into a 5km tunnel to emerge in the Rift Valley. Many experts wondered why the Park into tunnel route was preferred in a zone of plate boundary hence prone to earthquakes when there were alternatives to avoid the park and the tunnel.

The above map shows suggested routes of phase 2 SGR. Note the government has settled on route 4 which cuts the Park Into two. Route 1 and 7 passes outside the park but were not prefered by Kenya railways with the justification being cost (based on the assumption that the Park is free government land and the animals have no voice to protest).
In a summary, the expected Impacts as as follows:

The size of a park is too small to survive habitat fragmentation by the SGR because the park will be cut into two equal portions. The justifications that wildlife will be free to move below the 18 metre raised bridge is untenable because some species of wildlife are so shy they would rather avoid any disturbance from train noise, lighting and vibrations. The fragmentation can therefore result in inbreeding, low wildlife genetic quality and a slow death of the Park. The proposed 18 metre high bridge across the Park with a way leave of 15 metres as well will enhance this fragmentation. It will also permanently destroy the aesthetic value of the park. How many visitors will be willing to pay to go to the park to view train instead of wildlife?

There are no proposed risk mitigation measures put by the proponent in spite of the railway having a massive

18 metre 6 km bridge across the park. Suppose there is train derailment, this will likely feel like an earthquake?

And what about 5.1Km tunnel into the Great Rift Valley, suppose there is train fire or earthquake while the train is in the tunnel? All these could have been avoided by taking an option that avoids both the Park and the tunnel for example Route option 1 & 7 do not pass through the park

- only at the edge they are better options but have been rejected for flimsy cost grounds.

My opinion is that SGR will completely destroy Nairobi National Park as we know it due to habitat fragmentation, acoustic noise from trains, intense train lighting and its aesthetic value will be gone forever. Perhaps, in the very near future, if the park if not protected from this destructive act now, it will end up being a residential estate because once we start the onslaught, there will be no justification to stop.

This Park must be saved – this is a national and world heritage. The president must listen at least for once to the voices of reason unless he wants to be remembered as the president who presided over the destruction of the world famous Nairobi National Park and robbing our kids their heritage.

PhD Department of Geography and environmental Studies University of Nairobi

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