“The government of Kenya, fully realising the value of its natural resources pledges itself to conserve them for posterity with all the means at its disposal”
These words, attributed to Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, are etched into a painted sign that greets visitors to Nairobi National Park. It is ironic, therefore, that this historic park – Kenya’s oldest and smallest – is under dire threat from the very people assigned to protect it.
A new railway line, part of a greater expansion of the country’s transport infrastructure, is about to cut its way through the heart of the park. The government has green-lighted the project, ignoring concerns from conservationists, who are worried both about the impact of the line on wildlife and the precedent that the decision sets.
For whilst Nairobi National Park may well be insignificant relative to the larger parks, it is symbolic of Kenya’s commitment to protecting its natural assets, even in the face of ever greater economic pressures. Located on the very edge of the city, the park is almost unique. Over its dusty savannah roam lions, rhinos and giraffes; behind, the city’s skyscrapers stand tall above the horizon.
Such a park is at the forefront of the battle between urbanisation and preservation; the struggle for the survival of wilderness and its continual taming at the hands of humanity. The losses have already been felt by the park, and it is now an island amidst a sea of human settlement.
Once, it formed part of a migratory corridor that went as far as Amboseli, but those days are long gone. Now, the isolated nature of the park means that a viable population of elephants can no longer be sustained by its tiny ecosystem.
But although the government seems to have forgotten Jomo Kenyatta’s powerful words, others have not. In and around Nairobi there is considerable ire towards the country’s powerful wildlife agency, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Tasked with protecting the country’s wildlife and wilderness, the KWS have made the unusual decision to back the proposed route of the railway.
Seemingly at odds with the agency’s raison d’etre, this has raised eyebrows across Kenya. To many, the role of the KWS is to fight for the country’s parks, rather than its railways. The very idea of running a railway line through a protected area upsets many, undermining the sacrosanct status that they believe national parks to have.
It is this word – “sacrosanct” – that Anthony Childs uses to describe Nairobi National Park. Already quoted by the BBC in defence of the park, he knows he is on thin ice with KWS, whom he works closely with in his role as manager of The Emakoko Lodge on the park’s southern boundary.
However, the passion in his voice is evident when he talks of the challenges ahead. In particular, he seems disconsolate that Dr Richard Leakey, head of the KWS and respected by many Kenyans, has come out in support of the railway line.
In truth, his support is certainly not unconditional. Initially fervently against the project, he has only recently stated that he thinks the new railway is in the best interest of the country. This was after it was agreed that the railway should be raised above the park, cutting through along a concrete bridge. It was only this that alleviated Dr Leakey’s concerns enough for him to declare it the best option available.
Others grudgingly agree that the impact to the wildlife will be significantly lessened by the addition of the bridge. Although not the result many wanted, it does at least allow animals the freedom to move through the park unimpeded. However, this does nothing to placate the purists, such as Anton, who regard the park’s boundaries as inviolable.
Fortunately, for the more pragmatic, there is hope. One of the remarkable features of Nairobi National Park is the way its natural beauty is perfectly juxtaposed with the brutal modernity of the city’s skyline.
Much like these skyscrapers are now a defining feature of the park, one can only hope that in the future the sight of rhinos wandering beneath a high-speed train line will have a similar, bizarre appeal.