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food / travel

Can Nairobi And Its One-Of-A-Kind National Park Continue To Coexist?

Zebras at Nairobi National Park
Zebras at Nairobi National Park
Audrey Garric

NAIROBI — The sun feels even more scorching under the cap of pollution. Through her binoculars, Patricia Heather-Hayes, nicknamed "Trish," is scrutinizing a lioness sleeping under an acacia in Kenya"s Nairobi National Park. The energetic 60-something, who works in a legal office when she's not out here observing wildlife, knows the name of every feline. "This is Athi. She has three cubs," she says.

Further away, Trish follows the giraffes, the antelopes and the zebras through the savanna. Skyscrapers loom on the horizon. But whenever she strides along the park, she also sees plastic bags, bottles and other food packagings stuck in the bushes or abandoned on the side of the road. This 117-square-kilometer wildlife preserve, the only one in the world located just next to a capital city, is threatened by Nairobi's expansion.

"We find more and more garbage carried by the wind from surrounding residential areas or abandoned by tourists," she says with irritation. "Not long ago, I saw a snake stuck inside a soda can, dying."

In addition to her legal work, Trish serves as vice-president of an association called Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP). Once a month she and other organization members go on long voluntary cleaning missions. Summoning her patience, Trish maneuvers her Jeep so as to avoid the ruts but not miss any garbage, which she picks up with long barbecue tongs. Today, she will fill five 50-liter bags.

Four of the "Big Five"

The national park, created in 1946 by British settlers, is Kenya's oldest and welcomes 120,000 visitors every year. There are no elephants. "The park is too small and doesn't have enough forest for them," explains Hudson Okum, a guide at the Kenya Wildlife Service, the state organization in charge of national parks. But it does have lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalo, i.e. the other "Big Five" animals Safari tours tend to emphasize. All in all, the park has 80 different species of mammals, 450 species of birds, 40 of amphibia and reptiles and 500 different types of trees.

Lionesses at Nairobi National Park — Photo: FoNNaP Facebook page

Because of the reserve's location, on the southern edge of Nairobi, its northern, western and eastern borders are fenced. But it's open on its southern side, which leads to the Athi-Kapiti, a 2,200-square-kilometer semi-arid ecosystem, so that animals can come and go. "In the dry season, they come inside the park to drink in the man-made dams. Then they scatter out across the plains in the rainy season," the young guide explains.

But these annual migrations are now threatened by the city and its 3 million inhabitants. All sorts of buildings, factories and more or less unauthorized houses are sprouting everywhere. "In the 1990s, there were up to 10,000 wildebeests in the park but there are only a few hundred left today," says Muraya Githinji, the park's deputy warden. "There are fewer herbivores because they have less space than before and some of their migratory routes have been cut."

Roads, rails and fences

Northwest of the park, a China-backed project for a 30-kilometer long bypass was launched in 2012 by former Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki to relieve traffic congestion in the capital. "Originally, part of the bypass was supposed to run outside the park's northern border," explains Paula Kahumbu, head of the NGO Wildlife Direct. "But in the meantime, that area was sold to realty developers under suspicious circumstances. So the government wanted to go through the park, not to demolish these illegal constructions. But only the Parliament is allowed to modify the reserve's borders."

Together with two NGOs, Kahumbu took the matter to court in May 2013 and obtained the suspension of the works on the disputed stretch. While the government is preparing a new plan, construction continues on the rest of the bypass under the watchful and worried eye of the NGOs.

Ostriches at Nairobi National Park — Photo: shikowanyambura via Instagram

On the northeastern edge, another project threatens to encroach on the park: a railroad for freight trains that will connect Nairobi to the port city of Mombasa and to Uganda, Rwanda and South Sudan. "This project too risks going through the park. Negotiations on the final route are ongoing," says Muraya Githinji.

In November, newspaper The Star reported on plans by the transport ministry to encroach even further into the park. "The land here has a financial value that the park, which doesn't bring in any money, is struggling to compete with," says David Marechal, an old Kenyan with a cowboy hat who raised lions for 13 years in the park's orphanage.

There are ploblems as well to the south of the park, where the plains are more and more broken up into small plots. "At the end of the 1970s, the Maasai people started to sell their land. People who counldn't afford to buy in Nairobi settled there. They put up fences everywhere, which hinders the movements of the animals," says Nickson Parmisa, deputy chief of the Kitengela area, southeast of the reserve.

"Island in an urban sea"

From a hill, Parmisa, a Maasai, points to the different human activities installed all along the edge of the park, on the Athi-Kapiti. There are six cement factories, quarries, flower farms, lodges for the tourists and the urban area of Rongai, together with its roads, buildings, shops and boards advertising for plots to sale.

Sunset over Nairobi National Park — Photo: Luca Noto via Instagram

This cohabitation between wild animals and humans doesn't go smoothly, especially with the pastoral communities that lead their herds to the edge of the park. "These last few years, lions have attacked the herds, and Maasai shepherds killed them in retaliation," Patricia Heather-Hayes explains.

To facilitate the cohabitation, her association, FoNNaP, financed together with Kenya Wildlife Service the installation of lamps around the pens. "These are flashing lights, to keep predators away," says Rik Banerjee, an 18-year-old student who took part in the project. Since then, no attack has been reported.

Parmisa placed his hopes in the first land occupation plan launched by the communities living south of the park and signed by the Ministry of Land in 2010. "The plan indicates where construction is permitted and which areas must remain virgin to allow animals to migrate," he says.

Unfortunately, it has yet to be implemented. Muraya Githinji isn't sure at this point if the zoning plan will ever go through. "Communities are divided and the temptation to continue selling the plots is high," he says. "If nothing's done, the park risks becoming an island in the middle of an urban sea."

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