The Kenya Wildlife Service has floated a ten-year plan (2020-2030) for Nairobi National Park. This is timely and urgently needed. Nairobi was Kenya’s first national park, gazetted in 1946. With the park under growing pressure on all sides, and from within, its future looks bleak as the standard bearer of Kenya’s parks. What better event to celebrate the 75th anniversary of our national park than a plan to secure the future of Nairobi National Park for all time? The ten-year plan to save and restore the park is five years late and doubly urgent because of the delay.
Unfortunately, KWS was put under pressure to ram through the proposal with little public input apart from box-ticking. The railroading ran up against a hail of criticism. Hidden from view were a rash of developments that run counter to the goals of the Wildlife Act 2013: to keep parks in an “untrammeled” natural state. With KWS already having ceded parts of the park to the Southern Bypass Road, overhead rail line and a goods depot in the works, the public criticisms are well grounded.
I participated in public reviews of the Nairobi National Park 2020-2030 plan and have given my comments at various meetings and to KWS directly. I feel strongly that the plan needs all the public participation it can get and will be greatly strengthened by the input and guidance. Kenya’s parks are, after all, vested in the citizens of Kenya, not the government.
KWS as the custodian has the heavy burden and deep responsibility to ensure its future for all its peoples, and as a world heritage. I was asked by Swara magazine to review the plan. The review is given here. Most of the points are straightforward, but I had too little space to expand on the two most important points of all: fencing and the ecological restoration of the park. I have added some addition points here to clarify my views and recommendations.
I visited NNP regularly in the late 1960s when I was a graduate student at the University of Nairobi starting out on my research and conservation work in Amboseli. The park in the early dry season was like a mini-Serengeti with long lines of zebra and wildebeest snaking back into the park from their wet season migrations on the Athi Plains. During the rains, large resident herds of kongoni, impala, warthog, gazelle and solitary territorial wildebeest dotted the short grass plains, giving lions and cheetahs abundant prey to keep them in the park. In the early 1970s, as I flew across the Athi Plains to Amboseli, I looked down on the tens of thousands of wildebeest and zebra stretching across the southern plains from Konza to the rift edge during the rains. Traffic on the Namanga Road was often held up for minutes by the migrating herds.
In the early 1980s when I bought land bordering the park, I wandered across the open plains, stretching unbroken to Kajiado, through large herds of eland, wildebeest and zebra, all milling about waiting to file across a narrow defile in the Mbagathi gorge into the park. Within a few years the wildebeest migrations were severed by residential housing. A solitary male hung on in a resident herd of impala on our land for a further year before he too disappeared. By then the tens of thousands of migratory animals on the Athi Plains had been whittled down by meat poachers, sprawling settlements and fences to a whisper of their former honking masses.
Once the migratory herds dwindled, long grasses and shrubs spang up with the falling grazing pressure and the suspension of burn management programs the wardens formerly used to prevent the invasion of rank vegetation. By the late 1980s, when it was clear that wildebeest were shunning the tall rank grasses in favor of the shorter grasslands on the Athi ranches to the south, I asked Helen Gichohi, a MS student at the time, to conduct an experimental burning program to restore the shorter grasslands. Her study showed how early burning to create shorter greener grasses became a magnate for wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and warthog, as they were in the 1960s (Gichohi, 1990). We went on to show that the more heavily grazed grasses outside the park were richer and more palatable than the rank grasslands inside. In other words, parks can lose their richness of wildlife and vegetation without restorative management (Western and Gichohi, 1994).
In the mid-1990s, as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service, I used the evidence of Helen’s work to begin restoring the dwindling wildlife numbers and grasslands using an experimental early burning program. The results were dramatic. For the next three years the burned area in the south west of the park drew in large herds of wildlife and an entourage of visitors. After I left KWS, conservation lobbyists pressured KWS to abandon the restoration program, arguing nature should be left unmanaged. The heavy El Niño rains of 1998 hastened the growth of tall vegetation and the decline of wildlife, especially the smaller species, including gazelles and warthogs. The dwindling herds of wildebeest and zebra returned to the park later each season and, the once resident herds in the rain season shrank too, lions and cheetahs began regularly attacking livestock outside the park.
By 2010 dense settlements spreading out from Ongata Rongai township and Tuala blocked all wildlife movements at the western end of the park. I saw the last cheetah shortly afterwards and worried about the mounting toll of lion and hyena attacks on livestock and dogs in the residential estates. The community, angry and scared, demanded KWS remove the predators and fence the park after a series night encounters. In December, the anger bubbled over when a person returning from Tuala late at night was eaten by a lion.
I’m no fan of fencing parks. I’ve done all I can to prevent that happening by promoting community-based conservation and nature enterprises as a win for park neighbors and wildlife. The 150-plus conservancies in Kenya testify to the success—where land is still open. Where parks are surrounded by a sea of settlement, the Aberdare, Shimba and Nakuru among them, fences are vital for protecting wildlife and people. I’ve promoted fencing in each of these cases and raised funds to electrify the fence hard up against the city on its northern and western boundaries. Yet I hold out the hope of avoiding fencing the park on its southern border.
How in any event would the park be fenced when the center of the Mbagathi River is the park boundary? The only option is to fence inside the river edge, but this would exclude the river, the park’s most important lifeline. There are other problems with fencing in the southern park. Unless the grasslands and wildlife are restored first, the park will become more of an ecological trap than conservation lifeline as predators drive down the depleted herds even further. The herbivores need as much space and movement as possible to sustain the interplay of predators, prey and healthy pastures.
Adding to the fencing problem, not all residents south of the park agree on the solutions. The Ongata Rongai and Tuala residents want the park fenced now, and there is no other option. The eastern end of the park remains open though, and the largely Maasai ranching community has joined a leasing program to keep wildlife on their lands, hoping to benefit from nature enterprises. Many oppose fencing altogether.
I’ve long advocated that the debate about whether to fence or not should be informed by what is to be fenced in and left out. Even if the park is to be fenced in, the abundance and diversity of plants and animals should be restored first to avoid further ecological decline. KWS is to be commended for making ecological restoration a primary plant of the 2020-2030 Plan. The restoration program stands to boost wildlife numbers, keep predators anchored in the park, improve habitat quality and diversity, and raise the park’s profile and visitor appeal.
I’ve suggested in the Swara article that the southern fence be considered in three phases, emulating the step-by-step approach to fencing in the Aberdare National Park.
For Phase 1, I’ve joined neighboring landowners along the Mbagathi River discussing with KWS a fence running along the back of our properties as far as Maasai Gate. This will give wildlife access to the river and use of our land and prevent predators from straying into the built-up Ongata Rongai and Tuala areas.
Phase 2, running from Maasai Gate to the overhead rail line, needs similar consultations to see how far into the Athi Plains the fence can extend.
Phase 3, from the rail line to the eastern border of the park, is far more contentions. Here most landowners are Maasai ranchers who have formed a wildlife conservancy and land leasing arrangements, hoping to benefit from wildlife on their land. The prospects for winning a large area of open space for wildlife are good yet call for detailed property and land surveys and open discussions. This will take time. Rushing ahead without due process will anger the community, frustrate KWS and short-change wildlife.
KWS should focus on getting agreement on the broad principles and strategies in the 2020-2030 plan for Nairobi National Park and work out the details as a part of its execution. As the plan stands, it is too saturated with details. It loses sight of the broad areas of agreement, public support and continuing engagement and refinement needed for the plan to succeed. No two issues in the plan need these open-minded flexible approaches more than ecological restoration and fencing.
Gichohi, H. W. (1990). The Effects of Fire and Grazing on the Grasslands of Nairobi National Park. MSc thesis. University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya.
Western, D. and Gichohi, H. (1994). Segregation effects and the impoverishment of savanna parks: the case for an ecosystem viability analysis. African Journal of Ecology 31 (4): 269-281.