The East African
Tuesday, April 8, 2003
By ALI A. KAKA
Our world-famous game park is in decline. The animal numbers are
steadily decreasing and so is the number of visitors. The city is
growing and land is in short supply. If the park does not make money,
the pressure to excise land from it will mount.
The game numbers have been diminishing steadily in the last 25
- 30 years but the last two years, 2001 and 2002, were the first
in memory when the wildebeest failed to migrate.
The absence of wildebeest from the park alarmed many, in particular
FoNNaP (Friends of Nairobi National Park). Various hypotheses have
been advanced to explain the failure and various proposals tabled
to safeguard the park's future.
Recently, two petitions have reached the Kenya Wildlife Service.
One group urges the KWS to become involved in the creation of corridors
through Kitengela that would allow the game to continue migrating,
while others urge the authorities to fence off the park altogether.
To understand the present and thus make rational decisions for
the future, one is obliged to study the past.
Influx of the white man
In the 1880s the plains extending from the Machakos Hills to Thika
and Nairobi and all the land to the south was Maasai country. The
Maasai have been one of the dominant tribes in the East African
region. Then misfortune struck: smallpox, rinderpest and drought
severely decimated the Maasai and their stock. At the same time,
the game population went down drastically.
The first to recover from the disaster were the animals. When the
influx of the white man began around the turn of the century, the
plains were teaming with game and there were hardly any people or
domestic animals around.
Because of the scarcity of permanent water on the plains, particularly
between Konza, Kajiado and the escarpment in the west, the plains
game, such as zebra and wildebeest, and also gazelles and various
antelopes, migrated every dry season to the Mbagathi and Athi Rivers
in the north. The herbivores were followed by carnivores. Between
the two world wars, massive numbers of game concentrated on the
outskirts of Nairobi.
The colonial government decided to protect the wildlife by establishing
game reserves. The Nairobi Game Reserve extended from Nairobi to
beyond Kajiado and far to the west into the Rift Valley.
The entire Maasailand was communal land. The population, as well
as domestic stock, increased. The Maasai began to recover from the
disasters that had befallen them in the late 19th century. Also,
they received a sprinkling of Western technology, allowing children
to survive in larger numbers.
Significantly, after they lost their land to the settlers in the
north, the northern Maasai were transferred to the south. For all
these reasons, there was again a large concentration of Maasai on
Eventually, the Nairobi Game Reserve was degazetted. The Maasai,
their stock and the great herds of game inhabited the plains south
of Nairobi whilst the area between Thika and Machakos all the way
to Embakasi was given to settlers. They cleared their farms of large
game animals (the black rhino was considered to be vermin and a
bounty was paid to the hunter who presented a tail).
Concepts of land ownership
Eventually, after World War II, Nairobi National Park was established.
Barely 100 square kilometres in size, the park was considered a
dry season sanctuary for the game which spent more than half of
the year south of the park.
One particular area abutting into the Park and located between
the Namanga road and the escarpment was designated the "Kitengela
Game Dispersal Area".
By the mid-1970s, the rate of population growth – as elsewhere
in Africa – became a burden. At the same time "modern"
concepts of land ownership were implemented and much of Kitengela
and beyond became private land.
This change in land ownership in turn facilitated change in land
use. In 25 years, Kitengela has become unrecognisable. Flower farms,
vegetable farms, ostrich farms, and maize fields abound. The human
population and the number of domestic stock increased manyfold.
There are water holes, wells, boreholes, and pipelines. To complicate
matters, some tycoons bought land on the Mbagathi river and built
their homes there, driving up land prices.
Still, until recently, wildlife survived in considerable numbers
and managed to find its way between walled establishments, fenced
farms and stately residences into the park.
However, by the mid-eighties, there was an obvious decline, yet
the Government did nothing, and the conservation community, fearing
the Government, said nothing. Hundreds of kilometres of fences have
been erected in the Kitengela. The Athi River EPZ grew further and
further into the easternmost migration route and the Mbagathi river
began to dwindle due to water abstraction at Ongata Rongai. The
little water that still flows is heavily polluted.
Grasslands have deteriorated
In the meantime, the national park philosophy, inherited from the
conservationists of yesteryear, eschewed "management",
which would mean interference with the ways of nature.
Compared to 1976, by 2001, the game numbers in the entire ecosystem
has declined by as much as 80 per cent. At the same time, due to
lack of comprehensive management, the grasslands within the park
have deteriorated to the extent that perhaps half of the former
area available to grazers is covered by unpalatable grass, weed,
Because of the scarcity of herbivores in the park, the predators
are persuaded to hunt in the Kitengela where the supply of prey
among domestic stock is inexhaustible.
To complete the picture, in recent years, the bush meat trade has
burgeoned and, unsurprisingly, in the vicinity of the city, game
does not have much chance of survival.
Optimists believe that all is not lost and the future of the dispersal
areas and the migrations can be safeguarded if the people out there
derive economic benefit from protecting the game and the migration
routes designed by men. This concept is the basis of the land lease
scheme, originated by FoNNaP: People get regular easement payments
if they do not fence their land, use it in the "traditional"
way and tolerate game.
Mr Kaka is the chairman of the East African Wild Life Society. Read
Part II of this article tomorrow.
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