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SOS Rhino : In the News : Nairobi National Park endangeredy

Nairobi National Park endangered


The East African
Tuesday, April 8, 2003

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 the plains.

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, and bush.

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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