Death of Nairobi National Park: Why wildlife risks being wiped out


Bernardine Mutanu, The Daily Nation

Date Published

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Blood everywhere was all villagers of Kajiado North saw when they woke up one morning last year. Eric Tiampati will not forget that bloodbath. Sheep carcasses were strewn all over the village.

In total, 103 sheep had been killed over night by a pack of hyenas suspected to be from Nairobi, Amboseli or Tsavo national parks near his home in Kajiado North Sub-County. “We were told the wild animals were dumped in Kajiado from one of the parks, but they have become a great threat to our livestock,” he tells HealthyNation.

Three months ago, two people were killed by marauding elephants in Merueshi, Kajiado East Sub-County. Every now and then, lions get out of the parks and terrorise people along their path. “When there is drought, they get out of the park in search of food, sometimes they get into people’s houses,” says Tiampati.

But, Kajiado residents have decided they will not take the attacks lying down any longer. “If they (hyenas) attack, let’s say one sheep, we poison the carcass and put it in their path. Once they eat this, they’ll die,” says a villager who did not wish to be named.

This is neither the first nor the last incident of human-wildlife conflict in Kajiado County and elsewhere. The animals are in distress. Feeling trapped and with their habitats threatened, they now invade homes and farms. The result has been conflict.

Illegal Entry

The only park within a city and other wildlife parks may be facing weightier trouble than pastoralists and poaching. Nairobi National Park may in the next several years become a zoo. “The greatest threat to wildlife right now is infrastructure and human development. Land grabbing, fragmentation, fencing and developments on the southern side of Nairobi National Park will soon convert the park to a zoo,” says Director of Operations at East African Wildlife Society Daniel Letoiye.

A threat to wildlife is a threat to life as we know it. If wildlife is no longer able to migrate, plants will also be adversely affected. This is because in their movement, wild animals disperse seeds of different plants including grass.

During migration, the animals also till land by digging with their hooves and manure it, as well as prune shrubs. As a result, there is healthy vegetation cover and small animals thrive, water penetrates the soil, and biodiversity is improved.

It is Saturday afternoon when HealthyNation finds Tiampati herding his 63 cattle on the Southern Bypass outside the Nairobi National Park. But, he cannot allow the livestock to enter the park because he knows the consequences all too well.

“The park is government property and if we graze there, we will be in trouble,” says Tiampati, adding that they take their livestock anywhere there is grass, including to Tanzania, but not inside the national parks.

But others are not afraid, and graze inside protected areas. Illegal entry with livestock into national parks and game reserves form the bulk of breach of protected areas at 52 per cent, according to data from WildlifeDirect.

Between 2016 and 2017, there were 650 cases of illegal entry with livestock in national parks.

But, Tiampati and other pastoralists may not be the number one threat to wildlife survival in the country.

Letoiye says the southern side of the park is the only open migratory corridor for wildlife to and from Nairobi National Park.

This is because office buildings, factories and estates line the northern, eastern and western sides, blocking the crucial routes. But the southern corridor is also becoming narrower.

On the southern side, high-end estates and commercial buildings dot the landscape. A few kilometres away, over the horizon, are Syokimau, Kitengela and Athi River towns, which are growing exponentially and eating into Naretunoi Conservancy.

The “sheep and goats” conservancy, as Mr Letoiye calls it, is highly threatened and may soon disappear because of these towns.

It is the only avenue remaining for wildlife to roam freely from the park to Amboseli National Park, a home to at least 3,000 elephants, further south towards Tanzania, and vice versa.

Stuck for Days

Naretunoi is a Maasai word which means “to support each other”. However, the conservancy will be of no use to the wildlife in the next few years if nothing is done to stop destruction of wildlife migration corridors, dispersal areas and habitats.

“In wildlife conservation, 70 per cent of our wildlife is found outside parks. In the past 50 years, wildlife in Kenya has decreased by 68 per cent,” says Mr Letoiye.

Currently, the furthest some of the wildlife can go is Kitengela, he says, and it is common to see these animals stuck on one side of the standard gauge railway (SGR) for days.

There are tunnels under the SGR, designed to allow movement of wildlife, but these do not help. “Elephants find it hard to move when there is something above them. They get stressed. They may take some time before they get used to it and this affects their reproduction,” says Mr Letoiye.

In 2018, there were 40 lions in the park from nine in 2013. But lack of association with other animals in and outside the park over time will destroy not only the lion population but other wild animals inside the park.

Dickson ole Kaelo, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association CEO tells HealthyNation before the construction of Namanga road in the 90s and the numerous cement factories, the land demarcation and building of homes in the Athi-Kitengela plains, wildebeest would migrate to and from the park, but not any longer.

“We’ve made a mistake of failing to secure the migratory route between Nairobi National Park and the Machakos ranches. We are at the tail end of not being able to do anything to save it,” the conservationist says.

Sprouting of more commercial industries, which include cement manufacturing, horticulture, steelworks and export processing zones will be the final nail in the coffin for the park, he says.

This is because as these grow, towns like Athi River, Kitengela and Machakos are also getting bigger to accommodate the increasing population of people who work in these industries and institutions, according to the 2017 Kenya Vision 2030 report on Wildlife Corridors and Dispersal Areas.

With the construction of the Konza ICT City on the border of Machakos and Makueni counties, the Athi-Kaputiei Plains, a migration corridor and a dispersal area during the wet season, is under the greatest threat of destruction, states the report. “All we need is a serious drought and the park’s wildlife will be wiped out,” says Kaelo.

Large mammals require space to move and get food and water and to breed. Lions are territorial and could push other animals outside the territory into people’s homes.

On the other hand, the survival strategy for a cheetah is to walk for long distances in search of food. “Other kinds of wild animals like the rhino, wild dog and antelopes are sensitive and easily stressed. They prefer to move far away from people,” says Kaelo.

Inbreeding Concern

But these are now competing for space with farms, livestock and buildings. Coupled with other pressures like frequent droughts, floods and inbreeding, a possible scenario is to have a localised extinction (death within the park) of some species of wildlife, he says.

With no way out, there will be increased inbreeding. “For survival of a generation, diverse genes are needed. Inbreeding leads to weaker genes which make an offspring susceptible to diseases, genetic defects (malformation of body parts) and decreased body size,” says the conservationist.

Weaker species die, according to the theory of evolution — survival for the fittest.

For example, compared to Amboseli, the elephants at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve are smaller in size, “There’s no genetic diversity. The physical appearance of the elephants has been affected because they have been separated,” he says.

Mules born from interbreeding of the Grevy and common zebras are also common at Ol-Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia. The danger is that mules are infertile, meaning they cannot breed, further threatening an already endangered species.

Competition for resources and drought also drives Kaputiei Maasai pastoralists into Nairobi National Park. “The government should declare parks sacred. While we cannot avoid some development, lack of ideas and coordination is the greatest undoing to the conservation efforts,” says Dr Paula Kahumbu, the WildlifeDirect CEO.

Other national parks have also been affected, with eight per cent of the total land mass in the country covered by parks. Compared to the global recommended area of 17 per cent, the land mass occupied by parks in Kenya is very small.

In total, there are 65 national parks and reserves in the country and due to their small size, conservationists are calling for creation of more conservancies across the country. 

Currently, there are 160 conservancies in 28 counties, covering 6.5 million hectares of land. These counties include Narok, Kajiado, Lamu, Laikipia, Samburu, Nakuru, Isiolo and Taita-Taveta.

Provide Incentives

While fencing is an option to conservation, conservationists say it is expensive not only to species preservation, but to the government because it means providing food, water and mates for enclosed wild animals.

Consequently, this will affect tourism, one of Kenya’s biggest foreign currency and income earners. “We should not develop rangelands. Let’s adopt conservation,” says Kaelo.

To encourage people to conserve land for wildlife and to avoid construction, he proposes provision of incentives to land owners by the government.

Dr Erustus Kanga, the deputy director of Wildlife Conservation at the Environment ministry, acknowledges the challenge. “To reduce and reverse this trend, it is urgent to assess and secure Kenya’s wildlife migratory corridors and dispersal areas.”

“While much of Kenya’s wildlife depends on the protection of parks and reserves, healthy wildlife populations also need access to resources in the broader landscape outside protected areas,” says Kanga.

He says connections between populations increase the resilience of wildlife and communities in the face of rapid climate and land-use change. As such, the Tourism ministry in 2018 appointed a group to coordinate the implementation of the Wildlife Corridors and Dispersal Areas report to enhance coexistence between communities and wildlife.