Kenya is at a crucial juncture. We have a choice to make about what we want our country to be.
The big infrastructure projects that are being developed now will in many ways be the foundations of our future. They can be built fast, with little consultation and minimal planning, gambling away a piece of national heritage.
Or they can be built taking longer-term considerations such as the environment into account, giving us a base on which we can create the tomorrow our country deserves.
Tsavo is home to more than 12,000 elephants, the largest population in Kenya, and has the potential to increase its current population of 120 critically endangered black rhino to at least 8,000, a figure it once held in the 1970s.
Nairobi National Park is another important sanctuary. Kenya prides in its being the only national park in a capital city. It has supplied founder black rhinos to more than half the rhino sanctuaries in Kenya.
Yet, these two parks are at crossroads with development.
It is of crucial importance that the 487km standard gauge railway (SGR) from Mombasa to Nairobi, operational since June 2017, provided for some wildlife-crossing structures to preserve a contiguous habitat in Tsavo.
A 135km stretch of it in Tsavo is fenced on both sides, leaving less than 10km of openings for wildlife underneath – in other words, more than 90 per cent of that stretch is no longer passable for wildlife.
In Nairobi Park, a 6km stretch of Phase 2 of the SGR will cut through the western portion of the park on high pillars. Ideally, though, this stretch in Nairobi should be aligned with highways on the peripheries of the Park to minimise environmental impacts.
In the latest round of development plans, a 473km, six-lane, high-speed expressway from Mombasa to Nairobi is planned. More than one third of this road will be fenced off inside Tsavo and in the wildlife dispersal areas of Nairobi Park.
Despite assurances by contractors, the question in the minds of many conservationists is whether wildlife needs will be adequately addressed. The fear among all who care about our rich natural heritage is whether the die has already been cast.
Local environmental and conservation scientists should be engaged, right from the initial planning and budgeting phases.
Kenya’s Vision 2030 development blueprint and the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals place equal weight on development and environment. In practice, though, we continue to see infrastructure development suffocating nature in many places.
The planned Nairobi-Mombasa expressway and the SGR present Kenya with an opportunity to promote itself as an exemplary African country in showing just how mega-infrastructure and conservation can work together in fulfilling wider development goals.
In order to achieve these development and environmental goals, however, the expressway and the SGR must provide appropriate prevention and mitigation measures and offset lost habitat.
The contracted companies and associates should partner with the relevant ministries to set clear plans for “no net loss” or “a net gain” in contiguous pristine habitat, species viability and ecosystem functions, alongside public use and cultural values associated with wildlife.
Offsets through financial compensation could be made, for example, by apportioning a percentage of the expressway’s toll fee to wildlife. Similarly, small percentages on top of ticket prices and cargo rates could be made to offset the effects of the SGR. Legislators could fold such offset mechanisms into laws by making them mandatory.
The infrastructure should also be contained in a defined transport corridor. Kenya has six pieces of mega-infrastructure passing through Tsavo, or planned to pass through it.
These include the SGR, the 100-year-old railway, the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, the high voltage power gridline, the oil pipeline and now the proposed expressway.
Already, wildlife is getting trapped between the old railway and the SGR, a problem compounded by illegal settlements within them blocking wildlife paths.
Keeping infrastructure together would reduce its long-term cost and environmental impact. The relevant ministries of rails, roads, pipelines and power lines should consult on this matter during the planning process and find a way of consolidating their efforts.
Lastly, continuous engagement between expressway and SGR contractors and Kenyan environmental scientists and conservation practitioners are essential.
The Kenya Wildlife Service and other conservation organisations have sufficient data on wildlife movements, distribution and numbers and have local capacity to analyse, interpret and advise the contractors on the appropriate placements, types and designs of wildlife-crossing structures.
We remain hopeful that all is not lost on matters of conservation and the environment. Our greatness as a nation, as Mahatma Gandhi put it, will be judged by the way we treat our animals.
Dr Okita-Ouma is the head of scientific monitoring at Save the Elephants, and the deputy chair of the IUCN Rhino Specialist Group and board director of the Conservation Alliance of Kenya.