Environmental News Archive

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28.7.05

People, pollution threaten Nairobi wildlife

26 July, Reuters
By Andrew Cawthorne

NAIROBI (Reuters) - A giraffe nibbles lazily at an acacia tree. Buffalos graze on the plains. Tourists with binoculars scan for hippos in streams running down wooded hills. It may look like a typical view of an idyllic African safari -- but Nairobi National Park is rather different.

Just yards behind the safari park outside the Kenyan capital, factories belch gray smoke into the sky while a slum pushes ever closer to the fence. Aircraft roar over the park from a nearby airport, though there is barely a rustle from the animals below, so used are they to noise pollution.

On the other side, where the park melds into the plains of the Rift Valley, hundreds of homesteads dot the landscape, blocking the migration in and out for thousands of wild animals.

As it approaches its 60th anniversary in 2006, campaigners warn that Nairobi National Park -- one of Africa's oldest and most unique -- may soon go out of existence if the urban sprawl continues and tourists are put off by falling animal numbers.

"This is the only natural park right next to a city on earth. And this was east Africa's first designated national park," senior warden Gideon Amboga said. "But the problems it faces are immense. The future of the park is under threat if we do not take serious measures now."

A combination of diverse factors including pollution, population growth and poaching have left the park in a precarious situation and animal numbers dwindling drastically.

Once teeming with animals, and famous for its unique black rhino population, the park is already becoming a shadow of its former self as a major tourist attraction and animal sanctuary

A mere eight or so lions remain in the 117 square km park, according to one local group running a Web Site called "Save the Nairobi National Park Lions." Wildebeest numbers have dropped from 9,742 in 1990 to just 64 in 2002, said the group's Ian Cowie, son of a park founder, showing Kenya Wildlife Service figures. Zebras are down from 2,566 to 1,403 over the same period, while impala are down to 419 from 1,298..

"Unless something happens within the next year, it's gone," Cowie said of the park's plight.

Local Kenyan media have also taken up the cause. "Nairobi mauls its own wildlife," was how the daily Nation put it in a recent headline. "Having accepted that the march to progress is inevitable, we must face up to the fact that man-made hazards, such as population encroachment and pollution, will continue," it said in an editorial.

"So we must work out a counter-strategy to sustain the wildlife habitat ... If no action is taken now, this wonderful heritage could be lost for ever."

Kenya Wildlife Service, which runs the park, says it has begun aggressive measures to save the sanctuary. It wants to subject the 30 or so factories on the northern city side to annual "environmental audits" to reduce pollution. It is negotiating with settlers on the southern side -- where the animals used to migrate in huge numbers -- to at least avoid fence structures on their land.

"In 1966, we had two Maasai homesteads. Now there are more than 1,000," Amboga said as he drove round the park on a recent afternoon. "The settlements here have almost blocked the entrance. But bit-by-bit we're reaching agreements with people to not fence but let wildlife graze on their land."

TOURISM NEEDED

There is also the perennial problem of poaching for lucrative bush-meat. Poachers lace the park with snares and also use torches at night to stun animals.

The growing proliferation of flower farms upstream are also threatening the park's water supplies. "They are boring holes which are destroying the water basin. If this continues, we will have a barren aquifer. The government has to regulate this," Amboga said.

The park faces a vicious circle if matters do not improve. Tourism numbers, at about 10,000 a month, are already low for a park right next to a capital city of about three million which is the main arrivals hub for visitors to east Africa. But those numbers -- with their all-important revenues to finance improvements -- are unlikely to grow if the park's wildlife stock becomes more depleted.

"The lions were the main attraction to the park," Cowie said. "Without these lions there are not enough kills to maintain lower tiers of life," he added, citing the chain of life from vultures and other scavengers down to insects.

In a charged debate among local wildlife experts, some are recommending the park be fenced off completely. That would block what is left of the migration and, say opponents, "strangle" the park. But at least it would halt the interaction between people and animals at the mouth of the park and allow for close management of remaining stock.

"If the fencing is done, it should be possible in the coming years to capture the trickle of animals that still exists," said Imre Loefler, of the East Africa Wildlife Society. "The old park has already vanished and what remains is just a sick and mismanaged relic."

(Original article)