July 26, 2005

People, pollution threaten Nairobi wildlife

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

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."


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

"The old park has already vanished and what remains is just
a sick and mismanaged relic."

(Additional reporting by Garrick Anderson)