Like the Colosseum of Italy, national parks, wildlife and forests are our national heritage

Tuesday March 6 2018


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A few days ago, the government of Kenya announced a three-month ban on logging in forests in all government — and community-owned land.

This comes in the wake of a serious shortage of water in many parts of the country as a result of poor or no rainfall. What had been prophesied has come to pass in our lifetime.

A decade a go, Wangari Maathai warned Kenyans that reckless depletion of forest cover would come to threaten the country’s very survival. Then, she was seen less as a visionary than Public Enemy Number One.

But all she was doing was to encourage Kenyans and people around the world to take responsibility for the protection of our own environment. She fought against the grabbing of green spaces, riparian lands and water towers.

Then president Daniel arap Moi declared that she had “insects in her head.” She suffered beatings, death threats, insults that painted her as a woman of loose morals, and jail.

But her brave activism saved Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, and slowed down the destruction of Karura Forest, in Nairobi, while at the same time educating us all about the close relationship between environmental health and our own survival.

While Uhuru Park was safe, development activities and logging went on clandestinely inside the Karura Forest. Without commitment of government to environmental protection, the environment will always be at risk.

The government is the one that licences logging in forests, parcels out water catchment areas for human settlement and agriculture, licenses building on riparian lands, and is the one that grabs acreage of protected areas such as national parks ostensibly for national development.

Besides Wangari Maathai, there have been others fighting encroachment on national parks, destruction of marine reserves and lakeside ecosystems and poaching.

Nairobi National Park

They too are discovering that without government commitment, victories are precarious. The case of the Nairobi National Park is as telling as it is tragic.

The park gives Nairobi the singular distinction of being the only capital city in the world with a national park populated with big game within its environs.

In other regions in the world, such a magnificent and unique heritage would be protected by any means necessary. Over the years, the park’s acreage has been dwindling, such that, in recent times, there have been incidents of lions roaming outside the park, along city highways, endangering both human life and themselves. Some have had to be killed.

Now, with its space even further shrinking through the hiving off of swathes of land to build the standard gauge railway, with fumes from cars poisoning the park, noise from trains and other activities disrupting behaviour such as breeding, lights from the ever approaching city affecting nocturnal hunting and the psychological wellbeing of the animals, I don’t see the Nairobi National Park surviving beyond the next couple of years.

It sounds horrible to say, but the honest thing to do now would be to move the remaining animals to other parks before these parks too suffer the same fate. With the animals relocated, the hidden scramble for the park by powerful individuals can now happen in the open.

Breakdown of systems

Kenya is losing other gems too. Despite warning by experts, the flower farms that are choking to death Lake Naivasha and its ecosystem just 100km west of Nairobi, seem to have a free rein.

The variety and abundance of birds that once made the lake a world-famous destination have disappeared over the years. In similar vein, reclaiming of Mau Forest, one of Kenya’s major water towers, seems to have been abandoned in the face of opposition from powerful politicians and individuals who had converted thousands of acres into tea plantations and human settlements.

The Lesser flamingos that turn Lake Nakuru pink are also becoming fewer. The world-famous Masai Mara National Park is also under pressure from human encroachment as more investors get licensed to build hotels inside the park.

Poaching in national parks around the country has reduced some species to near extinction, and in a few years some magnificent species such as the rhino will only be seen in captivity. Greed is on a relentless march.

The ban on logging might have come too late in the day. Trees need years to grow, and the culture of greed has become insidious and therefore difficult to stop.

Besides, from the Mau experience, only small loggers will be arrested, as powerful and well-connected loggers continue with the business. But the day of reckoning is drawing ever nearer as parks die, rivers and lakes dry up, fertile lands become deserts, mountains become bare, species disappear and rain becomes a myth.

Residents of Venice do everything possible to protect their unique city. Italians and Greeks spend large sums of money to preserve their coliseums and chapels. That is their heritage. It defines their cities and countries. In Kenya we destroy our heritage for pieces of silver.