“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of Ngong Hills.” These first few words of Karen Blixen’s Magnum Opus inspired generations of travelers to venture into the heart of Africa; they described a land, rich not in minerals or soils, but in peoples and cultures. And they opened the gateway to the preservation of these lands that still persist today.
For those of you that have been fortunate enough to have travelled to Kenya or Nairobi, you have no doubt heard of Nairobi National Park. Famous for being known as the “only National Park next to a capital city,” Nairobi National Park provides a perfect opportunity for residents of the city to escape from their day-jobs and enjoy a taste of the Africa of old.
Most safari-goers, on the other hand, only know the park from air. Any trip into or out of the Masai Mara passes directly over the 11,500-hectare reserve. And often, you get your first glimpse of some giraffe or zebra as you Cessna takes off or lands into Wilson Airport. The park serves as a passage way into Narok and onto Africa’s Great Plains. And if you’re keen, you may be able to observe the point in which the Athi Grasslands rise up from the Earth to form the place known as Ngong.
But after ten minutes, the protected reserve transitions into farmland and grazing pastures. You wave goodbye to Nairobi and its national park and your attention turns squarely to your newest expedition. The five minutes of beauty and wonder is quickly forgotten and the park becomes but a distant memory.
Yet Nairobi National Park represents so much more than a doorway into greener pastures. And not until you have the chance to explore its farthest reaches will you realize just how significant it is for the future of the African continent. The park receives an estimated 150,000 visitors a year – certainly not an immaterial number. But out of those 150,000 visitors, over 10,000 are local school children from neighboring Nairobi.
The Kenyan Wildlife Service offers substantial discounts for local citizens and quite actively encourage locals to take advantage of the park. Such practices are a rarity in other African nations, but these impacts of these efforts could not be more underscored. By encouraging locals to visit these parks, Kenya has created a generation-wide interest in conserving its wildlife and protected areas. However, a new force has arrived that could threaten the sanctity of Kenya’s wild places; one that countries all over the continent are beginning to come to terms with: development.
Last year, five of the eight fastest growing economies in the world were African. Foreign Direct Investment to the continent has increased almost ten-fold in the past ten years. And – perhaps most shockingly – a recent UN report estimates that half of the world’s population growth over the next fifty years will be in Africa. Driving down the streets of Nairobi or Johannesburg, Addis Ababa or Kigali, one can’t help but marvel at the sheer volume of construction. Nearly every one hundred meters a soon-to-be burgeoning sky-scraper is in the process of being built. Often with Chinese letters on the construction site demarcating the nation’s increasing shift towards the African continent.
But what does this mean for the continent’s wildlife and natural places? An initial assessment would lead you to believe that this is cause for great concern. After all, industrialization and conservation have almost always come at competing ends of the development spectrum. Yet, Africa faces a more perplexing dilemma than any of international counterparts.
Kenya, Botswana, Zambia, and South Africa all rely heavily on tourism as a backbone of their economic success. In fact, 1 in 10 jobs across the continent are supported as a result of the service industry. In 2028, it is estimated that the number of tourists travelling to the continent could rise to as much as 118 million! And eco-based tourism forms the largest segment of this travel.
So, how can countries such as Kenya and Rwanda balance the scales of industrialization without compromising the ever-important travel and tourism industry? Well, if you have a concrete answer to this then you should probably apply for a job at the UN immediately! But such countries have started instituting new initiatives to try and solve this dilemma. One such example of this is Kenya’s brand new Standard Gauge Railway – or the SGR.
Unless you live in East Africa, the term SGR is likely foreign to you. However, across the region it has been both widely acclaimed and heavily criticized. The SGR is a $4 billion infrastructure project that aims to connect Kenya’s largest port Mombasa to nearly every country in the region. It runs from the coast all the way through Nairobi, up to Naivasha and on to Uganda. From there, it branches out all the way Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and on to the DRC. The SGR is no doubt an engineering marvel, but perhaps its most interesting element is the way it intersects Kenya’s world famous National Park.
That’s right. Based on the current design, the Standard Gauge Railway cuts right through the heart of some of Kenya’s most iconic National Parks. The rail has already been built through Tsavo National Park. And it doesn’t end there. Despite waves of protest across the country, the Kenyan government decided to move forward with its plans to have the SGR cut through the iconic Nairobi National Park.
“But how could this be” you may ask. “Wouldn’t there be constant collisions between the railway and animals?” The answer to this is yes. But to minimize such damages, the government made the decision to build the railway raise throughout the parks. This allows animals to pass underneath the trains, theoretically “unphased.”
Critics point to increased accessibility for poachers into the park, sound pollution, and mass littering as sticking point against such development. And that doesn’t even include the ethical dilemmas of putting a railway through such a protected area.
However, as Africa’s exponential growth continues, new and innovative solutions are essential for these two paths to coexist.
So, next time you come on safari to the Masai Mara or Amboseli I implore you to do the following: take an extra day or two at the beginning (or end) of your trip and spend it in and around Nairobi. The “Silicon Savannah” is ripe with innovation, the city is young and bustling, and there’s wildlife around the corner. Nairobi truly embodies the two distinct paths that Africa is facing. And without understanding one, you will never truly be able to understand the other.
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