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Monday, October 31, 2016

We can build the SGR and conserve nature

Last Wednesday, October 19 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the second phase of the SGR (Standard Gauge Railway). Speaking at Em-bulbul in Kajiado County, the President took the opportunity to speak out on the SGR and Nairobi National Park (NNP).

According to President Kenyatta, “the construction of the SGR will not cause any disruption to NNP”. Moreover, the President added, “every care has been taken to ensure that there is no environmental degradation and the animals will be taken care of”. In the governments view, the construction of the 18 meter high 6.4-kilometer single line elevated bridge will not disrupt wildlife or compromise the ecological integrity of Kenya’s oldest national park.

President Kenyatta’s remarks were directed to the conservation community and some politicians who in the President’s view are “inciting people against the project passing through NNP”.  According to conservation groups, building the single line bridge across NNP will destroy the park’s ecosystem and displace wildlife from their natural habitat.

The President’s remarks are especially weighty especially after the National Environment Tribunal ordered China Road and Bridge Corporation (Kenya) to stop construction of SGR Phase 2A until the appeal filed by Mr. Okiya Okoiti and Kenya Coalition of Conservation and Management against NEMA is heard and determined.

In the President’s view, “we have a big opportunity to grow our economy”. President Kenyatta’s view is perhaps informed by some experts who claim that the completion of the SGR will add 1.5 percent to Kenya’s GDP while boosting trade by – surprise, surprise – supporting the tourism industry. But according to conservation groups, hiving off sections of NNP erode wilderness quality and attractiveness of the park, hence affect tourism.

Conservationists and the government are digging in for battle. What do ecologists know about conservation and infrastructure? The impact of Infrastructure on biodiversity has spawned a new and active field of study known as “road ecology”.

Known impacts of roads, railways and pipeline include effects on species diversity, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. For these impacts there are standard pre-construction mitigation measures including enhancement and creation of replacement habitats and management of pests and weeds.

What ecologists do not know is how infrastructure corridors (on the surface or elevated) reduce habitat permeability or the ease with which wildlife moves through the landscape. Moreover, ecologist knowledge about how transportation infrastructure affects behavioral responses and hence, within or between species interactions. Such interactions could have huge consequences on mortality – through predation – or breeding success among major groups of wildlife.

Acting in combination with the increasing isolation and reduction in size of NNP, the impact of infrastructure on wildlife could touch off an inexorable and catastrophic extinction of significant biodiversity in NNP. In my view NNP is the quintessential fragile wilderness on the precipice. We must not push it.

Now is the time to heed the words of Prophet Isaiah;  “Come now let us reason together” for the sake of posterity. We can preserve the riches of nature and grow our economy.

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