by Paula Kahumbu

Nairobi, Jan 21 – Many people are shocked, as I am, by the approval given to hold two large-scale public events in Hell’s Gate National Park later this year. The Koroga Love Festival, on 14–15 February, and the East African leg of the World Rally Championship, scheduled for July, will attract thousands of people to the park for activities that have nothing to do with wildlife conservation. This is in clear contradiction to the purpose of the National Park “to protect natural biodiversity along with its underlying ecological structure and supporting environmental processes.”

Recreational and educational activities are allowed in our national parks, but only at levels that will not cause significant biological or ecological degradation to the natural resources.  The presence of so many thousands of people will inevitably cause profound disturbance to wildlife in the park, including leopard, zebra, gazelle, impala, hyena and many other species. A particular source of concern is the danger caused by the vast increase in the volume of motor traffic in and around the Park during the two events. Motor vehicles, especially travelling at high speed, are inherently dangerous to wildlife.

Hell’s Gate National Park is recognized by Birdlife International as an Important Bird Area of international significance. The park hosts the only protected breeding colony of Critically Endangered Ruppell’s Vultures in Kenya, and is a breeding site and/or foraging site for many other threatened birds of prey, including eagles, falcons, hawks, buzzards and owls. Both planned events will expose these birds to unacceptable levels of noise, night-time light and, in the case of the rally, overflying helicopters, which will surely disrupt breeding and feeding behaviour, or even drive the birds away from the area.

The Kenya Wildlife Service and the event organisers justify holding the events in the park by pointing to the economic benefits they will bring to the area. In my view, this is a lamentably short-sighted perspective. It is true that the two events will attract large numbers of visitors for a few days and make money for the organisers and local businesses. But these short-lived benefits are dwarfed by the potential of the Park to generate sustainable incomes from nature tourism and outdoor recreation for decades to come. This economic potential is completely dependent on maintaining the wildlife populations and unspoiled natural landscapes that attract visitors to the area.

Hell’s Gate National Park is already under threat. The construction of the geothermal energy plant has only added to pressures caused by rapid population growth and urbanisation in Naivasha and other areas around the park. Incessant human activity and ever-increasing traffic and noise pollution are scaring away the wildlife. Several species of vulture and other birds of prey that used to be common in the park now no longer breed there. Lions, leopards and wild dogs have already vanished from the park and populations of other species are falling. Tour companies are beginning to worry about how these developments will affect their business. Already there are reports of visitors expressing dismay at the condition of the park and saying they will not return. It is becoming impossible for the park to fulfil its function as a space for protection and tranquil enjoyment of the natural environment.

In these circumstances, it makes no sense to give permission for events that will bring in thousands of more people, and with them more traffic, more noise and more pollution. All our efforts should be focused on restoring the conservation value of critical habitats of Hell’s Gate National Park. That doesn’t mean keeping people out. Due to its location, close to Nairobi, Hell’s Gate has great potential to bring Kenyans closer to wildlife through activities that involve them, including environmental education, nature tourism and citizen science projects. These uses of the park would be in accordance with our National Conservation Strategy and its vision of a future where “Kenya’s wildlife is healthy, resilient and valued by Kenyans”. In 2020, we should be promoting activities in Hell’s Gate National Park that contribute to this vision, rather than events which threaten to undermine it.

Paula Kahumbu is Chief Executive Officer, WildlifeDirect