By Nancy Ogonje

In 2023, plans to downgrade Amboseli National Park to a National Reserve, placing it under Kajiado County’s management, sparked concern in Kenya’s conservation community. This fear has materialized, with Taita-Taveta County now seeking control over Tsavo National Park.

These developments significantly threaten the conservation values and goals underpinning our cherished national heritage, which we must protect at all costs.

The East African Wild Life Society (EAWLS) has vehemently opposed the transfer of Amboseli National Park’s management to the Kajiado County Government. Our arguments are not speculative. They are grounded in legal, environmental, and ethical considerations. As stewards of Kenya’s natural treasures, we cannot afford to overlook the ramifications of such a decision.

First and foremost, the Kajiado County Government’s technical capacity to manage Amboseli National Park effectively needs to be revised at best. According to the Kenyan Constitution, any transfer of functions between levels of government must ensure that the recipient possesses superior capabilities. Yet little evidence suggests that Kajiado County is better equipped than the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to safeguard this ecological gem. A thorough assessment is imperative before such a critical decision is made.

Moreover, the implications of altering Amboseli’s status from a national park to a reserve are grave. This move would diminish its significance as a national resource benefiting millions and jeopardize its UNESCO designation as a Biosphere Reserve. The distinction between a national park and a reserve is not merely semantic; it delineates the scope of permissible activities within these protected areas. Downgrading Amboseli could expose it to increased human activity, posing a grave threat to its ecological integrity and tourism potential.

Furthermore, transferring park management responsibilities to Kajiado County raises questions about allocating functions and resources. It remains to be seen which tasks would be moved and whether the county government has adequate resources. Without proper delineation and allocation of responsibilities, the precious resources of Amboseli National Park cannot be protected.

Additionally, the historical justifications for this transfer are tenuous at best. Claims of land acquisition irregularities fail to withstand scrutiny, as evidenced by Ol Kajiado County Council’s endorsement of Amboseli’s gazettement as government land in 1970. Rather than resorting to drastic measures like park downgrading, avenues for addressing historical injustices should be pursued through legal channels without undermining the park’s protected status.

Perhaps most concerning is the precedent such a decision would set for wildlife governance in Kenya. By devolving park management to county administrations, we risk diluting the authority and expertise vested in institutions like the KWS. Already, other communities are eyeing similar demands, threatening to unravel decades of progress in wildlife conservation. As Kenya contemplates drafting new wildlife legislation, this issue must receive the scrutiny it deserves, with ample public participation to safeguard our natural heritage. Moreover, the economic implications of downgrading Amboseli National Park must be considered.

Amboseli National Park, a prominent tourist destination in Kenya, earns significant revenue from tourism, part of which aids conservation efforts. With approximately 2,000 elephants roaming its grounds and adjacent Enduimet Wildlife Management Area in Tanzania, it’s a premier site for observing these majestic creatures. Handing over the park’s management to a county government that lacks wildlife conservation expertise and resources poses a threat to this vital source of income.

It is crucial to emphasize that the proposed transfer of protected areas does not guarantee increased benefits to the local community despite allegations suggesting otherwise. It’s essential to advocate for a robust discourse to examine the benefit-sharing mechanisms of protected areas in Kenya. This discourse should aim to develop a practical formula integrated into the wildlife legislative framework. This is particularly pertinent given the ongoing drafting of new wildlife laws to align with the National Wildlife Policy 2020. By embedding a fair and effective benefit-sharing mechanism within the legal framework, we can ensure that local communities receive their rightful share of the benefits derived from protected areas, fostering sustainable conservation efforts and equitable development.

In conclusion, transferring Amboseli National Park’s management to the Kajiado County Government represents a dangerous step backwards for conservation efforts in Kenya. The implications extend far beyond the local community, impacting the nation’s wildlife governance framework and diminishing a resource cherished by millions. The preservation of Amboseli National Park must remain a collective priority, grounded in sound conservation principles and informed decision-making. We must uphold the integrity of our protected areas and ensure that they continue to thrive for generations to come.

Nancy Ogonje is the Executive Director of the East African Wild Life Society