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Obama highlights wonders of Tsavo, as park fights off old and emerging threats

Ostrich at the Tsavo National Park [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

A recent docuseries by former American President Barack Obama shines light on the importance of the world’s protected areas in the fight against climate change and maintaining the ever important balance in the ecosystem.

In the search for this connection, the former US head of state takes viewers into some of the world’s most iconic parks, highlighting their importance.

“A wilderness of boundless space, breath-taking beauty and wildlife on epic scale,” Obama says of Tsavo National Park, one of the five parks featured in the series.

The Tsavo Conservation area is made up of two national parks – the Tsavo East National Park and the Tsavo West National Park, each of them unique, supporting a wide array of flora and fauna.

The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) describes Tsavo West as ‘a beautiful, rugged wilderness.’

“The Savannah ecosystem comprises open grasslands, scrublands, and Acacia woodlands, belts of riverine vegetation and rocky ridges including the Poacher’s Lookout where visitors can see the teeming herds in the plains below,” says the KWS.

“It offers some of the most magnificent game viewing in the world and its attractions include elephant, rhino, hippos, lions, cheetah, leopards, buffalos, diverse plant and bird species including the threatened corncrake and near threatened basra reed warbler.”

Here lies the famed Mzima Springs and the incomparable Shetani lava flows, coming together to create the perfect ecosystem for the big cats, rhinos as well as a prolific bird population.

Tsavo East is described as a theatre of the wild.

In this section of this wide landscape, elephants roam the Savannah, traversing the Galana River with the 300-kilometre long Yatta Plateau acting as their playground. Here, elephants, rhinos, buffaloes, lions and hippos roam free.

But, like everything else in life, this wilderness is coming under increasing threat from new and old foes such as prolonged droughts, wildfires and poachers. Emerging threats are such as an increased appetite for infrastructural development.

“In recent years, Kenya’s climate has become less predictable and more extreme,” Obama says in the documentary.

This extreme weather has come with other pressures. In 2020, suspected arsonists lit numerous fires within the park that led to the destruction of thousands of acres of pasture for the animals. It took three days for the fires to be put out.

The most threatening of these, being the infrastructure boom witnessed not just around the country, but all across the continent. Through a combination of development grants and loans, Africa looks like one big construction site.

In 2017, Tsavo also saw its fair share of mortar. A Chinese financed railway was built alongside the century-old Lunatic Express line in a bid to re-link Kenya’s port city of Mombasa to the capital Nairobi amid public outcry.

At the time, arguments being made for or against the project had no middle ground. Many were forced to choose between being for the project or against it. This stance, some argue, has become one of the most touted ‘false balances’ in conservation.

“Conservation is not going to be successful without development,” Kaddu Sebunya, the chief executive officer of the Africa Wildlife Foundation says. “We have to challenge ourselves in ensuring the continent embraces the future and creates an Africa that makes wildlife and wild lands a centre piece of sustainable development.”

Mr Sebunya argues that conservation and development are not mutually exclusive and that governments and conservationists shouldn’t always be at loggerheads.

“We can build our cities, and we can keep wildlife and wild lands secure. The two can go hand in hand. We do not have to sacrifice one for the other,” he says.

The trick though, would be for governments to strike this balance. For instance, the building of the SGR came with the promise of better funding for the parks that the railway cut through. 

Tsavo West National Park entrance in Mtito Andei in Makueni [David Gichuru,Standard]

In 2019, the Auditor General reported that KWS was due to receive some Sh9.2 billion in compensation for land hived off national parks to make space for some 133km of railway track.

As this happened though, KWS’ funding was cut drastically by Parliament in successive budgets, and most of these funds, at least those that were deposited by the Treasury to KWS, ended up plugging the gaps brought about by the funding cuts to KWS.

“This shortfall in government funding made operations difficult and as a stop-gap measure, the board of trustees approved utilisation of SGR funds and during the supplementary budget requested the National Treasury through the parent ministry for authority to utilise the SGR funds,” Mr John Waweru, the KWS Director General told a parliamentary sitting in March 2019.

Originally, compensation from the SGR project were meant to cater for environmental restoration in areas where natural habitats had been destroyed as well as the movement of structures lying in the path of the railway.

National parks continue to struggle to keep afloat with the demands of a more sophisticated visitor. Facilities in iconic parks such as Tsavo East and Tsavo West, in spite of the incredible gifts by nature, continue to ride on fame and achievements of the past to keep visitors coming through its gates.

Perhaps though, spurred by the docuseries, both state and non-state actors will look to find a better balance in their quest to develop their nations while maintaining the landscapes that provide the bedrock that holds up their nations.

Kenya’s tourism sector, which is largely nature-based, contributes just under 10 per cent of the country’s GDP.

“To be successful, we will need strong alliances that bring different sectors together if we are to overcome the challenges of wildlife protection and conservation,” Mr Sebunya says. “We will only be prosperous if we focus our work in advising, assisting and holding the national governments and Africa’s people accountable.”

Obama’s docuseries, Our Great National Parks, is currently streaming on Netflix. His experience of Tsavo is the third episode of the limited edition series.