Loise Matunge would have been enviably wealthy had she agreed to sell even an eighth of her expansive land, which lies next to the world’s only national park located within a city.
With Nairobi nippily advancing towards Athi River and Kitengela towns in Kajiado County, where Matunge lives, the 75-year-old often receives offers from developers eyeing her 170 acres of prime land with the aim of turning it into property worth millions of shillings.
But the Maasai pastoralist won’t yield an inch. She won’t sell, and she has no intention of selling.
She and several fellow pastoralists who hail from Kitengela, the town that borders the metropolis to the south, have opened up acres of their land to the community wildlife conservancy for paltry returns.
Their selfless act, offering their farms for wildlife conservation rather than give in to the soaring pressure from an eager real estate market, is best appreciated when standing at the nearby Embakasi Primary School.
At the school, which sits between Athi River town and Nairobi National Park, one’s eye easily takes in the panoramic beauty of the adjacent wildlife haven.
THIRST FOR EDUCATION
During the rainy season, when the grass in the park grows past the knees, small and large herbivores, wary of the bushy grasslands where their predators lie in wait, find solace in the grassy plains outside the park where they can spot an approaching predator.
But the wonder of watching the zebras, gazelles, ostriches, wildebeests and cattle grazing side by side does not last long, as the mushrooming skyscrapers extending towards the park from the north quickly soar into view.
One wonders what would become of the park if this trend continues for another year.
“I’m very happy seeing the wild animals grazing here alongside my cattle. This has been our way of life for a long time, and I would like to see it continue,” says Matunge.
With many Athi locals increasingly finding it difficult to resist the temptation to sell, partition or fence off their lands, a non-governmental conservation organisation came up with a lease payment programme to encourage them to hold on to their land.
Under the programme, pastoralists who have offered their land to the conservancy are paid Sh500 an acre every year for not fencing off their farms or for keeping them open for wildlife grazing.
The money is paid to them three times a year, towards the beginning of every school term for their children’s school fees.
Worth noting is that many locals here sell their land to educate their children.
Tarayia Semei Karusei, who has leased 60 acres of his land to the conservancy, says he uses the proceeds from the lease programme to educate his three children in high school and college.
“We are given cheques a few days before the school opens, which is convenient because I channel the money directly to school fees,” explained Karusei, who agrees that the money they get, though not a lot, has been beneficial to many locals.
With more than 2,000 acres of land around the park under the community conservancy for the wildlife, the animals here can now use the park as a fallback grazing area.
The conservation efforts are paying off, too. Nickon Parmisa, the area chief, observes that the project has significantly contributed to the rise in wildlife population, especially of lions, at Nairobi National Park.
“There were about nine lions in the park in 2003, now there are 42 lions and 27 cabs. We advise the community not to sell their land because they can still retain it and still get school fess for their children,” Parmisa pointed out.
He added: “Locals now contact us when they spot a stray lion or leopard rather than kill it. We then we call the Kenya Wildlife Service to come for it.”
The project, he said, aims to secure the wildlife dispersal areas between Amboseli and Maasai Mara national parks.
The lease payment programme, spearheaded by The Wildlife Foundation (TWF), started in 2000 with funding from the World Bank. At the time, it had 55,000 acres of land under lease.
The programme ran through to 2014, when the World Bank funding ended, throwing the initiative into disarray, with a number of locals who had committed their land to the initiative selling their land.
The period between 2014 and 2016 was the darkest for the park and its dispersal areas.
Rattled by the stalled conservation gains, The Wildlife Foundation went back to the drawing board, fundraised and re-established the project.
Except that this time, they did not have the same financial muscle to lease all the 55,000 acres, so they started small, with 1,500 acres.
Jacob Tukai, an administrator at TWF, recounts that when they reintroduced the programme two years ago, they found that a lot had changed.
For instance, many locals had partitioned their land and sold some of it or fenced it off, therefore interfering with important wildlife corridors.
While TWF has not found a big-enough donor to support the initiative, it recently acquired a research facility built near the park, which they turned into a tourist resort.
Proceeds from the facility go towards the lease payments. “We have also trained local rangers and facilitated them with motorbikes to effectively respond to community-wildlife conflicts,” explains Tukai, who noted that conservation areas and lease payment programmes encourage benefit-sharing.
Recently, the initiative was dealt a heavy blow when a local landowner fenced off 200 acres of his property, which falls within the dispersal area.
Environmental crusaders note that while many Kenyans see green spaces as chunks of idle land that should be used for development, the spaces have many ecosystem benefits that cannot be quantified.
Granting wildlife vast grazing grounds is crucial to biodiversity and nature conservation, they say.
When confined to a tiny area, the animals are easily preyed on or end up inbreeding and dying away.
Other than being home to wild animals, parks and green spaces act as important carbon-sequestering zones and hence are crucial in absorbing the dangerous carbon gases from the atmosphere and refreshing the air we breathe.
For Kenya, the majority of whose population is already suffering from exposure to high levels of air pollution above safety guidelines, protecting local parks and green spaces has never been more critical, according to experts.
About 99 per cent of Kenyans, the World Bank says, are exposed to high levels of air pollution exceeding World Health Organisation (WHO) safety guidelines.
Kenya’s current PM2.5 level is at 16 — 1.6 times above the safety limit, according to the United Nations.
NEED FOR EFFICIENT LAWS
Nkamunu Patita, the coordinator at Indigenous Women Centre for Development, observes that green spaces need to be increased to make the city more liveable.
“If we cut the carbon sinks; we’ll poison ourselves. We want the government to map out the green spaces and adhere to zoning laws,” she says.
She believes that indigenous knowledge of pastoralism and wildlife conservation worked perfectly until the government stopped implementing laws meant to protect the environment.
“Some years back, we had a land-zoning policy in Kajiado to control land use, but the policy is no longer adhered to as people keep putting up structures even on wildlife paths,” she added.
Reinherd Bonke, a wildlife and environmental campaigner at Friends of Nairobi National Park, observes that Nairobi’s rising population is a big challenge for the city’s green spaces and parks.
Bonke is also against the government’s plans to fence off the park, pointing out that it will lead to inbreeding and loss of certain wildlife species.
While Kitengela and Isinya are gazetted conservation areas, many people view them as settlements, and hence the need for an integrated approach to conservation.
He attributes wanton encroachment on public green spaces to a population explosion in the city, which has resulted in insatiable demand for housing and supporting infrastructures such as roads and railways.
Recently, the government tried to hive off a chunk of the city’s main green space, Uhuru Park, for its multimillion-shilling expressway project, and only cancelled the plan following an outcry from citizens and activists.
“Nairobi National Park is a black rhino sanctuary, home to giraffes that have recently been listed as endangered, which further makes its conservation more crucial,” he said.