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NAIROBI, Kenya – A controversial Chinese-designed railway that would go over a beloved protected wildlife park in Kenya's capital has divided conservationists in this East African country known for its safari tourism.
Some are staging protests even as other wildlife experts insist the project is environmentally sound.
Nairobi enjoys a reputation as the wildlife capital of the world thanks to the expansive Nairobi National Park, which in 1946 became Kenya's first sanctuary for wildlife. Its 117 square kilometers (45 sq. miles) of wilderness abuts the city, and is a key attraction for visitors who are able to see herds of giraffe or zebra roaming free with Nairobi's skyline clearly outlined behind them.
The Kenya Railway Corporation is in the process of building a new 600-kilometer (370-mile) railway to link Nairobi to the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean coast. The estimated cost of the railway line is $3.8 billion, with 90 percent of the financing provided by China Exim Bank. The project's engineers say the most affordable route will bring the railway across Nairobi park and are building a 6-kilometer (4-mile) bridge over the national reserve, at an elevation that they say will not interfere with wildlife movements.
Chinese companies are building the railway, envisaged as a modern alternative to the colonial-era line from the coast. It is planned that the railway will eventually be extended to link Nairobi to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan.
Those who support the project, including the Kenyan government and railway authorities, say the railway is vital for Kenya's economic development, but its detractors argue that the project is being rushed for political reasons and without sufficient consideration of its threat to the country's wildlife.
Amid protests over the railway, a coalition of Kenyan conservationists has obtained a court order stopping construction within the park until an environmental impact assessment is completed by Kenya's National Environmental Management Authority, or NEMA, and is considered by the court.
A preliminary report by NEMA said the railway will have no adverse effect on the park and its wildlife, drawing the ire of independent groups that accused the government agency of corruption. More protests to march on the NEMA headquarters are being planned.
Akshay Vishwanath, chairman of Friends of Nairobi National Park, which is part of the coalition of conservation groups hoping to stop the railway from proceeding through the park, said they are concerned any incursion into the protected area will compromise the park's integrity.
"It should not go in, over or under the national park," Vishwanath said. "There is a reason there are national parks, you know. They are protected areas, protected for a certain land use, and that is conservation and habitat for wildlife and biodiversity."
But conservationists associated with the government, including the park managers, Kenya Wildlife Service, have backed the project.
"It is very clear what the constitution requires and I believe everything that KWS and the railways is doing are within the bounds and limits of the constitution," Kenya Wildlife Service Chairman Richard Leakey, who formally announced the railway would be permitted to cross over the park last September, told a news conference. "Yes, lawyers and activists can query that, but the point is: We are not dirtying the park. What we are doing is putting a railway line across it, above it, and what we are doing is, yes, I can tell you that we are offending the eyesight. People who want to look across the park and say it is very beautiful will see a railway line but so what?"
The average height of the bridge pillars is high enough for even the tallest land mammal, the giraffe, to "pass through very, very comfortably without causing any obstruction to their movements," said Christian Odhiambo, a structural engineer with the Kenya Railway Corporation.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, who is due for re-election next year, is strongly in favor of the railway, saying it does not violate any of the country's laws.
"There are some that are saying if this railway is built it will destroy the Nairobi park. This is nonsense ... The park will still be there and we would like them to stop inciting people, to stop taking people to court," Kenyatta said recently. "Let us build the railway. Kenya wants to develop and the animals will still be guarded and taken care of and the world will go on. I want to assure you that nothing will happen that will destroy the Nairobi park."
Nairobi National Park is home to Kenya's most successful rhino sanctuary as well as many herbivores, lions and other big cats. The park's proximity to the capital metropolis has always meant conflict between fast-growing human settlements and migrating wildlife.
Opponents are urging China's government to withdraw its support for the project. Outside the Chinese Embassy here recently, protesters chanted "Exim China, respect our laws," referring to China's state-owned bank. Opponents also seem to be emboldened by the collapse of part of the newly constructed railway line near Mombasa.
The Chinese ambassador to Kenya told The Associated Press that his country is not responsible for the decision to route the railway through a protected area.
"You know, that is not the decision by the embassy or by the Chinese government," said Ambassador Liu Xianfa. "We provide loans and I think, you know, the ministries, the professionals, they make a decision on the sound basis of scientific evaluation."