Effects parallel those of bringing rail travel to Yellowstone in 1902
NAIROBI, Kenya––Looming over Kenya like the Standard Gauge Railway trestle at the northern edge of Nairobi National Park, or the marabou storks overlooking the dense traffic on the highway into Nairobi from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, is the question of how $10 billion in recent Chinese investment in railway, road, and airport infrastructure will transform wildlife tourism.
The question goes right to the heart of Kenyan national identity. Banning sport hunting in 1977, as a vestige of colonialism shaken off with political independence in 1962, Kenya has built a self-image, global reputation, and economy founded on non-consumptive wildlife tourism. The national emblem features lions rampant; Tusker beer, with an elephant on the label, is the leading beer brand in Africa.
60% of Kenya visitors come for the wildlife
Billboards featuring practically the whole array of well-known Kenyan species advertise practically every imaginable product alongside the Nairobi thoroughfares, testifying to the pride of Kenyans––even Kenyans who have never been to a national park––that Kenya has animals from elephants and lions to civets and vervets whom the whole world wants to see.
Of the estimated 1.4 million visitors to Kenya per year, spending about $2.5 billion annually, about 850,000––60%––come to see the wildlife at the 60 national parks, spending $1.2 billion.
About 60,000 wildlife tourists per year come from China, a number expected to zoom much as tenfold as the Chinese-built facilities now nearing completion come into full-scale service.
Kenyans want fair share of the money
Though business visitors spend more money per capita, wildlife tourism employs more Kenyans in wage-paying jobs, especially in poor rural areas. Few sectors of the Kenyan economy employ more people, period.
But Kenyans in every walk of life want to get their fair share of wildlife-watching revenue.
Seeing most of the money going to airlines, foreign hoteliers, and tour operators based in the U.S. and Europe has been a longtime irritant to rural Kenyans, especially.
Small-holding farmers and pastoralists––people who live by herding––have for decades breathed the dust from speeding tourist vans and jeeps; chased animals straying out of the national parks from their crops and huts; mostly kept their own sheep, goats, and cattle outside of the parks, despite notorious encroachments during drought years; lost animals to predators from the parks; and yet have been relegated, mostly by lack of education and professional training, to increasingly marginal roles in tourism as dancers, bead-crafters, woodcarvers, and roadside vendors.
The perennial tension over who gets the money erupted on August 30, 2018 into a blockade of Chinese-led photo safaris into the Masai Mara National Reserve in southern Narok County, the nation’s third largest park, abutting the even bigger Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The late summer migration of wildebeest and zebra from the Mara to the Serengeti is among the world’s leading wildlife tourism attractions.
“The outcry is about unlicensed operators coming into the market. This is a lapse on the part of regulations,” Kenya Association of Tour Operators chief executive Fred Kaigwa told Nairobi Star reporter Abel Muhatia. “We call for stringent enforcement of the regulations,” Kaigwa said. “If licensed, then we have no problem with the foreign tour guides.”
But Kenya Association of Travel Agents chief executive Nicanor Sabula made no secret that the underlying issue was concern about Chinese competition.
“As KATA, we have no problem with investors setting up in the country,” Sebula said, “but this should not be at the expense of locals who have been struggling to sustain their businesses.”
“Chinese take all the fish”
Continued Muhatia, lumping the Masai Mara conflict together with another on the seacoast north of Mombasa, 12 hours away by road, “Operators in Malindi have also raised concern that Chinese-owned hotels take all the fish from the market, hence causing a shortage. Kenya Tourism Federation chairman Mohammed Hersi said it is unfortunate that the country has opened its doors too wide.”
The anxiety about Chinese competitors in the Masai Mara photo safari market comes even as the Wu Yi Construction Company of China, one of the 250 largest contracting firms in the world, is two years into rebuilding the 50-mile Narok-Sekenani Road, the major route of access to the national reserve from Nairobi.
Cutting the drive from three hours to 50 minutes
In 2016, when Wu Yi won the roadbuilding contract, the drive typically took three hours. It now takes about two hours, and is to take just 50 minutes when the road is finished––plus, perhaps, time spent negotiating passage through the multiple Masai village checkpoints between what is now the end of the paved road and the actual Masai Mara National Reserve entrance.
Typically the checkpoints consist of a pole placed across forked uprights, blocking the most navigable route across deeply rutted fords along flash flood channels.
Marooned and even overturned concrete bridges testify to the occasional force of the water, and the inadequacy of the engineering that put the bridges in place, with culverts far too narrow to let the water flow through.
The Wu Yi Construction Company, used to building in harsh developing world climates, appears to be unlikely to make similar mistakes. Perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of Chinese-built Kenyan infrastructure is that everything works and holds up, at least so far.
“Contrary to the popular myth that ‘Chinese enterprises only employ Chinese people,’ a majority of Chinese companies in Kenya have a local workforce,” wrote Anna Ge for the Chinese government-sponsored periodical China Plus in June 2018. “This is true of the Wu Yi Company, which has hired more than 400 full-time and 200 part-time local employees, whose incomes are well above the local average.
“In addition to the construction work,” Ge said, “Wu Yi has been focusing on fulfilling its social responsibilities. Contributions to the local community have included volunteering to upgrade telecommunication infrastructure to offer local customers a better service at a lower cost. It has also built local reservoirs to solve water supply problems for communities, and supported schools to improve the education of local children.”
Building the reservoirs, and drilling artesian wells to keep them filled, is a project many of the local Masai do not yet appreciate––but they will.
Flash floods vs.global warming
From the local Masai perspective, the frequent flash floods are evidence that they have plenty of water, even a surplus.
But the emergence of flash floods as a local problem reflects the increasingly sunbaked soil, no longer absorbing rainfall as it did when Ernest Hemingway wrote The Green Hills of Africa (1935) about hunting in the Mara and Serengeti, back when it was legal. The region is already hard-hit by effects of global warming, flash floods among them, and is expected to be hit harder still during the next several decades.
Meanwhile, though China Plus clearly has a pro-Chinese agenda, the U.S.-based Brookings Institution does not. The Brookings Institution, founded in 1916, exists to advise U.S. government policy.
U.S., India, Britain have bigger footprint
Affirmed the 2016 Brookings Institution report China in Kenya, by Apurva Sanghi and Dylan Johnson, “According to a 2014 survey by the Sino Africa Centre of Excellence Foundation (also a Chinese source), Chinese companies hire Kenyans for 78% of full-time and 95% of part-time roles, and 93% of [Chinese] companies report hiring Kenyan employees.”
But looking at Financial Times data, the Brookings Institution authors found that Chinese influence in Kenyan job creation is relatively slight. Indian-owned companies from 2003 to 2014 created 7,400 jobs in Kenya; British-owned companies created 6,500; U.S.-owned companies created 4,200; and Chinese-owned companies created 2,200, “which is equivalent to 5.3 percent of the total jobs created through foreign direct investment,” Sanghi and Johnson mentioned.
Building a railway
“Most of these jobs are in automotive original equipment manufacturing, metals, and especially communications,” Sanghi and Johnson added. Outside of those sectors, China mostly invests money, engineering skills, and some entrepreneurship, but not personnel in great numbers, despite much online anxiety that China is “taking over Africa” to absorb some of the 1.3 billion Chinese population.
Direct Chinese investment and influence in wildlife tourism––either in Kenya or elsewhere––appears to be comparatively slight.
But that observation overlooks the enormous indirect effects expected from the $4 billion, 300-mile Standard Gauge Railway. Typically called just the SGR by Kenyans, the railway has been under construction since 2013.
From The Ghost & The Darkness to the SGR
The first portion of the Standard Gauge Railway was built to replace the 1901-vintage narrow gauge railway linking Nairobi, the national capital, to the Indian Ocean port city of Mombasa. Building the narrow gauge railway was accomplished despite frequent attacks by two lions who killed 135 workers in what is now Tsavo National Park before bridge engineer John Henry Patterson shot them both. (See Man-eaters of Kenya: The Ghost & The Darkness.)
By comparison, only one Standard Gauge Railway worker has been injured by wildlife attack so far, a night watchman who was pounced by a leopard with two cubs in Tsavo in 2015, but lived to tell the tale.
Uganda, Kilgali, & Juba
Standard Gauge Railway extensions already in development are to continue on to Kampala, the capital of Uganda; Kigali, the capital of Rwanda; and Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
The net effect of the Standard Gauge Railway will be to greatly reduce the travel time and expense involved in East African wildlife tourism.
Indeed, the Standard Gauge Railway could enable visitors flying into Nairobi to view not only the major Kenyan wildlife reserves, but also the dugongs of the Mombasa region, the gorillas of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and Virunga mountains, and the tiang and kob antelope migrations of the El Ziraf and Boma reserves in South Sudan all within a matter of days.
Fewer overland treks & bush flights
Realistically, most overseas visitors will prefer to travel at a slower pace, but few will miss the long overland van journeys and/or hair-raising flights in small twin-engine aircraft among high mountains to gravel airstrips that have until now characterized wildlife tourism practically anywhere in Africa.
Currently, most wildlife tourism to East Africa uses Nairobi as a hub for overland drives or short connecting flights to remote lodges. The arrival of the Standard Gauge Railway is likely, in short order, to rearrange the typical schedule a bit.
Tourists will still mostly fly in and out of Nairobi from abroad, meeting their tour company representatives at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, but many will then go directly to the Standard Gauge Railway to ride to accommodations closer to their destinations.
Jumping off points
The crossroads city Emali will likely become the jumping off point for day trips to Amboseli National Park, though multi-day visitors would continue to stay at lodges in and around the park; Mtito Andei, Voi, and Miasenyi, a new planned community, already serve visitors to Tsavo National Park, whose halves, Tsavo East and Tsavo West, are respectively the largest and second largest of the Kenyan national parks.
Similarly, on completion of the Standard Gauge Railway, most wildlife tourists are likely to forgo the presently arduous overland trips to destinations in Uganda and Rwanda. Wildlife tourism to South Sudan, presently minimal, is expected to boom.
Access for Kenyans
Most significantly, though, the Standard Gauge Railway will more easily enable middle-class Kenyans to take family trips to the Masai Mara, Amboseli, and Tsavo.
Just as the 1902 arrival of the Burlington Northern Railroad in Gardiner, Montana put Yellowstone National Park on the “must see” list for middle class Americans, 30 years after the park was founded in 1872, the Standard Gauge Railway will gradually transform the Kenyan national parks from being primarily magnets for foreign exchange to becoming parks operated mostly by and for Kenyans––as Nairobi National Park to a considerable extent already is, and Hell’s Gate National Park, near the city of Naivasha, is becoming.
In effect, the Standard Gauge Railway will democratize wildlife watching in Kenya, with both positive and negative outcomes.
On the one hand, increased visitation could further stress the habitat and the wildlife. On the other, as indigenous Kenyans become more personally connected to the habitat and the wildlife, political opinion will more strongly favor protecting the animals and the resources they need to survive––including building infrastructure to accommodate more visitors with lower impact on the surroundings.
Most visitor to the Masai Mara, Amboseli, Nairobi, and Lake Nakuru National Parks, for example, could see all the animals they want quite comfortably from light railways, with frequent stops at observation platforms.
Some might complain about trains, tracks, and manmade structures “spoiling” the background of their “wilderness” photos, but reality is that there has not been bona fide wilderness anywhere in Kenya within the past 100 years, and one train carrying several hundred tourists will disturb the animals far less than the 20 to 30 vans and jeeps frequently converging on elephants, lions, cheetahs, and even hyenas today.
The Standard Gauge Railway stretches crossing Nairobi and Tsavo national parks, in service since July 2017, are Kenya’s introduction to the wildlife tourism of the future, for better or worse.
Nairobi National Park
At about eight miles long, the Nairobi National Park link visually separates––for humans––216 acres of wildlife habitat from the other 29,000.
But the Standard Gauge Railway crosses Nairobi National Park entirely on tall pylons, rising well beyond the normal sightlines of even giraffes.
The much longer Tsavo portion of the Standard Gauge Railway is more potentially problematic.
“The way the elephants are behaving today indicate they are at home and that the new pathways do not interfere with them at all,” Kenya Department of Natural Resources chief secretary Margaret Mwakima told Peter Mutai of Coastweek in March 2017.
Tsavo elephant study
Ben Okita-Ouma, head of monitoring at Save the Elephants, deputy chair of the African Rhino Specialist Group, and a board member of the Conservation Alliance of Kenya, found matters a bit more complicated in his analysis, published in June 2017 by the Daily Nation.
“While the old railway line lay level with the ground,” Okita-Ouma wrote, “the Standard Gauge Railway is elevated up to 10 meters in some sections and fenced off, creating a barrier to wildlife movement with likely negative consequences. However, well-designed wildlife passages can allow animals to travel in search of food, water and mates.
“Eight official passages”
“The Chinese contractor built eight official wildlife passages to connect Tsavo East to Tsavo West national parks. Save the Elephants, in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, has been tracking elephants to understand the effectiveness of these passages,” Okita-Ouma recounted. “We fitted 10 elephants with GPS satellite radio transmitters early in 2016. Some have used the passages effortlessly, with families in tow, while others have preferred to use the culverts that perforate the line, but which have not been classed as wildlife passages.”
Save the Elephants reportedly tallied 10 elephants killed in collisions with trains during Standard Gauge Railway construction––but mostly not by Standard Gauge trains.
Explained Okita-Ouma, “In Tsavo, at least 18 elephants have been killed by trains on the old railway, or by trucks on the adjacent Mombasa-Nairobi highway. This was a dramatic increase compared to years before the Standard Gauge Railway was built,” and appears to have resulted from elephants encountering the Standard Gauge Railway embankment, then wandering in search of ways through or around it.
“Any fence constructed should endeavor to funnel animals to wildlife passages,” Okita-Ouma said. “We have also strongly recommended the construction of wildlife passages and speed bumps in specific areas of the Mombasa-Nairobi highway, to ensure that as this road [scheduled to grow from two lanes to six] expands adjacent to the Standard Gauge Railway, wildlife and people can continue to enjoy safety.”
Railway embankment limits encroachment
Added Okita-Ouma, “While tracking elephants, we observed illegal settlements blocking some of the vital passages. If this is not nipped in the bud, we risk increased human-wildlife conflict and/or blockage of the Tsavo East and Tsavo West link. Also, some of these wildlife passages are being used illegally to herd thousands of cattle into the national parks, a practice that exacerbates habitat degradation.”
The flip side of that argument is that before the Standard Gauge Railway became a barrier to livestock movements, pastoralists could encroach into Tsavo almost anywhere. With the railway embankment now limiting access, detecting and intercepting illegal encroachment is much easier.
Other species less affected?
“With a greater focus on the natural world and its animal inhabitants, we could avoid scenes such as elephants getting trapped between the elevated Standard Gauge Railway embankments and the electric fence” meant to keep animals away from the tracks,” suggested Steve Njumbi, East Africa program chief with the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
Animals other than elephants so far appear to have been less affected. Kenya Wildlife Service liaison officer Paul Mbugua told Gilbert Koech of the Nairobi Star that a lioness killed by a train on June 11, 2018 was the first. “She was killed about 40 miles from Voi,” Mbugua said. “She was in a family of lions, who might have separated.”
“Losing more wildlife on our roads”
“This aspect has been highly sensationalized, complete with carcasses of dead animals. The facts are that we are losing many more wildlife on our roads,” Kenya government spokesperson Erick Kiraithe told Lilian Musili of the Standard.
The wildlife toll from the Standard Gauge Railway may drop as animals become more familiar with the speed of the trains. Trains on the old narrow gauge railway, now abandoned, ran at less than half the speed of Standard Gauge Railway trains, which average 74 miles per hour on the Nairobi/Mombasa run.
There have been other casualties of Chinese infrastructure development in Kenyan wildlife habitat. In 2009, for instance, the Chinese-owned company used explosives to excavate a rock quarry in Amboseli National Park, allegedly jeopardizing the migration corridors of elephants and other animals despite a temporary injunction issued by the High Court of Kenya.
The quarry, ironically, was dug to obtain stone used in building a new road from Emali to Loitoktok, serving the Osupuku Conservancy. The conservancy was created in 2008 to protect a corridor linking Amboseli to the Chyullu Hills and Tsavo national parks.
The controversy appears to have long since settled with the dust from the dynamiting and the elephant trains, whose migrations were soon back on track.
The often exposed involvement of Asian financiers in rhino horn and elephant ivory poaching fueled a ubiquitous belief among frustrated animal defenders attending the 2010 African Animal Welfare conference in Nairobi that Chinese road workers were implicated in out-of-control bushmeat poaching and catastrophic crashes of predator populations.
Some 2010 conference speakers alleged then that Chinese workers were involved in from 20% to 80% of all the bushmeat poaching in Africa.
Nairobi-based wildlife photographer Karl Amman, who has for nearly 30 years documented the bushmeat trade, more conservatively suggested that Chinese involvement might be much less than 5%, centering on reptiles and pangolins.
Two Chinese among 2,134 wildlife offenders
Meanwhile the Kenya Wildlife Service reported having apprehended 2,134 suspects for wildlife-related offenses in 2007. Among them, only two alleged elephant ivory traffickers were identified as Chinese nationals.
The concerns of 2010 were not repeated at the 2018 Africa Animal Welfare Conference.
Recent allegations about Chinese immigrants depleting Kenyan wildlife center on legal fishing. In June 2018, three years after his predecessor authorized a Chinese company to begin commercial crayfishing in Lake Naivasha, Nakuru governor Lee Kinyanjui “ordered all Chinese nationals involved in fishing activities in Lake Naivasha to stop with immediate effect,” reported George Murage of the Star.
“The governor termed the exercise illegal and added that locals should be given the first priority,” Murage continued. “This followed complaints that the foreigners were behind a decline in fish catches due to the use of undersized nets,” having allegedly turned to catching fin fish after depleting the crayfish stock.
“No Kenyan can be licensed to fish in China, so we will not allow these foreigners to continue fishing in Lake Naivasha,” Kinyanjui declared.
Incidents from littering to murder
Reportage blaming Chinese visitors for littering in Masai Mara surfaced in 2013, but soon simmered out, whether because the littering diminished or because Kenyan roadsides have tended to be litter-strewn for much longer than there has been a visible Chinese presence.
The most sensational incident involving Chinese wildlife tourists since then came at the Keekorok Lodge in Masai Mara in August 2016. Tour leader Lee Changqin was charged with murder after fatally stabbing fellow Chinese citizen Luo Jnili, 45, and seriously injured her husband, Dong Yi, 47, after the victims tried to walk away from a dispute over dining table seating. The victims were not part of the same tour group.
The killing came 76 years after Sir Henry John Delves Broughton was acquitted of shooting Josslyn Hay, 22nd Earl of Erroll, at a Nairobi crossroads, but later confessed to it and shot himself. This incident inspired the 1987 film White Mischief.
The most publicized “Chinese” tourism incident of 2018 was the August 13, 2018 death of Taiwanese citizen Chang Ming Chuang, 65, who was attacked by a hippopotamus he was trying to photograph at Lake Naivasha. Companion Wu Peng Te, 62, suffered minor injuries.
In gist, the issue of Chinese participation in Kenyan wildlife tourism seems to have evolved, in less than 10 years, from great trepidation to the observation that Chinese immigrants and visitors become involved in much the same sorts of trouble as any others, and are becoming as assimilated into Kenya as were the stranded sailors of Zheng He’s lost vessel.