Aberdare Done!

Aberdare Done!

Kenya’s Aberdare National Park is now encircled by an electric fence, protecting a precious 300 sq. miles of unique habitat in a sign of the future.

The reason for the Aberdare fence, and the 20-year story of actually building, are both wonderful stories in their own right. First, the reason.

The rectangular national park which includes the highest elevations of the Aberdare Mountain Range, contains a precious biomass seen nowhere else in East Africa. It is the only remaining habitat for animals like the mountain reedbuck, Jackson’s mongoose, golden cat, and several types of red and blue forest duikers. We hope that bongo are still found here, once in abundance, and if so, the last place in East Africa.

The Range holds 52 of Kenya’s 67 Afrotropical highland species and six of the eight restricted range species in the Kenyan montane endemic bird areas. Essentially, three-quarters of Kenya’s endangered forest birds are found here, and a majority of those found only here.

But the greatest biomass diversity comes in the plants and trees, many of which have long since disappeared elsewhere in Africa. A 2003 UNEP report accounted for 778 species (UNEP Report of 2003) of larger plants and trees.

All of this is from a safari guide. Now comes the really important part:

The Aberdare are the main water catchments for Sasumua and Ndakaini dams, which provide most of the potable water for the city of Nairobi.

Unfortunately for the Aberdare it is in Kenya’s richest agricultural area, the Kikuyu Highlands. When I began safari work in the 1970s, the Aberdare national park was nearly 1000 sq. miles in size, and such grand animals as bongo flourished. But so must people flourish, and inch by inch the ecosystem was pecked away for agricultural land.

One of the greatest erosions of public land to private land occurred during the reign of Kenya’s dictator, Daniel arap Moi. We often enter the national park through gate close to Nyeri town, and we pass through huge tracks of tea that Moi created from what had been park land. There is no doubt that this is productive for the economy of Kenya, although his arbitrary giving of huge swaths of this land to his cronies remains a political issue, today.

But besides corporate tea farming, individual truck and dairy farming eroded huge portions of the park. With nearly two-thirds of the initial park gone, Kenyan conservationists decided (20 years ago!) that something had to be done.

Pole pole [slowly] the fence was built and recently celebrated as the last posts were driven in. It’s a remarkable story on its own. The amount of electrical wire used would stretch from Nairobi to London. The fence is 250 miles long and wiggles about from time to time to protect important elephant corridors. The cost of the whole project is around $10 million and was entirely Kenyan-raised. There were 100,000 posts, of which a remarkable 20,000 were made from recycled plastic waste!

Fencing of wilderness is not new. Many, many wildernesses in southern Africa are fenced, including the gargantuan Etosha National Park in Namibia and much of South Africa’s great Kruger National Park. Kenya’s first fenced park was Lake Nakuru. Nobody likes to see fences, but natural fences had long ago sequestered the Aberdare.

Long ago, elephants roamed from the Aberdare into the rest of Laikipia up to the Northern Frontier, but that probably ended 20 years ago as agriculture and industry surrounded the park.

Today, the fence is as important for keeping people out as keeping animals in. And the balance has been achieved. Of course a greater use of Aberdare land for tea, wood and farming would improve Kenya’s agricultural base, but it’s now understood it would end Nairobi’s water supply. This kind of far thinking approach is hard to impose on a day-to-day life struggle, but it has been, and kudus for those in Kenya who made it possible!

I love the Aberdare. I love the great waterfalls and the huge tracks of magnificent forest. The battle isn’t over, of course. Fences are but irritants to some elephants and poachers alike. But the first, solid step is done!