opinionBy Wycliffe Muga
Nairobi — If you have ever flown in a low-flying aircraft from Nairobi to Mombasa, you may have marvelled as you flew past Mtito Andei and on to Voi, just how much empty land there is in Kenya.
For a country that has such frequent mention of "landlessness" and in which no presidential campaign is complete without a pledge to "settle squatters," it would strike you as an oddity that there is such a vast expanse of land without human habitation.
Especially as during the rainy season, this area is as green as anywhere else, and quite suitable for agriculture.
But, of course, this land is not really "empty" as such: what I am describing is the Tsavo National Park, which is by far the largest national park in the country. It is also one of the country's most valuable tourism assets. And it is protected in elaborate legislation that would make it extremely difficult for even a President operating under the current constitution (which is said to give the presidency "imperial powers") to legally change its status.
Amboseli Game Reserve
That is primarily the reason why despite the fact that President Kibaki promised to "give back" the Amboseli Game Reserve to the Olekejuado County Council in the heat of the referendum campaign last year, no more has been heard about that.
And if President Kibaki had suggested that he would try and settle some of the Coast Province's thousands of "landless" in the Tsavo area, he could not have hoped to get away with it.
In other words, Kenya has a fairly clear policy on what constitutes a national park, and how such parks are to be preserved for posterity.
This is why although the Nairobi National Park has long ceased to be financially viable, and has so few animals that it is not likely to be a key tourist attraction ever again, it remains in the trusteeship of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) even though the logical thing would be to hand it over to the National Housing Corporation.
But the danger to the well being of game parks is not restricted to the populist ideas of politicians out to appease a restless electorate. In fact, politicians are by far the lesser threat, as they can easily be made to see the error of their ways.
The real threat to Kenya's game parks is, in fact, structural and legal. Although we have various specific policies for protecting the environment against some threats, there is no overall national policy - and certainly none with secure constitutional provisos - against such threats.
For those who had no idea that such was the case, consider the example recently highlighted by the KWS director Julius Kipng'etich, of the receding water levels of Lake Nakuru.
The cause of this problem is located well outside the legal boundaries of this world-famous bird sanctuary, which boasts the largest population of pink flamingoes on the planet.
Like most alkaline lakes within the Rift Valley, Lake Nakuru depends on the constant inflows of water from the surrounding highlands to sustain it. Left without such inflows, it would dry up. And the waters that flow into this lake originate primarily from the Mau forest, which is one of Kenya's most strategic water towers.
So when loggers cut down trees in the Mau forest; or if the government of the day finds it expedient to settle squatters in that area; then they are in effect denying Lake Nakuru the water inflows for its survival.
Under such circumstances, no matter how shrewd Mr Kipng'etich may be, and however comprehensive the management plan that he may draw up for the Lake Nakuru National Park, the KWS will be really just marking time. At some point in the foreseeable future, there will be no flamingoes left in Lake Nakuru.
But it gets even worse: it is by no means Lake Nakuru alone that depends on the Mau forest being allowed to remain in its pristine state.
Apart from the one million or so flamingoes found in Lake Nakuru in certain seasons, the only other wildlife spectacle to be found in this region, is the seasonal wildebeest migration from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya, and back, involving an estimated one million animals.
These two game parks - part of the vast and continuous plains that extend across the national borders - also depend on the waters that flow from the Mau forest.
Major tourist circuits
All this justifies the proposal by Mr Kipng'etich, that the Mau forest must be given the legal protection that is enjoyed by game parks, even though it has no big population of animals, and is not on any major tourist circuits.
Game parks do not exist in isolation: they are all parts of larger "eco-systems," and the survival of any game parks can only be guaranteed if such ecosystems are nurtured and protected by constitutional provisions.
The Mau forests can at best support a few hundred families, while hundreds of thousands of tourism jobs would be lost if the Mara and Lake Nakuru suffered terminal damage from the ongoing reduction of forest cover in the Mau zone.
The proper work of wildlife conservation depends on appreciating that the protection of national assets like game parks do not depend solely on having effective management within the game parks.
Wildlife conservation is a part of a much bigger picture - that of protecting the environment in the broader sense, in order to ensure that the animal populations have environment in which they can thrive.
Unless KWS is given a mandate that extends to protecting water catchment areas as the Mau forest and others, as part of a national environmental policy, the many far-reaching reforms that Mr Kipng'etich has struggled to institute may not succeed.