The new standard gauge railway linking Mombasa to Nairobi is without a doubt the most important transport project in the country since the building of the first railway in the early 20th century. It is a flagship project under the Vision 2030 blueprint, whose goal is to transform the country into a middle-income industrialised economy by 2030. But a quarter of the 487km track runs through the Tsavo Conservation Area, home to Kenya's largest surviving elephant population - about 12,000 - as well as other wildlife species. This presents a challenge.
While the old railway line lay level with the ground, the SGR is elevated up to 10 metres 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. 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.
We fitted 10 elephants with GPS satellite radio transmitters early last year. Some have used them 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. These culverts offer an opportunity. Using the movement data we can define which culverts are being used by animals. The barrier fence must be brought up to a suitable wildlife-proof standard, but opened to allow free movement through selected culverts as well as through the official wildlife passages. This will ensure increased porosity of the SGR, minimising fence breakages and associated maintenance costs and will enhance passenger and animal safety, reducing the likelihood of terrible accidents.
The threat is not theoretical. The Qinghai-Tibet railway in China was built with wildlife passages beneath it, but it took the Tibetan antelope more than 10 years to learn the new paths, significantly affecting their migration pattern and breeding.
And learning to use the passages can be costly. In Tsavo, at least 18 elephants have been killed by trains on the old railway or by trucks on the adjacent Mombasa-Nairobi highway since early last year. This was a dramatic increase compared to years before the SGR was built. So far, several things are clear. Any fence constructed should endeavour to funnel animals to wildlife passages and keep culverts open so that they do not attempt to cross the railway, endangering the lives of Kenyans on the train and wildlife. 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 expands adjacent to the SGR, wildlife and people can continue to enjoy safety.
Still, there is much we do not know yet. This is why we are continuing to monitor the elephants for another two years. As we laud the coming of the SGR, we should not try to sweep under the rug the crucial findings of scientists. There is a tendency to brand things perfectly "good" or unequivocally "bad," whereas in reality, they are far more complex. Recently, propaganda was disseminated that the SGR has left Tsavo in "pristine condition." This information took little consideration of ongoing studies. We should be euphoric at the development, but also interested in the scientific data that could save lives and put Kenya at the forefront of the conservation and development nexus in Africa. There are other factors that must also be monitored to ensure success. In just one year, things have moved rapidly. While tracking these elephants, we have observed illegal settlements blocking some of these 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 at the passages. The SGR presents a great opportunity to design and develop infrastructure with wildlife in mind, or develop the country while keeping its national heritage intact. We must not lose this chance to influence how such development and conservation can work together.
Dr Ben Okita-Ouma is the head of monitoring at Save the Elephants, deputy chair of the African Rhino Specialist Group and board member of the Conservation Alliance of Kenya.