Kenya: Wildlife Agency On the Spot Over Safety At Hell's Gate

Hells Gate National Park, Kenya.
3 September 2019

The wildlife conservation agency, KWS, is on the spot over the safety of tourists in parks following the death of seven people at Hell's Gate in Naivasha on Sunday.

Despite Kenya Wildlife Services access to regular and readily available updates from other government agencies like Meteorological department, police and others, local and international tourists continue to die while criminals dump bodies in parks.

On Sunday, a family lost five members at the Olnjorowa Gorges inside the Hell's Gate National Park after flash floods swept them and dumped their bodies 50 kilometres away at Oloirouwa in Suswa, Narok County.

The Olnjorowa Gorges are known world over as a scenic geological wonder as well as one of the most dangerous places to venture.

For this, one would expect KWS to have a cautionary note to visitors, have a mordent warning system like electric bells and alarms and provide protective gear to tourists.

GUIDES

But the situation is different. At any one time, the Rangers' Post is manned by three uniformed KWS warder-- one controls cars at the outside parking, one coordinates the tour guides and another one stays at the records office.

The tour guides are drawn from the Olomaiyana community and they have a self-help group.

"We came together as youth from the areas around this park and formed the group," a tour-guide Johnston Ole Tuiya said.

"Each one of us undergoes vetting by the KWS before they are allowed to accompany visitors into the gorges."

He said the guides do not necessarily have to be educated. As long as they know their way in the gorges and they are trusted by the community, they are admissible.

"During rainy seasons, we are not allowed inside the gorges. The furthest KWS can allow you is to the viewpoint which is just behind the Rangers' Post," Ole Tuiya said.

"But in some seasons, all you do is look at the skies, make your own judgement and risk your life and those of the people you are guiding."

He admits that it is risky even when it does not rain in Olomaiyana because when it rains in Synnopec, Olkaria 4, Ol Karia 5, the Hell's Gate National Park and other parts of Ol Karia, gullies collect water and direct it to the Central Tower, which then allows it to flow over 40 kilometres Suswa in Narok County.

"There are times the skies swell and warn you but there are days the rain just falls. The problem is that when you are down in the gorges which are 50 metres down, you cannot see and even if you have a phone, you cannot receive warning calls because there is no network coverage," he said.

LOOPHOLES

On our tour on Monday, the Nation discovered several loopholes in the management of the high risk gorges.

Not all visitors entering the gorges are registered for instance.

On Monday morning, a day after the tragedy, only four people had their details listed down in the book inside the Rangers' Post.

They included Benjamin Mandrovis accompanied by one person; Smart Kiev, who registered that he was accompanied by three others; Dipak Dliji who was accompanied by eight others; and Shane Walker who was accompanied by three others.

All these records were taken down between 10.37am and 12.50pm even though the seven tour guides interviewed by the Nation admitted to have made at least two trips each with at least eight people per guide.

REACTION

On Monday, KWS could not even tell the owner of the black Toyota Harrier KCP 300B, which was parked at the Rangers' Post since 2pm Sunday.

They could only speculate that it could have belonged to the family that was swept away by the floods.

A survivor of the Sunday evening tragedy, Ivraj Singh Hayer said he was not aware of the Devil's Bedroom and just wanted to catch a glimpse of the famous gorge.

"KWS seems to be reactive rather than proactive. Closing the gorge when people have already died inside there does not help. This is what they did in 2012 when seven youth from PCEA church died," a tourist, Kimani Owen, who was at Hell's Gate Park, reacted.

He was referring to an incident where seven young people from Mukarara PCEA Church in Nairobi's Dagoretti met their deaths at Hell's Gate in a similar way.

"By now, KWS should have put in escape measures, warning signals and signs so that people know what they are getting themselves into. This place is suicidal," he said, adding that there should be an emergency response team on standby.

Mr Hayer, whose wife and other four family members, perished painted a picture of desperation as he tried to save his life and his family's.

He said that as the torrent swept some of them away he, his niece and their driver clung onto a stone.

"Close to one hour we held on each other but I saw my wife battling to save her life. It was the worst moment of my life," he told the Nation.

DISTRESS CALLS

He said the guide tried severally to make distress calls to KWS personnel but it was all in vain.

Even with the gaps, KWS assistant director in charge of Central Rift region Aggrey Maumo said the tragedy was "an accident" caused by floods.

"We have taken all the necessary safety measure after the 2012 incident but this one is quite unfortunate," he said.

In a separate statement to newsrooms, KWS said since the 2012 tragedy, it had put in place stringent precautionary measures to prevent a recurrence.

"For instance, we have created clearly marked emergency exists along the whole gorge as escape routes in cases of danger like the flash floods," KWS said.

"The tour guides have also been trained to detect storm water flowing downstream towards the gorge. Every group is usually accompanied by experienced guides who are able to alert tourists of impending emergencies and direct them to exit points," it said, contradicting what the guides on the ground.

EVACUATION

KWS said it was engaging KenGen and other stakeholders in the area to enhance early warning systems to detect heavy rains at their onset.

"This will facilitate the evacuation of the gorge early enough to prevent such occurrences in the future".

The gorges start from the Central Tower, that protrudes above the level of the hills.

Next to it, a deep hole marks the beginning of the Hell's Gate Gorge.

The end of the gorge meets the flat and open fields of Oloirouwa in Suswa which then spreads the water to different areas which are well known for floods in the past.

The Olnjorowa Gorges are as popular tourist attraction sites as are now, killer dens with a history of disasters being recorded over the past years.

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