Retain Hell’s Gate National Park for its original purpose – to protect endangered wildlife

Colin Jackson PhD |Director, A Rocha Kenya | February 11, 2020

As a close partner to KWS in a number of areas of conservation activities, A Rocha Kenya has great respect for the good work KWS is doing in many parts of the country to conserve our rich yet often threatened biodiversity. We are grateful for this work being done.

It was, therefore, a real shock and surprise to hear that in one of Kenya’s jewels of its protected areas which is under direct KWS protection, Hell’s Gate National Park, an area of outstanding natural beauty and a key breeding site for globally Critically Endangered species, that an event of extremely high disturbance and impact, the Koroga Music Festival, was being organised and supported by KWS!

Hell’s Gate is internationally renowned for the existence of a breeding colony of the Critically Endangered Ruppell’s Vultures Gyps rueppelli and historically Bearded Vultures (Lammergeier), Egyptian Vultures and huge and majestic Verreaux’s Eagles among a host of other key raptor species.

I have been leading and teaching the Fundamentals of Ornithology Course for 25 years out of Elsamere, Naivasha, and Hell’s Gate National Park has been a core site for taking our trainee birders to learn about raptor identification, breeding biology and conservation. On the course, we teach our students how sensitive raptors are to disturbance and how vulnerable they are due to the acute lack of many options for secure breeding sites – particularly cliff-breeding species.

The cliffs at Hell’s Gate offer the best breeding conditions for raptors for literally hundreds of kilometres and as such are critical for the survival of the raptor populations which depend on them. Having suffered the direct disturbance of rock climbers for years – leading to the abandonment of the last pair of Bearded Vultures in the 1980s – the very last thing the raptors and other wildlife of Hell’s Gate needs is an all night rock concert with associated chaos and impact of over 15,000 people. The fine volcanic dust of the area is very prone to erosion and having so several thousand vehicles together with people will be a potential ecological disaster – particularly as it is located immediately adjacent to the main cliffs of the national park.

Over the years since we started visiting the park with Fundamentals of Ornithology students we have seen a steady erosion of the ecological integrity of the National Park and would appeal to KWS to take drastic action to reverse this.

The number one starting point for this, to both retain the remnant beauty and conservation value of Hell’s Gate as well as restore what is lost, would be to refuse to house events with a significant disturbance component to them such as a rock music festival. Not only would the loud music provide a major disturbance to all wildlife for several kilometres from the festival, but also there is a strong knock-on effect of the impact of thousands of party-goers trampling the area, discarding garbage, driving over delicate grassland in loose dusty soils and breaking vegetation.

As a conservation organisation, we understand that the heart of the concept of a ‘national park’ is to protect wildlife and secure a long-term future for them. This is particularly important where Critically Endangered species exist within such a protected area. It is therefore baffling how KWS which is charged with the protection of our rich heritage of wildlife could allow and even support such an event in its protected area. We are used to knowing the rules in national parks are strictly applied such as no driving off-road, ‘Silence is Golden’, ‘leave only footprints’, wildlife has the right of way and no movements or disturbance to wildlife after dark, etc. Therefore, what KWS is allowing here in Hell’s Gate flies direct in the face of such rules and makes a laughing stock of them.

We would, therefore, appeal to you to revoke the music festival even at this late stage and prove to Kenyans how KWS can defend the integrity of the biodiversity it has been given the mandate to take care of.

There are a number of alternative ways of increasing tourist numbers to Hell’s Gate that are entirely in line with operating a national park. Raptors are an incredible group of birds which, once members of the public have seen well and understood, will have a greater impact on them and their enjoyment of their ‘wildlife experience’ than even seeing a lion or rhino. When professionally and passionately presented and through means such as setting up options for attracting the birds close to where guests can watch and better still, photograph them, it can lead to generating a steady and positive stream of income for the park. This has been proven many times elsewhere in the world.

We remain 100% committed to supporting the good conservation work of KWS and serving it in whatever way we are able to. We only pray that you will be able to stop this fiasco from going ahead.