Why we should kick Koroga Festival out of Hell’s Gate National Park

(This article first appeared on Dr. Paula Kahumbu’s LinkedIn)

Last week the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) wrote to the Koroga Festival organizers and demanded an Environmental Impact Assesment (EIA). They sniffed at it. In their opinion, so long as the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has not said no, the answer must be yes. They state that the KWS has previously allowed other festivals and events that have caused no harm to the wildlife there. They are right that KWS did permit several previous events. But they are wrong in assuming that these events have had no impact. This article is the unapologetic history of a park that has been abused and degraded for so long that the solution today should be relief from disturbance and restoration of wildlife habitats. This is the story that the wildlife and tourism authorities never told Kenyans nor the Koroga Festival organizers when the idea of the festival was first floated. I am not the author of the article who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by the authorities.

Hell’s Gate and the physically attached Njorowa Gorge has a long history as a prime wildlife location. Given its magnificent cliffs, nesting raptors, scenic views and wildlife profusion it stood out as one of the most precious areas in Kenya treasured by generations who could access it relatively cheaply and without the confines of a 4 wheel drive car. It was, and still is one of the most diverse of all protected areas with more species diversity per km2 than any other non-wetland eco-system.

The park owes its existence to the “Main Wall” one of the highest cliff faces in the entire Kenyan Rift Valley floor. It is the womb, the maternity ward to which tens of thousands of swifts, bats, swallows, falcons, eagles, and vultures must go to nest. Vultures we know from proven tracking records of satellite tags traverse most of Kenya, northern Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Sudan and then come here to nest…and we are about to expose them all to a tragically misplaced holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Yet again.

Not that long ago one of its central attractions was the world-famous Lammergeyer (the Bearded Vulture) nesting on the Main Wall with records and pioneering bird photography dating back to 1919. Its total Kenya population at the height of its status was never more than 20 pairs, and it was by far the easiest nest to see anywhere in the world. Huge and foreboding with pterodactyl continence and over 3-meter wingspan, Hells Gate was placed on the global ornithological map long before the Second World War.

Lewis and Pomeroy the main reference work of the 1980s state that Njorowa Gorge had “particularly large concentrations (up to thousands)” of Rüppell’s Vultures. In 1979 Hells Gate environs had 5 species of vultures (all now threatened with extinction unless preventative measures are made to augment them) 3 nesting on the cliffs (discussed below), some 5-7pairs of White-backed Vultures in the tall yellow fever in the Njorowa stream bed, and one pair of Lappet-faced Vultures a stone throw off the boundary in Kedong Ranch. By the mid-1990s it had 4 species left and by 2004 all but one remained (the Rüppell’s) and all their three colonies were gravely threatened by geothermal expansion, increased human traffic, and unrestrained tourism.

Hells Gate was the home to 5 species of falcons, 3 extirpated by 2000. One pair of African Hawk Eagles vanished by 1999, one pair of Crowned Eagles extirpated in 1996 and one pair of Martial Eagle absent by 2000. A litany of loss and all due to avoidable human disturbances.

The Main Wall has had an extraordinary series of overtly catastrophic disturbances. In WWII the British Army was stationed beneath the Main Wall and they used the cliff as a backdrop for artillery fire. During the Emergency in the late 1950s, it was again used to fire upon, the bullet and mortar holes are still visible today. It must have caused mass desertion, high mortality, and no breeding…not that anyone in those days cared.

Concurrently to that circa 1943, according to the late Cunningham van Someren, Curator of Birds, National Museums of Kenya, a massive hyena eradication programme was undertaken with strychnine poisoning on the nearby Kinangop. The Main Wall colony was severely impacted. Sometime between the mid1950s and 1960, a new satellite colony started to establish itself at what is now known as the “Vulture Cliffs”, near Central Tower. After WWII a munitions dump was detonated under what was then the newly occupied Vulture Cliffs…the crater of which can still be seen and no doubt led to reproductive failure that season.

More is known of the Bearded Vulture. Leslie Brown attributed the loss of the Hell’s Gate pair due to rock climbers “who much disturbed the nest” in the mid-1970. The last breeding attempt in 1979 when Anglia TV set a hide far too close to the nest. It then deserted for good. The effect by rock climbers on the other species nesting on the Main Wall was identical, but not emphasized. The Main Wall still supported up to a dozen active nests of Rüppell’s, one Egyptian (a second pair in the entry wall 400m distant) and one pair of Lanner and often one pair of Peregrine Falcon in the early 1980s. 1986 to 1993 surveys of the Rüppell’s Vulture colonies were made (there are 3, Main Wall, Vulture Cliffs, and lower Njorowa) showing a remarkably tenacious group of some 55 to 70 Rüppell’s Vultures tending to 19 nests on the Vulture cliffs, 4 to 5 pairs on the Main Wall, and 11 pairs in the Lower Gorge. This Vulture Cliff colony, bar for a short disaster over Christmas 2014 (see footnote) has remained stable until 2020. It has to…it is one of the only suitable nest sites in the Central Rift Valley. Rüppell’s Vultures do not have that many choices. They are obliged to nest on cliff faces with suitable ledges, and these are hard to come by on most of southern Kenya.

In 1984 when Hell’s Gate became a National Park and in 1987 the Peregrine Fund was asked by WCMD to reintroduce the Lammergeyers. This too received unexpected problems related to loss of park protection status. The reintroduction event was marred by a rapid change in the landscape by the geothermal industries that appeared to overstep their agreements. In order to assess the site potential and adhere to SSG Species Re-introduction Guidelines, we placed in 1994-1996 one Ph.D. student studying Augur Buzzard and one Master’s student studying the Egyptian Vulture in the park. The 5 pairs of Egyptian Vultures in the park declined by 100% during the duration of the study (1994-1996), though individuals were still seen up to 2003, they were extinct as breeders. Augur Buzzard declined by some 60% within the park by 2010. The main reasons for these declines were poisoning by a bordering livestock community (with known deaths of Egyptian Vulture, Rüppell’s Vulture, Tawny Eagle, and Augur Buzzard), as well as disturbance from drill well constructions, noise from steam jets, road building, industrial-sized mega-structures and offices and traffic, human pedestrian traffic, bicycling, livestock intrusions, direct persecution, walking and rock climbing, etc. Tourism was not exempt. A Secretary Bird nest under the Main Wall in the only Yellow fever tree suffered persistent failure due to tourist traffic and a busy access road for geothermal construction vehicles.

The Lammergeyer releases were to be closely monitored and their range restricted by artificial food provisioning, but the death on a geothermal silencer of one bird showed the potential for large raptor declines by the geothermal industry alone. Efforts to change designs took a year and were temporary. The Lammergeyer project had to change direction due to a number of financial and logistical difficulties, not the least being the unexpected growth of the geothermal industries and KWS’s inability to influence their direction.

While the geothermal energy infrastructural developments, obviously clashes with the needs of wildlife, the increase in human settlements, most a direct result of the geothermal mitigation to local communities further exacerbates this conflict. It is not an easy place to be and few would wish to have the mandate to maintain wildlife populations in such a situation. KWS faces unusual pressures in Hell’s Gate and while it needs our sympathy few would disagree that recovery of many species is still entirely possible.

Today people perhaps too readily, accept the inevitable loss of biodiversity due to developments such as power generation and transmission. They forget that the funders of these projects do not accept loss and employ environmental assessments to ensure no loss…even a “net gain”. Thus in Hell’s Gate we have a strong case to prove the checks and balances made by major funders and their consultants have failed.

As a wildlife refuge, Hell’s Gate has long been undervalued. Game counts conducted each year by KWS show thousands of ungulates in the Hell’s Gate/Kedong/ Mt Longonot ecosystem and these numbers fluctuate due to movements in and out of adjacent well planned, but now ignored, wildlife corridors. Lion, Leopard, Cheetah even Wild Dog were all present in the area in the 1980s, as were the occasional elephant. Rhino were once famous in the Njorowa/Hells Gate once kindling plans (still possible) for their re-introduction. By 2000 all the large carnivores were still recorded, but shortly thereafter only leopard and spotted hyena were regulars. Hell’s Gate is important for its numbers of Kongoni, once a common antelope, but now globally threatened.

Raptors, Birds of Prey… are in many ways more sensitive to habitat changes brought by negative human influences than are the mega-fauna. Often subtle changes in ecology lead to declines, but in Hells Gate the factors influencing declines are all too obvious. We must return to this because it lends a mature science-led authority over what is a complex issue.

To deny as has recently been done, in defense of a pop festival in the park and a safari rally event, the existence of “wildlife” in Hells Gate is to subvert the truth. If made by a custodian of our nation’s wildlife such an utterance is surely an offense especially if it paves the way for an overtly financial interest. There must be very persuasive reasons to force this unsubstantiated appraisal. The rapid decline of protective status in Hells Gate from a wildlife National Park to an “Adventure Park” little different to a city park has taken Kenyans by surprise although it began nearly two years ago.

On the 19th Feb 2018, we were treated to a profound statement made during an attempt to appropriate the Main and Entry Walls by a development company, Idyllic Mistley House. It planned to put a roller coaster on the Main Wall and a cable car from Longonot…and it claimed that “Kenyans had Wildlife Fatigue” (verbatim). The company planned to place direct mortality structures for vultures and guarantee of nest site desertion on the Main and Entry Walls. We were reminded during that presentation that the Geothermal industries, had “removed the wildlife” and that they were “soon to expand and ruin the rest”, So “why not take and improve what is left with an adventure theme park?” The cliffs were viewed as inert landscapes similar to a quarry. The proposal was given a “partial go-ahead” by KWS HQ over and above Hell’s Gate own management committee. The proposal became immediately operational with buildings commencing on site within a week, without a completed EIA or KWS agreement. It took lobby groups (Wildlife Direct) and the Kenyan public outrage to alert the KWS director and the Minister to stop it. Again the Main Wall was under attack.

See attached Synopsis 2. Hells Gate National Park and Geothermal development. The Task Force 2011 report for an overview of persistent neglect by the geothermal developers. The report shows many intrusions into the park that required immediate attention from the government. In general none of the recommendations were carried out to the satisfaction. Important to understand is that some mitigation actions were taken by KenGen, such as providing water bowsers for animals in times of drought and painting the silver steam pipes with green paint, or “rehabilitating” graded areas near wells or new roads with grasses. But these contributions appeared to pave the way to major intrusions ruinous to the sanctity of the park…and against MoUs and 5-year plans signed by all parties (refer to Task Force notes).

Is if to justify the recent proposals for a “Karoga Festival” and Safari Rally stage” around 2000 Wheelbarrow races and open-air operas were approved by the Management Committee (not unanimously), to raise funds for the park and other matters. The site chosen was at the mouth of the entrance wall with the Main Wall directly behind it to add to the acoustics. The Opera required electricity and this ran from Elsa Gate directly below the nesting cliff of three pairs of Spotted Eagle owls and one Pair of Augur Buzzard. The powerline configuration was lethal, and we told of two dead Spotted Eagle Owls. The Wheelbarrow races were held directly under the Main Wall. Accompanied by loud noise visual disturbances it was to be expected that any incubating vulture or raptor would have deserted the Main wall during these events.

There remains a perception that the Main Wall is devoid of nesting raptors and that Rüppell’s Vultures do not nest there. There are nesting raptors and there are a few Rüppell’s Vultures that persist in making a come back. In 1990 the Rock climbing was banned for a reason. The intent was to remove disturbances and allow the cliff time to recuperate and recover its lost raptors. It never had a chance to do so. Unappreciated is the effect of a single nesting failure due to disturbance on a raptor. One rock climb, one wheelbarrow race, opera, music festival or safari rally event, accompanied by a helicopter is well sufficient to cause nest site desertion.

Hells Gate deserves a recovery. Its past shows how badly abused it was. Its tenure under a protected national park was insufficient to create a recovery despite attempts to even re-introduce species. Its enforced transformation into an Adventure Park with what is universally recognized as some of the most disturbing of all human activities heralds a thorough lack of appreciation and a contempt for the conservation of critically endangered species.

Edited from a longer manuscript received this week

Please share this widely. Let’s strengthen our efforts and together we can save Hell’s Gate National Park. Thank you.