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Environmentalists Are At Odds With Kenya's Government Over Rail Line

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of East Africa's oldest national parks is facing what environmentalists are calling an existential crisis. That's because the government of Kenya has decided to run a rail line right through the middle of the park, which is about the size of San Francisco. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINE IDLING, BIRDS CHIRPING)

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: The sun is peeking just from the horizon as we drive into the park. Almost immediately, we see a man in one of those big safari trucks trying to tell us something.

LUCY WARUINGI: A black rhino? Oh, right here?

PERALTA: That's Lucy Waruingi, one of the conservationists trying to keep the train out of the park. Her truck lurches forward, and suddenly she spots the rhino.

WARUINGI: You see right here?

PERALTA: Oh. Oh, my God, it looks like a bush.

WARUINGI: I have never seen a rhino in the park. I know. I've never been this lucky...

PERALTA: Look at that.

WARUINGI: ...The many years I've come to the park. Oh, wow.

PERALTA: Black rhinos are endangered, and some subspecies have already been declared extinct. They're solitary creatures and finicky breeders, but here at the park they're thriving.

WARUINGI: This habitat is suitable for them. One of our concerns is that you don't want to cause disturbance if you don't need to.

PERALTA: The rhino in front of us perks up. It picks up its tail and takes off in a kind of prance.

WARUINGI: I've never seen them running like this. They're normally quite docile.

PERALTA: It's surprising, this muscular beast moving across the clearing like a ballerina. If the Kenyan government gets its way, a freight and passenger train is going to run on a platform high above the park to lessen the impact on animal movement. But construction alone will take at least 18 months. And Waruingi says no one really knows what effect trucks and cranes and earthmovers may have on sensitive animals like rhinos.

Waruingi says the train will also be a symbolic hit. If you've ever seen pictures of Nairobi, they're usually taken from right here, with a giraffe or a lion framing the city skyline. With the rail, some of those pictures will be framed by concrete columns rising 10 stories tall.

WARUINGI: You almost feel that it robs you of your moral authority to show the world that you have a commitment to conservation because the very first signs of the steps you took as a country are what you're now eroding.

PERALTA: The rail line has already been approved by Kenya's environmental agency, and perhaps surprisingly by the Kenya Wildlife Service. That agency is headed by the famed conservationist Richard Leakey, who in press conferences said by the time his agency got to review the project, it was, quote, "a fait accompli." The government had already decided to do it, but Leakey also defended the project as the right thing to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD LEAKEY: I think it's a pragmatic alternative which this country needs to try, and I think by doing so we will actually be leading the way for the whole continent.

KADDU SEBUNYA: If we keep telling Africa that you can't have this infrastructure, you can't have this done, we're going to lose everything.

PERALTA: That's Kaddu Sebunya, president of the African Wildlife Fund. He says this case is a perfect example of what's happening across Africa. Cities are booming, and Africans have growing aspirations. In Kenya, for example, that rail line will make it cheaper and faster to get goods across the country from the coast. Sebunya says activists have to think hard about finding a balance between progress and conservation.

SEUBNYA: We are not going to conserve wildlife in Africa unless we address human needs. It's not going to happen.

PERALTA: Privately, environmentalists I spoke to said maybe it was time to let the city subsume the park, use it as leverage to save more meaningful ecologies across the country.

Back at the park, we had already seen rhinos and giraffes and these huge birds called kori bustards. And then we get even luckier.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Over radio) I can see you. Follow this matatu. Follow - come - keep on following the road.

WARUINGI: OK, coming, coming, coming (laughter).

PERALTA: Waruingi hits the gas, bumping my microphone.

No, no, no, no, we have a lion to see.

WARUINGI: (Laughter).

PERALTA: We make a sharp turn. And then almost out of nowhere, we notice two huge lions underneath a thorn bush.

WARUINGI: Wow. That's a...

PERALTA: Big male lion.

WARUINGI: Yeah.

PERALTA: They're halfway asleep, just hanging out as the sun rises in the sky.

WARUINGI: And they are oblivious. You can drive up to them, they're like whatever, but also means they feel safe. Oh, my.

PERALTA: She's worried that if the bulldozers show up, the lions, the rhinos, the giraffes might not feel safe any longer. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Nairobi.

(SOUNDBITE OF NOVA'S "NOMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.