Maasai giraffe browse alongside geothermal power infrastructure in Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya.

Maasai giraffe browse alongside geothermal power infrastructure in Hell’s Gate National Park, Kenya. ADAM WELZ

How Kenya’s Push for Development Is Threatening Its Famed Wild Lands

Kenya is pursuing a plan to build an extensive network of roads, power lines, dams, and renewable energy infrastructure. But many of these projects, including wind farms and geothermal facilities, are being constructed in the nation’s iconic parks and wildlife areas.

Kenya has long been the Western world’s quintessential “Africa,” a land of vast golden savannas filled with zebras, elephants, giraffes, and lions. Despite high-profile terrorist attacks and the high prices charged by its national parks and ecotourist lodges, the country remains extremely popular with foreigners wanting to walk at least a little on the wild side. Visits by international tourists grew by 37 percent last year, reaching 2 million, with tourism revenues hitting $1.6 billion.

But Kenya’s reputation as a top-drawer ecotourist destination and conservation leader could be in jeopardy. Billions of dollars are pouring in for new infrastructure projects — roads, railways, power plants, and power lines — which are being rapidly built to fulfill the aims of Kenya Vision 2030, the government’s plan to transform Kenya into “a newly-industrializing, middle income country.” Many projects are being constructed in national parks and important conservation areas, threatening rare species. “By 2030,” reads a founding document of the plan, “it will become impossible to refer to any region of our country as ‘remote.’”

Many of the projects that are chipping away at Kenya’s natural heritage are supported by sustainable development funding agencies like the United Nations Environment Programme, the Global Environment Facility (overseen by the World Bank), the U.S. Agency for International Development, and others because the projects are for ostensibly green renewable energy initiatives: geothermal plants, wind farms, hydropower dams, and associated networks of pipelines, power lines, and roads.

Researchers have identified at least 23 sites in Kenya with potential for geothermal power generation, including some in or very near national parks and reserves, like Mount Longonot and Lake Bogoria. Wind farms are going ahead in an area south of the capital, Nairobi, even though expert consultants say they will almost certainly kill significant numbers of threatened and legally protected birds.

Agencies are incentivized to allow infrastructure in protected areas because they get large compensation payments.

The Kenyan government plans to build 57 large dams, many for hydropower, and many in sensitive or protected areas; dam contracts worth $7 billion have already been entered into or are awaiting signing, according to Kenyan news reports. These projects are moving forward despite growing concern that climate change and drought threaten the country’s hydropower potential.

A huge expansion of the electric grid is also in the works to link these power sources, bring electricity to rural areas, and shuttle power between Kenya and neighboring countries; many new power lines will pass through national parks and wildlife-rich areas.

Aside from renewable energy, other major projects pose risks for Kenya’s wildlife and wild places, including the LAPSSET development corridor, billed as eastern Africa’s largest infrastructure project, which is cutting highways, railways, oil pipelines and power lines across remote regions of northern Kenya to stimulate large-scale agriculture and industry. Conservationists say that government agencies mandated to protect the environment are ineffective, contending that the agencies are incentivized to allow infrastructure in protected areas because they get large compensation payments from it.

To be sure, parts of Kenya remain unspoiled and are likely to retain tracts of wildlife-rich wilderness, including the iconic Tsavo East and West national parks and the core of the Maasai Mara National Reserve, as well as some community conservancies in northern Kenya. But even parts of these areas have seen infrastructure development in recent years, and maps of proposed roads and power lines show that they would pass through many of Kenya’s parks or reserves.

Zebras gather beside a pipe connected to geothermal wells near the Olkaria geothermal plant in Hell's Gate National Park.

Zebras gather beside a pipe connected to geothermal wells near the Olkaria geothermal plant in Hell's Gate National Park. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

A trip to Hell’s Gate National Park, a couple of hours’ drive from the capital, Nairobi, provides a sobering vision of the changes coming to many of Kenya’s natural areas. Visitors are lured by photos of the area’s stark cliffs and gorges (one of which resembles the “gateway to hell”) and vivid descriptions of a geologically active landscape marked with lava flows, steaming natural hot springs, and fumaroles. They’re often told that Hell’s Gate is an excellent place to see spectacular and rare birds of prey — large eagles and vultures — and other wildlife.

Few tourist guides mention that Hell’s Gate lies at the heart of Kenya’s efforts to become a world leader in geothermal power generation, which means that visitors entering the park via its Olkaria entrance, as I did during a media tour last month, are immediately confronted by infrastructure: Warehouse-like power plants, networks of roads, pipelines snaking over hills, industrial signage, and thickets of power lines. Towering plumes of steam rise from condensers and wellheads scattered to — and over — the horizon. Machine noise is inescapable. A small group of Maasai giraffes browse nearby, a reminder of the area’s legal status as part of a national park.

Cyrus Karingithi, assistant manager of resource development at Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), the largely government-owned utility that generates most of Kenya’s electricity, says that KenGen currently has the capacity to generate 1,630 megawatts of electricity, but 50 percent of that is hydropower. This is a problem: Kenya’s climate is drying, and some hydropower dams can no longer reliably run their turbines. Combined with a rapidly growing population, this has caused unacceptably common power cuts, he says.

Kenya’s position astride Africa’s geologically active Rift Valley gives it access to huge geothermal resources. Drill a well down about 10,000 feet and you can tap a virtually limitless source of steam to run massive generators on the surface. In support of Vision 2030, Karingithi says that KenGen will more than double its generation capacity in just five years, to 3,330 megawatts, half of which will be geothermal. The future KenGen will thus be a “green KenGen,” he says.

Corruption is common in infrastructure projects and “bad things happen to those who uncover” it, one conservationist said.

When compared to conventional fossil fuel generation, geothermal power produces far fewer greenhouse gases. But geothermal plants can release other noxious gases and polluted water, and their associated infrastructure can be environmentally damaging, as it has been in Hell’s Gate.

The park and surrounding areas used to be famed for their breeding populations of scavengers and birds of prey, many of them threatened species like bearded vultures, Egyptian vultures, Rüppell’s vultures, African white-backed vultures, martial eagles, and crowned eagles. Of these six species, only one — Rüppell’s vulture — still breeds there, and many other less-threatened raptor species have disappeared. Although geothermal power cannot be solely blamed for the birds’ disappearance, Kenyan researchers have evidence that new well heads have pushed birds out of their territories, and that others have died in KenGen geothermal vents or by colliding with or being electrocuted by power lines. A large spill of contaminated water from a KenGen well once flowed over the main Rüppell’s vulture breeding cliff at Hell’s Gate.

Vultures play an important ecological role in wild African savanna and cattle ranching regions. By rapidly clearing up carcasses, they prevent diseases like anthrax from spreading through animal and human populations. African vultures breed very slowly compared to common American species like turkey and black vultures; when African species vanish, it takes decades to build up ecologically functional populations again. Most African vultures are declining rapidly; Egyptian, Rüppell’s, and African white-backed are classified as globally endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

No evidence of serious attempts to build bird-friendly infrastructure in Hell’s Gate or systematically monitor bird deaths was visible during my recent visit there. What was in evidence was extensive use of power line and power pylon types that have been proven to kill significant numbers elsewhere in Africa. The lines could be retrofitted with bird-scaring devices or replaced with bird-safer designs, but this has not been done. KenGen has also proposed five large industrial areas just outside the southern border of Hell’s Gate to take advantage of its electric power and steam.

Impalas pass underneath the Standard Gauge Railway in Nairobi National Park. After conservationists raised objections, the track was elevated to allow for the movement of wildlife.

Impalas pass underneath the Standard Gauge Railway in Nairobi National Park. After conservationists raised objections, the track was elevated to allow for the movement of wildlife. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Many Kenyan conservationists warn that Hell’s Gate is not an anomaly. Top Kenyan officials, including the president himself, have made clear that infrastructure will be pushed into national parks and sensitive areas if it is considered to further the aims of Vision 2030.

Some environmentalists I spoke to refused to be named or quoted, afraid for their jobs or personal safety. Corruption is common in infrastructure projects, one told me, and “bad things happen to those who uncover corruption in Kenya.”

The Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), a centerpiece of Vision 2030, is often cited by environmentalists as a prime example of the government’s determination to ride roughshod over environmental laws and considerations. The SGR is a Chinese-funded and Chinese-constructed line (part of the globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative) that will link the Kenyan port of Mombasa with the interior and neighboring countries. Phase 1, from Mombasa to Nairobi, was completed in 2018 at a cost of $3.2 billion. Phase 2, currently under construction, will link Nairobi with Naivasha, a town some 50 miles to the northwest.

Seven alternative routes for the line out of Nairobi were proposed, including some through Nairobi National Park, a world-famous park on the edge of the city. Conservationists pointed out that Kenyan law is clear that no infrastructure can be constructed in a national park unless that park has an up-to-date management plan. Nairobi National Park’s management plan expired in 2010. Nonetheless, the government announced in 2016 that a route bisecting the park had been chosen. This was subjected to numerous court challenges by conservationists, at least two of which resulted in construction stop orders. The government decided that the track would be placed on pillars through the park, so that wildlife could pass underneath, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), which manages all national parks, would receive large compensation payments to buy land to extend the park.

Conservation groups warned that one poorly sited wind farm would have a “direct and devastating” effect on rare vultures.

Despite the court-issued stop orders and ongoing court cases, the railway’s Chinese contractors, protected by armed KWS rangers, moved into the park in February 2018 and construction of the line has proceeded rapidly since. “The government just blatantly broke its own laws,” says Jim Karani, legal affairs manager for Wildlife Direct, a Kenyan nonprofit. Karani says that it now appears that compensation money has been used for KWS operational expenses and the park will not be expanding after all. (KWS did not respond to requests for comment.) “If the government can do that right in front of us, to Nairobi National Park,” another conservationist told me, “what hope do less well-known parks have?”

Conservationists also cite a series of wind farms planned for an area south of Nairobi as an example of the government forcing through supposedly green projects that are environmentally damaging. The first of these, Kipeto, is going ahead despite both its proponents and opponents agreeing that its 60 large turbines will likely kill substantial numbers of threatened, protected vulture and eagle species.

“Kipeto ticks every single box for a bad wind farm,” says Andrew Jenkins, a South African bird-of-prey biologist who has consulted on numerous wind projects across the continent, and who researched the Kipeto site. He says its location near the largest colony of the critically endangered Rüppell’s vulture in southern Kenya and in the middle of a flight path for threatened species of migratory birds, means that “it should simply not go ahead” on legal and conservation grounds. “It’s one of the three worst sites for a wind farm that I’ve seen in Africa in terms of its potential to kill threatened birds,” he adds.

Initially, a consortium of respected conservation nonprofits including BirdLife International, The Peregrine Fund, and Nature Kenya agreed with Jenkins. In a March 2017 letter to Kipeto’s shareholders, they termed the wind farm a “direct and devastating threat to Rüppell’s and White-backed vultures – birds that are considered critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.” They warned that, with Kenyan wind energy in its early stages, “this project will set a significant precedent for future projects” and that “no amount of mitigating or offsetting will compensate” for its biodiversity impacts, which undermined standards set by the International Finance Corporation, an early investor in Kipeto.

Wind turbines at the Lake Turkana Wind Power project in northern Kenya. Some Kenyan wind farms are being located in areas with sizable populations of endangered birds.

Wind turbines at the Lake Turkana Wind Power project in northern Kenya. Some Kenyan wind farms are being located in areas with sizable populations of endangered birds. YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

In mid-2018, the London-based investment firm, Actis, bought up 88 percent of Kipeto. Multiple sources with first-hand knowledge of the situation say that Actis portrayed Kipeto’s construction as inevitable, and then told members of the bird conservation consortium that about $1 million could be made available per year for mitigation work, including saving vultures from poisoning elsewhere in Kenya to make up for those killed by the turbines.

The leading consortium members have dropped their opposition and are now applying for their share of the mitigation financing. BirdLife International said in an email that it is working with the wind farm owners to “help improve the outcomes for vulture species.” The group declined to provide details of its proposed mitigation work and did not answer questions about whether its decision to drop opposition to the farm was tied to the promise that it would receive annual mitigation money.

The Kenya Wildlife Service has gone along with projects inside parks and protected areas after being assured it would receive compensation funds. Many sources point out that KWS’s government funding has been heavily cut in recent years, and they say that if the agency acquiesces to infrastructure inside parks, it can claim mitigation funds and balance its budget. Wildlife Direct’s Karani contends that it is therefore perversely in KWS’s short-term interests to degrade the parks that it’s mandated to protect.

“I’ve never seen a single government-backed project be denied an environmental impact assessment license by KWS or the National Environmental Management Authority,” Karani says. “They are captured.”

Conservationists describe Chinese-funded projects as more difficult to nudge in an environmentally friendly direction.

According to news reports, KWS has been assigned compensation of about $90 million for the Standard Gauge Railway and highways that have been routed through national parks.

Conservationists complain that infrastructure location details are often kept secret until the very last moment, preventing them from being meaningfully involved in decisions. The Kenyan government says that it has to keep locations under wraps to prevent land speculation and corruption from derailing projects, pointing to situations where this has happened, such as the Kinangop wind power project, which fell apart after violent disputes over landowner compensation.

Lucy Waruingi, executive director of the African Conservation Center, says that infrastructure is often placed in protected or remote areas because these have fewer non-natural barriers like houses and cultivated fields, whose owners must be compensated. “Areas that are considered remote also tend to be the areas that harbor most of our biodiversity,” she says. “In a sense, it’s almost inevitable that infrastructure is going to go through wildlife-rich areas.”

Waruingi adds that “if it’s a protected area, then it’s ‘easier’ [for the developer]. The engineers will tell you that their instructions from head office are to do least-cost designs. If they consider all the costs, especially of compensation, they may decide to route it through an area with one landowner, the government of Kenya, rather than through an area with dozens of private landowners.”

A geothermal well in Hell’s Gate National Park. This well, still in the testing phase, will generate enough electricity to power 50,000 Kenyan homes.

A geothermal well in Hell’s Gate National Park. This well, still in the testing phase, will generate enough electricity to power 50,000 Kenyan homes. Adam Welz

Numerous Kenyan conservationists described Chinese-funded infrastructure projects as more difficult to nudge in an environmentally friendly direction than Western-funded ones. Few would go on the record, given China’s perceived influence over Kenya’s political elite. But they note that many Western financing agencies, such as the World Bank, have some form of environmental standards, even if these are not always fully adhered to. On the other hand, China’s environmental guidelines for its Belt and Road developments are vague, and the planning processes and corporate cultures of Chinese companies are particularly opaque. China prides itself in being a “no strings attached” infrastructure funder, contrasting itself to Western funders with their meddling, “neo-colonialist” terms and conditions.

Despite the difficulties, some conservation organizations are attempting to build relationships with Kenyan government planners and foreign infrastructure companies in northern Kenya, where the LAPSSET development corridor – also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative – is slated to bring industry and infrastructure to remote regions and link with similar corridors in South Sudan and Ethiopia. LAPSSET is controlled from the Kenyan president’s office, and as currently proposed is a 500-meter-wide infrastructure channel with 50-kilometer-wide strips on either side designated for intensive agriculture and industrial development.

Although its detailed final route is not yet public, it will almost certainly pass through important community conservancies, affect national parks, and sever wildlife migration routes in some of the most biodiverse parts of the country. Some conservationists say they are having some positive influence on the planning process, but the full potential impact of LAPSSET is not yet known.

Wildlife Direct’s Karani says that his advocacy has earned him numerous threats and insults, and he’s often accused of being anti-development and therefore anti-Kenyan; a stooge for foreign white conservationists. “I don’t want to see people continue to live in poverty,” he tells me. “I’ve lived overseas in a rich country [the U.S., where he completed a masters in law]. I want those nice things, too. But do we have to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs — our national parks — just to enjoy a bit of its flesh?”

Adam Welz’s travel to Kenya was funded by the United Nations Environment Programme.