TSAVO WEST NATIONAL PARK, Kenya—When it comes to darting elephants from helicopters and fitting heavy GPS tracking collars around their massive necks, “a lot of things can go wrong,” David Daballen says. “An elephant can fall on its chest. Imagine, a six-ton animal just sitting on its chest—they crush their lungs.”
As dawn breaks, Daballen, who works with Save the Elephants, is leading a collaring team of a couple dozen people, including nine Kenya Wildlife Service rangers dressed in camouflage and brandishing rifles. They are equipped with a Cessna, a helicopter, and a caravan of Toyota Land Cruisers and other SUVs.
The Cessna, circling overhead, spots an elephant and radios the team. Within seconds the chopper swoops in low, disappearing behind the bushes and trees. A moment later it swoops upward, and the vehicles race toward the spot. Lying on his right side is a bull. His skin is brown and rough, with pokey black hairs.
The team sets immediately to work unrolling the collar onto the elephant’s neck and attempting to tug it underneath. Someone pours water on the animal’s side to keep him cool. Another puts a small stick into the tip of his trunk to keep the airway open.
After struggling 20 minutes to get the collar on, Daballen uses a socket wrench to tighten the two ends together. The job done, a man injects an antidote to wake the animal up, and the team hurries to their vehicles. Everyone is silent as they watch the bull rise. He stands, looks toward the vehicles, then he turns and walks swiftly in the opposite direction.
The bull was the first of 10 elephants the team tranquilized over a week to fit with tracking collars. Their mission: to see how well Tsavo’s estimated 12,000 savanna elephants traverse a new rail line that has recently split their habitat in two. It is the first time in history, Daballen’s organization believes, that elephants are being collared specifically to study how they interact with human infrastructure.
The park in southeastern Kenya was already traversed by an old, colonial-built rail line and a two-lane highway, both linking Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to the coast at Mombasa. But the new railway, unlike the old one and the highway, is being built on a steep man-made embankment that elephants cannot cross. The railway has only a few bridges under which elephants and giraffes can pass, so in other places they are forced to use underpasses constructed where the animals were believed to migrate.
Soon another obstacle may block their path. Kenya is considering building a six-lane highway alongside the rails. With the right data on the movement of the park’s elephants, conservationists with Save the Elephants, Tsavo Trust, and the Kenya Wildlife Service hope to pressure the government to ensure any future highway will include overpasses—in the right spots so as not to disrupt animal movement further.
Their fear is that as Kenya races to modernize its colonial-era infrastructure to fit the needs of a middle-class industrial economy, its reputation as a bastion for wildlife and preservation will be sacrificed. Already, the new $3.8 billion rail corridor—mired in allegations of corruption—has disoriented elephants in Tsavo. The collaring study will determine just how disruptive the railway is.
Now the track is also encroaching into Nairobi National Park, Kenya’s second most visited park and the only national wildlife park inside a capital city. The railway under construction there will cut off a sliver of the park’s land. But plans surfaced last year to elevate the railway on giant concrete pillars and run it through the middle of the park. Kenya Railways Corporation has attempted to distance itself from that plan, but it has yet to publically declare it off the table.
Paula Kahumbu, executive director of WildlifeDirect, a U.S.- and Kenya-based nonprofit, and one of Kenya’s most prominent wildlife conservationists, says the country should declare parks off limits to new rail lines. “What we’re seeing instead is that there’s a trend toward major development within protected areas,” she says.
A FRIENDLY MAN with a mustache and a lot of patience, Kenya Wildlife Service spokesperson Paul Gathitu smiles as he describes how two lions strayed out of Nairobi National Park and into a crowded neighborhood. In March, another lion ventured out and was shot and killed by rangers after he attacked one of the onlookers who surrounded him. The encounters are perfect examples of the inevitable conflict between a wildlife park and a bustling city of more than three million people.
Growing up in the town of Nyeri, between two national parks, Gathitu began learning about conservation in primary school. Thrilled by a field trip to a lake where he saw thousands of flamingos, when he reached secondary school he became president of the wildlife club. Soon he was organizing outings to Samburu, Nairobi, and Tsavo National Parks.
Once he became a wildlife warden, Gathitu was transferred from park to park. He says his wife and three children loved it. At times, in Tsavo West, “my son would be in the car with the elephants around. They would see there was a child, and they would be very concerned. They would think, ‘Who is this irresponsible man who would leave his child alone?’” This is the same population of elephants that is now threatened.
Many years later, on a sunny morning in March, we are driving across Nairobi National Park’s grassy plains. We pass a pack of female impalas, then some hartebeests, then gazelles. A tourist leans out of his car window to photograph a flock of white spoonbills at a watering hole. Nearby, a male ostrich chases away a pack of silver-backed jackals. “Probably the female had some chicklets,” Gathitu says.
Gathitu points to Nairobi’s downtown skyline. Development is occurring all around the park. Skyscrapers are ever present, looming in the hazy distance. “You see,” he says, “the only building that used to be visible is the Kenyatta National Hospital. But now there are so many other buildings.”
A small airplane breaks the quiet. The park nearly touches both of the city’s airports. “This is something that affects the park,” Gathitu says. “Students crash as they are learning how to fly. Every year we get an average of two crashes.”
When we arrive at the spot where the new railway is being constructed, Gathitu gestures at the surroundings. “Because it’s next to the capital city, this has become inevitable,” he says. “The geographical position of the park is kind of an inconvenience to itself.”
Dump trucks drive nosily by. When it comes to protecting the park’s wildlife from the railway, “the biggest concern is during the construction phase,” Gathitu says. “There’s so much noise.” All the construction materials entering the park must be tested, right down to the dirt. “We don’t want invasive species.”
A Chinese man walks down a dirt road, slowly unwinding a coil of thin electrical wire. He motions to some Kenyan workers. They blow whistles to warn people to get out of the way. One worker opens a small metal box, presses a lever, and a small explosion shakes the ground as dynamite blasts dirt and rocks several meters into the air, clearing the landscape for the new tracks to be laid.
Years ago in central Kenya, Gathitu says, road construction workers would sometimes kill antelope. For this project, rangers are monitoring the construction crews. A tall wire fence has been placed around the entire area to keep animals away.
Gathitu points out a cliff that will require the tracks to be elevated to reach it, creating an opening that will allow animals as tall as giraffes to pass underneath. But he notes, “It will take a little bit of time for the animals to get used to it.”
KENYA’S OLD RAILWAY, nicknamed the Lunatic Line for its enormous cost, was constructed by Indian and African laborers in the 1890s under British rule. The single track is old and narrow gauge, and trains frequently break down or derail. In 2009, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta signed an agreement with other East African leaders to build a high-speed, standard-gauge railway across East Africa.
There’s no question the railway needed a makeover. “It’s like the difference between a rural road and a highway,” says Eric Gross, a civil engineer who studied some of the designs for the project on behalf of a Kenyan environmental group. “The old corridor is how you built a railway 100 years ago. You had slow speeds, a max of 50, 60 kilometers an hour.” In reality, most freight traveling on the railroad moves far slower than that.
But a 2013 World Bank study found that building an entirely new corridor with wider standard gauge rails would be expensive and unnecessary. Far better, it said, to simply refurbish the existing one. Doing so could increase cargo capacity to 60 million tons per year. Currently the railway moves fewer than four million, and the World Bank estimated that demand would not surpass 15 million by 2030. “Based on these assumptions, there is no economic or financial case” for a new rail corridor, the study concluded.
Nonetheless, in 2013, Kenya opted to build a new corridor, a plan the World Bank estimated would cost six times as much as simply upgrading the old line. Once again, the former British colony would erect a cross-country railway at an enormous cost, this time in a no-bid contract with a Chinese construction company. The price tag is nearly twice what the World Bank estimated such a line should cost.
“People are already calling it ‘the Great Wall of China’ going through Tsavo,” says Gross, who grew up in Tsavo West National Park, where his father served as warden in the 1970s. “It’s basically two ecosystems instead of one right now. The wildlife used to be able to walk over the old railway. Now there’s no way.”
He says the underpasses that were built are intimidating to animals, unlike overpasses, which can be covered in soil, grass and shrubs to look like a small hill. But such overpasses can be costly. “The engineering considerations took precedent over the environmental considerations,” Gross says.
Now, Gross worries the same thing is happening to Nairobi National Park. Where the track will be on a trestle, giraffes and other animals will be able to pass under it. But where the track will be at ground level, it will be fenced to keep animals away.
This stretch of track is just 12 kilometers long and will affect less than one percent of the park, or 216 acres. Still, to Kenyans who love the park, Gross says, “it’s like putting a railway through the pyramids in Cairo.”
Nairobi National Park is the oldest park in East Africa, having been protected in 1946, and receives more than 150,000 visitors each year. It is home to giraffes, African buffalo, hundreds of bird species, and dozens of lions.
The proposal to elevate the railway through the middle of the park is “like having the monorail in Disneyland going through your national park,” Gross says. Although it’s unclear whether this will happen, Gross says, “the fear is that, once they decide what to do, everything else is just sort of procedural.”
Officials with Kenya Railways Corporation did not grant an interview. But Kenyatta has defended the railway as necessary for the nation’s economic development, saying that the new corridor will speed up freight transport and lower costs in the long run.
AS THE TRANQUILIZED BULL lumbers into the bush, the aircrew spots a female walking with a calf. She is swiftly darted, and when she collapses the calf paces frantically around her, lying its head, its feet, its trunk on the mother’s body. The calf seems fearful, worried. The vehicles rumble up and chase the calf away. Again the collaring team goes to work.
Elephants are important not just for their majesty. “Elephants dig wells for other animals. They spread seeds,” says Frank Pope, chief operations officer for Save the Elephants. “Everywhere you lose elephants you see dramatic effects.”
The railway through Tsavo is also worrisome to conservationists because of what it may portend. “The railway is only the beginning,” Pope says. It’s just a matter of time before the two-lane road between Nairobi and Mombasa becomes a modern highway, which is what makes tracking the park’s elephants so important. “If we can measure how elephants are passing under the railway, we can plan for how to build overpasses over the highway, which will be quite costly.”
Before the week is up, he will learn that at least three of the collared elephants managed to find and use the underpasses below the new railway. “They’re very smart,” Pope says. “If they really want to get there, they will.”
Robert Obrien, assistant director of the adjoining Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Parks, says the animals are slowly becoming accustomed to the intrusion of infrastructure here.
He noted that female elephants have had to carry their calves over a long oil pipeline that’s been lying on the ground next to the railway for months, waiting for Kenya’s state pipeline corporation to get around to burying it. Now, he’s worried that a baby elephant could topple into the two-meter deep trench that lines the railway. “If a small one falls in, it’s there forever.”
After a long midday rest from the scorching heat, the team sets out to find a bull that’s not too young or too old. They find one in a small herd of half a dozen other elephants, which they chase away.
From the helicopter, a pilot watches as the final collared elephant of the day—a female—stands up, a bit bewildered, and begins walking southwest, in the direction of the new railway.
Jacob Kushner reports on science, development, and migration in Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter.