‘We would collect dead, dumped bodies. Some were decomposing, others were fresh,” said John Chege of his early days policing Nairobi’s urban forest back when thieves and murderers outnumbered joggers and dog walkers.
Karura Forest then was the stuff of urban legend, a fearsome place invoked to scare misbehaving children. Chege and his scouts, stumbling on corpses by day, kept white-knuckled vigils by night as they scanned the darkness for intruders.
“It was hell,” Chege said of his first months as Karura’s inaugural chief scout, back in 2009 when efforts began to reclaim the forest. “But today we celebrate, because there is nothing of the sort.”
In the space of 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no-man’s land to one of Nairobi’s most popular destinations, a refuge in a city that has long carried the unfortunate moniker “Nairobbery”.
Karura is also a symbol against land-grabbing, having been saved from property speculators to become the world’s second-largest urban forest, conservationists say.
Kenya’s forests are cleared at a rate of 5 000 hectares a year, the environment ministry said last year. But Karura has survived, even as green spaces are being swallowed by concrete in one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities.
From zero visitors in 2009, today Karura attracts up to 30 000 people a month. For many years, hardly anyone came, said Karanja Njoroge, who chaired Friends of Karura Forest, which co-manages the reserve.
Shaking its reputation was difficult, even after an electric fence was raised around the perimeter. “Karura Forest in 2009 was a place where no one would even want to be threatened to be taken. It meant either you were going to be killed or that you were going to be punished,” Njoroge said.
Chege and his scouts, who were trained by the British army, could not convince joggers they would be safe, and so ran alongside them. “Perhaps a visitor wanted to run 10 kilometres? My guy was to run 10 kilometres,” he said.
Slowly, visitor numbers grew as the criminals were flushed out. A clubhouse, long abandoned, reopened its doors. Women felt safe enough to run on their own, Chege said.
Locals were vital in bolstering security. Chege, a former illegal logger, was recruited from Huruma, a slum on Karura’s northern fringe. People used the forest as a rubbish tip and open toilet and collected firewood. Today, they are its custodians, planting saplings, clearing weeds and policing its borders.
Karura narrowly escaped destruction in the late 1990s when property speculators gave parcels of the forest to politically connected elites.
The upland forest is a developers dream: 1 000 hectares of prime land, straddled by Nairobi’s most exclusive suburbs. Wangari Maathai, the founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, rallied church leaders, lawyers and students to Karura’s defence.
In January 1999, armed thugs attacked Maathai when she tried to plant seedlings in an act of protest, landing her in hospital. The violence made international headlines and outraged a public tired of corrupt elites grabbing state land.
The protesters won the day: development was halted. But its tranquility is not assured.
Other forests, such as Oloolua in Nairobi’s south, have suffered from encroachment. Even the city’s national wildlife park is being sliced through by a railway line, the construction of which began last year in defiance of a court order.
Though Chege worries more about dogs off leashes these days than dealing with the dead, a road being widened on Karura’s eastern border has raised concerns.
Land grabs are not a distant threat. In July, a court ruled against a private company trying to claim 4.3ha of Karura. “If everybody who wants to build keeps chipping away, there will be very little left,” Njoroge said.
Karura persists as a conservation triumph. Indigenous trees are taking back the forest from species introduced by the British to fuel their railway to Uganda. Before conservation efforts began, alien trees, many of them invasive, made up 60% of the forest. Eucalyptus, in particular, inhibits the growth of other plants and monopolise the water supply with their voracious thirst.
The forest contains rivers, waterfalls and caves used by anti-colonial rebels. Joggers encounter bushbuck, hornbills and Syke’s monkeys.
Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Maathai, said her mother would be proud of what Karura has become, “and maybe even surprised at just how much people love it”.
“She had hoped her children’s children — my generation and our children — would enjoy this forest, and that’s what has come to pass,” Maathai said. — AFP