Kenya: Nakuru airport planned in high danger zone

by Jun 28, 2012Birds, Conservation Threats, Habitat News

The airport will be situated in direct conflict to one of the world’s highest concentrations of bird movements thus posing a major threat to the environment, as well as to human life.

Few conservationists, it seems, would deny Nakuru having a rationally placed and safe airport. However the proposed Nakuru Airport is planned to be situated in direct conflict to one of the world’s highest concentrations of bird movements. This poses a potential major threat to the environment, as well as to human life. The planned site is adjacent to two protected areas: Lake Nakuru National Park and Soysambu Wildlife Conservancy, with two lakes – Elmenteita and Nakuru – both part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. They are recognised globally for their importance in protecting a significant diversity of waterfowl, many of which are endangered.

John Wambua, senior warden of Lake Nakuru National Park, is highly concerned. “The location is situated on the birds migratory route,” he explains, “which is why as conservationists we are not supporting it.” He emphasises that it also presents a grave risk to aircraft. Kathryn Combes, CEO of Soysambu Conservancy agrees, adding: “A new airport in the region would benefit all local business and tourism but the location of the proposed airport is a disaster waiting to happen as it is in the flight path of thousands of Great White Pelicans which migrate between the two World Heritage Site lakes during the day, every day. A collision would be catastrophic.”

Jean Francois Damon, local tourism operator and owner of Sleeping Warrior Lodge on Soysambu Conservancy, is also extremely worried. Damon pointed out that he and other stakeholders in the region, creating local employment and providing high-end tourist accommodation, were never even consulted. The Environmental Impact Assessment Study report, he complains, appears to be just a legal formality after the decision had already been made.

Simon Thomsett, associate of the ornithology section of the Zoology department of the National Museums of Kenya, further criticises this May 2011 Environmental Impact Assessment Study report for the development of Nakuru airstrip by Water and Sanitation for Poverty Reduction, as lacking the necessary scientific back-up. Research, he points out, is, mandatory. “It will prove the site is probably one of the worst choices in the world for a large airport.” Moreover, although the EIA appears thorough in some areas, it lacks detail, is often ambiguous and there are other “extremely important areas that need review by independent and impartial experts”.

The EIA does not consider alternative sites, nor does it include a map of the proposed site, only giving a verbal description suggesting the airfield will be within 1km of the Nakuru Park boundary. The two proposed runways, one 2,500m by 45m (17/35), the other 1,000m by 20m (13/31), indicate an approach and take off over Soysambu conservancy with a holding pattern over Nakuru National Park. The risk of impacts with large birds aside, this will create noise and visual pollution in an area renowned for its peace and natural beauty.

Lake Nakuru, which became a National Park in 1960, has long been recognised as an important area for birds. It is a registered Important Bird Area and attracts a large number of visitors from all over the world. A former chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, Sir Peter Scott, called Lake Nakuru one of the “greatest bird spectacles on earth”, while famous ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson, describes it as “the most fabulous bird spectacle in the world.”

Neighbouring Elementeita, supporting and sharing a similar bird density, is also a RAMSAR site and IBA. Both lakes, along with Lake Bogoria, were more recently awarded World Heritage status.

Birds commute by day and night between Nakuru and Elmenteita. Meanwhile vast numbers of Palaearctic migrant waterbirds, storks and raptors visit annually. The Lion Hill ridge, just west of the proposed airport, is an important raptor migrating route, also used by pelicans. This EIA study acknowledges the existence of “several species of birds within the project vicinity” and admits that “flamingos and pelicans moving between lakes Nakuru and Elmentaita may pose a real threat to aircraft”. So it proposes to “form a bird strike committee to deal with this possible threat” – to “eliminate bird strikes”. But it also states that bird strikes are not expected to happen as “bird migration happens only at night whereas the flights will all be during the day, when there is no migration”.

This proposed committee will include officers from KAA, KWS, the Physical Planning Department, the Public Health Ministry, the Lands Department, Nakuru County Council, the Livestock Department, Delamere farms, and representatives from the business community – but doesn’t include the Ornithology department of the National Museums of Kenya – or Nature Kenya. It proposes to deal with any birds at the airfield, thus suggesting the EIA totally fails to identify the problem: those thousands of airborne birds commuting daily between the lakes.

Thomsett provides facts from his own observations over many years: Hundreds of Great White Pelicans fly in tightly packed groups, starting as early as 6.30am throughout the day. Between 6.30am and 9am they fly close to the ground (some impacting the power lines in their path). By 9am on clear days they thermal, sometimes in groups of over 100 birds with an inter-distance between birds of less than 3m at heights of 100m to 2000m AGL (at ground level), attaining greater heights at midday. By 6.20pm they fly at low level, usually back to lake Elementeita unassisted by thermals.

The highest birds may go to Lake Naivasha (to feed) at midday, the lower birds to Lake Nakuru to feed and bathe in fresh water (to the north of the lake). Great Cormorants also fly in large flocks in a straight path about 30m-100m AGL, in thousands throughout the day. In addition there are many other species that commute in their thousands each day between the lakes (and night) throughout the year. The Greater and Lesser Flamingo fly at night at about 20m-300m AGL.

The only known breeding location of pelicans in Kenya is the 5,000 pairs (over 10,000 birds) on Lake Elementeita. Most if not all make daily flights between the lakes. They are one of the heaviest of all flying birds and one could down a Boeing 747, let alone a Fokker. Thus, says Thomsett, it would appear that the major consideration to having to choose an alternative site is the perceived and accepted danger of bird strikes. However costs of relocating the airport appear to outweigh the risk. The success of the project is therefore entirely in the hands of the Bird Strike Committee to eradicate the “bird menace” of lakes Nakuru and Elementeita.

JKIA is the fourth most dangerous airport in the world, points out Thomsett. He once sat on their committee, while, instead of learning from other airports, they opted for the removal of birds. The ensuing “habitat modification” involved burning grass, attracting thousands of white storks, which then were poisoned, as were the Marabou Storks – a major hazard to aircraft – which proliferate due to slaughter houses and rubbish dumps all over the city. The eradication “solution” did not realise that these birds fly from as far as Nigeria or Lesotho. To be effective the airport would have to significantly depress the entire continent’s population of Marabou Storks. Meanwhile large numbers of poisoned Marabous lay in adjacent Nairobi National Park, in turn causing secondary poisonings of wildlife.

One method used elsewhere, especially in Israel where bird strikes are a serious problem to military aircraft, is the use of radar in detecting birds and the use of ground observers in reporting birds. In the event of a convergent course of birds and aircraft, the tower alerts the aircraft and obliges them to detour. This was proposed at JKIA, but dismissed as unworkable and expensive.

In the case of the proposed Nakuru Airport, Thomsett adds, “the concern about birds is realised, but is assumed to be controllable by human intervention”. If the Nakuru “solution” turns out to be killing thousands of pelicans and flamingos, this would have a catastrophic effect on Kenyan tourism. However if an aircraft carrying 60 passengers did crash due to bird strike, the options may well be the elimination of the birds – or closure of the airport.

It is a minimal recommendation that a qualified institution be asked and assisted to conduct surveys at the site. Questions such as direction of flights, altitude, times of day, species composition, numerical density, weather conditions, and precise overlaying of GIS maps of predicted aircraft flight patterns would be a first step requirement recommended by any EIA team for such a situation. In addition those providing the funding require thorough and sound science. No science or groundwork has been applied in this instance, nor any inclusion of intent to gain this fundamental knowledge.

The deadline to the input by Interested and Affect Parties was the end of May 2012, a few weeks after the document became public, leaving inadequate time for concerned stakeholders to implement any sound scientific reviews to counter a proposal put into progress since December 2007. Although they claim to have held detailed consultations with interested and affected parties, Soysambu Conservancy was not consulted, nor were many tourist businesses or lodges in the vicinity.

Remote tracking of bird movements is now possible with satellite tracking and GPRS units, revealing patterns of movements, altitude and other valuable data that would help design many development projects in Kenya, including airports, powerlines and wind farms, concludes Thomsett.