From hotbed of crime to joggers' paradise: Nairobi forest thrives

In the space of ten years, Karura forest has gone from a dangerous no-man's land to one of the safest and most popular destinations in Nairobi.

In the space of ten years, Karura forest has gone from a dangerous no-man's land to one of the safest and most popular destinations in Nairobi.

AFP/Simon Maina

NAIROBI - In the space of 10 years, Karura Forest has gone from a dangerous no man's land to one of Nairobi's safest and most popular destinations, a verdant refuge in a city that has long carried the unfortunate moniker "Nairobbery".

Karura is also a symbol against land-grabbing, having been saved from developers to become the world's second-largest forest that is fully within city limits, conservationists say.

Kenya's forests are cleared at a rate of 5,000 hectares a year, the environment ministry said in 2018. 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 nature lovers a month, with 10-year commemorative events planned in October to mark its striking transformation and storied history.

Shaking its reputation was a challenge, even after an electric fence was raised around the perimeter.

- Bad reputation -

For many years, hardly anyone came, said Karanja Njoroge, who chaired Friends of Karura Forest, a community group that co-manages the reserve, from 2011 to 2018.

"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.

Slowly, visitor numbers grew as the criminals were flushed out. A clubhouse, long abandoned because patrons kept getting mugged, reopened its doors. Women felt safe enough to run on their own, Chege said.

Local communities were vital in bolstering security.

Today, they are its custodians, planting saplings, clearing weeds and policing its borders.

- Green icon -

The forest still bears the scars of this violent past. Bald tracts of forest cleared for mansions abut thriving black wattle -- a tree whose growth was spurred by fires from the days protesters burned tractors in defiance, Chege said.

But its tranquility is not assured.

Other forests, such as Oloolua in Nairobi's south, have suffered from rampant encroachment. Even the city's iconic national wildlife park is being sliced through with a railway whose construction began last year in defiance of a court order.

Land grabs are not a distant threat. In July, a court ruled against a private company trying to claim 4.3 hectares 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. Native trees are taking back the forest from species introduced by the British to fuel their railway to Uganda, notably eucalyptus trees.

The forest contains rivers, waterfalls and caves used by anti-colonial rebels. Joggers encounter bushbucks, hornbills and Syke's monkeys.