Feature: Chinese-built railway in harmony with wildlife conservation in east Africa

Updated: December 14, 2022 Source: Xinhua News Agency
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NAIROBI, Dec. 13 (Xinhua) -- Kenya's Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) has put in place interventions to ensure that the railway is in harmony with the wildlife.

The 480-km Mombasa-Nairobi section travels through the country's largest wildlife reserve, the Tsavo National Park, while the 120-km Nairobi-Suswa section passes through the Nairobi National park and has had minimal effects on the wildlife.

Afristar, the operator of the Chinese-built SGR, has implemented a number of noise mitigation measures on the railroad aimed at decreasing interference in wildlife habitats.

Obed Kirwa, track technical supervisor at Afristar's Nairobi-Maai Mahiu Workshop, told Xinhua in the Kenyan capital Nairobi that they have installed sound barriers along the wildlife corridors in order to reduce disturbance to the animals. "We have erected sound absorption plates on the track in the areas close to wildlife habitats," he added.

The SGR has also built a great bridge at the height of 6.5 meters above the ground where the railway passes through the Nairobi National Park for the convenience of large animals such as elephants and giraffes to pass through. In addition, there is a 5.9-km-long, two-meter-high sound barrier on either side of the guardrail of the bridge in order to minimize the noise caused by trains as they pass through the wildlife areas.

Kirwa, who has been working on the railway since 2017, said the sound barriers have significantly reduced the amount of noise emitted from the moving SGR locomotives. "So, at this point, no animals have been affected by the noise. We have observed that when the passenger and cargo trains are passing along the park, the wildlife are walking freely, and some even relax below the bridge to shelter from the sun," he added, emphasizing that the SGR project is keen to protect Kenya's wildlife because of their importance to the national economy.

"My wish is that those who come after us continue with the same spirit and maintain the sound barriers because they reduce the stress on the wildlife," Kirwa said. Kirwa's maintenance crew of 16 personnel physically inspects the sound absorption plates at least once every month to ensure that they have not been affected by wear and tear or have been vandalized.

The SGR, inaugurated in 2017, runs from the coastal port of Mombasa through Nairobi and terminates at Suswa. It is the largest infrastructure construction project in Kenya since independence and a flagship project for the east African nation to realize its national development blueprint Vision 2030, as well as a model project for China-Africa cooperation.

Zhang Zhengyi, deputy director of Afristar Nairobi at the Track and Signal Maintenance Workshop, clarified that at least 14 large wildlife passages, 79 bridges, and 100 culverts have been set up along the railway route to ensure the free passage of animals.

"We railway builders have been seriously thinking about the problem of how to make the railway project and the natural environment co-exist in harmony. In the design of the railway, we have adopted a series of measures for animal protection, drawing on the design experience of the A50 road in the Netherlands, the B38 road in Germany, and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in China," Zhang said.

In order to accommodate the living habits of Kenya's iconic wildlife species, such as elephants, giraffes, and other large animals, the Mombasa-Nairobi Railway has set up several animal passages along the length of the railroad and increased the height of the bridges in order to facilitate the passage of animals.

Zhang observed that during the design phase of the SGR, all the train collisions with elephants that occurred between 2007 and 2012 on the old meter-gauge railway line were analyzed; based on this, appropriate elephant crossing points were put in place.

He noted that the identification of the locations of wildlife passages took into account the species' migration paths, as well as the distribution of the surrounding rivers and ditches. He revealed that as part of efforts to boost animal welfare, the location and number of animal passageways set on the SGR were finally determined after several demonstrations and analyses with the state-owned Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

Zhang still remembers the first time he saw rhinos along the railway route in Nairobi National Park. "I was on duty that day, (doing) routine inspection. I was extremely excited. The baby rhino was so cute, and the rhino family was relaxing near the bridge. And now, I am getting used to seeing those precious animals. I'm proud that the SGR maintains a good example of environmentally friendly modern construction," he revealed.

Kenya is one of the most biodiverse countries and attracts tourists from all over the world. According to Afristar, SGR is more friendly to the environment because it produces less carbon dioxide per ton of goods than road transport. Hence the SGR has been hailed by environmental experts for its role in combating climate change.

Nancy Githaiga, country director of the Africa Wildlife Foundation, a leading international conservation organization, said measures have been implemented to make a difference in the balance between the SGR and wildlife.

"I think during the construction of the SGR, there were a lot of discussions about the SGR going through wildlife corridor areas, and what we saw is that the bridges and underpasses aided wildlife movement. Probably a bit more would have been better, but what is currently available, I think, has aided and has reduced the fatalities we would expect," Githaiga said.

Editor: Yang Yifan