In Summary
  • Karura 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.

"We would collect dead, dumped bodies. Some were decomposing... others were fresh," said John Chege of his early days policing Nairobi's Karura Forest, back when thieves and murderers outnumbered joggers and dog walkers in the woods.

Karura 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 told AFP of his hair-raising 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."

Karura Forest. Both the Friends of Karura, a lobby group that protects the forest and the Green Belt Movement, which was started by the late Prof Maathai have vowed not to allow the construction of a hotel to continue. PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Karura Forest. PHOTO | FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP

In the space of 10 years, Karura 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".

A SYMBOL AGAINST LAND-GRABBING

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 (12,300 acres) 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.

Richard Quest

Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge with CNN Anchor Richard Quest at Karura Forest. PHOTO | COURTESY

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.

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.

Shaking its reputation was a challenge, 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 nervous joggers they would be safe, and so ran alongside them in khaki fatigues.

"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 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.

Chege, a former illegal logger, was recruited from Huruma, a slum on Karura's northern fringe. The community used the forest for firewood, and as a rubbish tip and open toilet.

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

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