Friday, April 22, 2011

From Wasteland to Wonderland

Haller Park, Mombasa

For me, a trip to Mombasa is incomplete without a visit to Haller Park. Sitting nondescriptly on the Mombasa-Malindi road, this park is a must-do pit-stop. Acres of emerald interspersed with wetlands, accompanying avifauna, and even mammals from savannas greet you in this pocket glowing with environmental well-being. I fall in line with the guide who takes us through the paces and acquaints us with the vegetation and wildlife wealth here. It is two-and-a half-hours as we just about sample the place and head for the Giraffe feeding site, which is the last leg of the tour. Giraffe feeding is a big draw here and it attracts a wholesome cross-section of tourists. We are standing on a platform to be level with the giraffe’s mouth eagerly holding food pellets in palms waiting to touch and feel the giraffe, a novel experience to many of us. I have been to safaris in the savannas and scrubland, been on nature trails in urban forests with its bursting foliage, then why does this park have such a hold on me? What’s so special about Haller Park?

Haller Park has grown out of the derelict landscape of a spent quarry: it may well have sprung out of nothing! It is an exceptional ecological experiment in mitigation of land degradation and a classic instance of corporate responsibility in environmental housekeeping on part of Bamburi Cement Company.  Bamburi has been making cement from limestone quarried from fossilized coral reef dating back to Pleistocene era (2 – 1 million years ago). Once mined, these open pit quarries lie in disuse and degrade the quality of land and contaminate groundwater, even leaching into the ocean. For nearly two decades, LaFarge Ecosystem, a subsidiary of Bamburi has been engaged in converting the wasteland of dust and debris into an ecologically and economically self-sustaining ecosystem. But the idea was originally mooted and executed by Swiss naturalist, Dr. Rene Haller, then working as an agronomist with Bamburi, after whom the park is honoured.

You can see the excavation site (derelict quarry) behind... 

Fig tree with vervet monkeys

Dr. Haller experimented with tree planting and found that in the severely
barren conditions only casuarina equisetifolia survived and thus willy nilly the initial mitigation measure began as a monoculture plantation. As the next step, millipedes were introduced to feed on casuarina needles that fell on to the quarry floor and to turn them into humus.

At a conference organized on the occasion of Nature Kenya’s centenary, I had the opportunity to learn of LaFarge’s experiment of eco-restoration of Haller Park in greater detail. I learnt that, by and by, indigenous trees were brought in for revegetation - specific species to attract birds and monkeys - that would help in pollination and seed dispersal thus paving the transformation of monocultures into a diverse ecosystem. Coastal, ornamental, rare and endangered, and medicinal – all varieties of trees were brought in to rehabilitate over 200 hectares of quarry land. In keeping with the best practices of eco-restoration, local community was involved in the greening efforts.

Once introduced vegetation took root, natural processes took over and the ecological community became self-sustaining, LaFarge trained sights on wildlife. Giraffes, buffaloes, elands and hippopotamus, mostly orphaned animals or those that needed to be shifted from other parks were provided shelter here.Today, Haller Park boasts of a small game sanctuary, nature trails, lakes with lilies, a palm garden, a reptile park, an aquaculture pond with tilapia (fish), and a butterfly pavilion, all of which attract tourists widely.

Nile crocodiles in Reptile Park

Lily pond

Eland, the largest antelope... looks rather like cattle

In my ecology studies I had learnt of development of ecological seres, how flora and fauna evolve naturally on barren land, volcanic islands or in ponds, the succession of species – of plants, the elbowing and edging out of certain weaker species by the dominant ones, the competition and struggle, the establishment of the predominant ones, and finally the climax vegetation, the survival of the fittest. It is one thing to observe and extrapolate natural progression, entirely another for man to replicate the same in a manner of reverse engineering. Such instances of ecological rehabilitation of spent spaces, few and far between as they are, are a testimony to man’s ingenuity and give hope that if man decides, he can restore lost ecosystems.

I had been to Haller Park last year, before LaFarge’s talk had thrown light on behind-the-scenes intervention that led to the dramatic results. Back then, the park was just that, a place of natural beauty. Standing here today, by the pond, as I watch the flock of sacred ibis bathed in the warm sunlight streaking through the trees I realize that the park is much more, it is truly a man-made paradise.

Who would believe this was once a dust and debris aridity?


  1. great stuff, took me bck to my trip there which was at a different time. the pics are lovely. sri

  2. Never knew such a park exists in Mombasa part of my trip next time..the pics were superb carried away with the pHotos more than the writing actually..

  3. All credit to Dr Haller for embarking on such a wonderful exercise and thanks to you and your blog that i could visualise myself in the park enjoying the beauty, rather renewed beauty. Hope we can take some leaf out of this and instead of fighting over the illegal mining and forgetting thereafter we too ensure that such activities are encouraged from the Govt as well.

  4. I enjoy reading your blogs and looking at the pictures of nature. When are you putting it in the form of a book?

  5. Exquisite pictures, beautiful writing, a poem to Mother Nature. This is the best Nature blog I have read!

  6. Always enjoy reading your posts Padmaja. Keep them coming.

  7. This is a article loaded with information for novice and very experienced environmentolist. I loved the way you have described the transformation and the experiment with plantation.
    It takes you in the location and the snaps are bliss to eyes.
    It is nice we have enviroment lovers and protectors, and good you spread the message with your words.
    all the best.

  8. Truly Inspiring story. We ourselves are working on a project in the Nilgiris to replant shola forests in patches given by private estates partly as a social responsibility initiative and partly as an educational program for kids across the Nilgiris. Certainly inspired by Dr. Haller's work.

  9. samidha parulkarMay 14, 2011 at 8:39 PM

    padmaja aatya your article is so very gud. The pictures are very beautiful and your writing is very nice. It is so effective as if you are just seeing it in front of you.

  10. go, hug your parents,
    hug your kids,
    hug a tree.
    hug the animals,
    hug the wild,
    hug wild!

    hug is the last lingering
    horrible hunger there is!


  11. Lovely pics, and beautifully descriptive blog ... way to go! Armin