Nairobi National Park​—Where Animals Roam Free


IT IS half past six in the morning. Rising on the eastern horizon, the sun resembles a large, scarlet-colored jewel of remarkable splendor. Heralding the dawn of another day, its rays penetrate the glass windows of the tall office buildings, creating a gorgeous golden tint. Within walking distance of these office blocks, a spectacular real-life drama is being enacted.

A lion has been stalking a grazing impala for some time now, hiding itself in the tall grass. Sensing danger, the young antelope makes a quick dash, and the lion is hot on its heels. An intense, wild chase begins. If successful, this lion will use the so-called law of the jungle to pass sentence on this hapless animal.

Such epic chases are repeated daily at the Nairobi National Park, lying near the limits of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. The animals there have humans as their closest neighbors. Why, in 1962 a lion was seen wandering outside an exclusive hotel, perhaps to reclaim his former expansive territory. How did the wildlife and the city residents come to share this habitat?

A Troubled Beginning

The park’s establishment was no easy task. Several hurdles had to be overcome before the animals could enjoy the benefits of a well-protected home. Until the turn of the 20th century, they roamed unhindered over large areas of East Africa. Here people have always had close bonds with the wild beasts, grazing their flocks in close proximity to them. Some even viewed certain animals as honorary livestock!

Nevertheless, big-game hunters armed with rifles poured into the  country, many of whom wanted to collect as many trophies as possible. Among them was former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who came to Kenya in 1909 to collect natural history specimens for museums. With 600 porters and professional hunters, he killed over 500 animals and sent their skins home. About the same time, there was another well-known hunter, Edward, Prince of Wales. Their actions popularized big-game hunting safaris. Of course, a bullet was faster and could be aimed more accurately than the traditional bow and arrow.

The completion of the famous Lunatic Line, as the Kenya-Uganda railway was then known, opened up the area around Nairobi to human settlement, further restricting the free movement of the animals. Their total banishment was looming.

Then, during the 1930’s, some voices spoke out in behalf of the animals. Archie Ritchie, a game warden at the time, and Mervyn Cowie, an accountant, were among these activists. Through meetings and press reports, they petitioned the colonial authorities to set up a national park that would help reduce​—if not stop—​the wanton destruction of animals. The government was reluctant to adopt the idea. It was not ready to use land for the sole purpose of maintaining the flora and fauna in an area that was turning out to be the largest urban settlement in East Africa.

The conservation efforts were dealt another blow during the second world war, when troops on practice sessions roughed up the land where the park currently stands. Animals too fell victim to the war. The constant presence of soldiers in the area made the animals lose their fear of man, increasing the likelihood that they would turn into man-eaters. To prevent such an eventuality, some animals, including a famous lioness named Lulu and her lovable pride, were killed.

However, as a result of a change of heart on the part of the authorities, many of the obstacles were overcome, and the conservationists had their way. Finally, after a long and tumultuous gestation period, Nairobi National Park​—the first such park in East Africa—​was born on December 16, 1946, when the then colonial governor of Kenya, Sir Philip Mitchell, signed its birth certificate.

A Visitor’s Paradise

Compared with the other game parks in East Africa, Nairobi National Park is relatively small. Its estimated size is 45 square miles [117 sq km], with the main entrance being less than 6 miles [10 km] from Nairobi’s city center. Its fame, however, lies in that size. Few places on earth offer a visitor the panoramic view provided by this animal sanctuary​—a rare contrast between the fast-developing city of Nairobi and the African bush.

The small size allows the visitor to meet most of the larger animals, except for the elephant, in a higher concentration than in expansive parks and reserves. It contains 100 mammal species and more than 400 bird species. The park lies near the approach route to the international airport in Nairobi.

A visitor to Nairobi can leave the comforts of a modern hotel in the city, drive past immaculate office buildings, and arrive within minutes at age-old plains, tracts of bush, and forests. Here, lions and other hunting animals can be seen at work. The sight of such predators running after prey against the backdrop of glittering city skyscrapers is not soon forgotten.

 The park teems with wildlife, such as buffalo, leopards, cheetahs, common giraffes, monkeys, hundreds of antelope, and the rare and endangered black rhino. Most of these are permanent residents. During the dry season of February/March and August/September, large herds of migratory animals, such as wildebeests (gnu), can be seen around the many pools that collect in the park.

In some pools, aptly known as the hippo pools, groups of these barrel-shaped giants stay submerged all day long, coming out to graze during the night. Bordering these water sources are designated nature trails where one can leave the vehicle and take a walk. A word of caution though: Such strolls can be very dangerous, as some pools are home to predatory crocodiles, which might be lounging on the banks, unseen by an unwary visitor! To avoid being a potential meal, you would do well to walk in the company of trained park rangers.

The ornithological list reads like a Who’s Who of the bird kingdom. The ostrich, the world’s largest living bird, reaching a height of more than seven feet [2 m], has found a permanent home here. Soaring high in the urban sky is the much-maligned vulture in its scavenging role. The seemingly ungainly bird is a boon to the park’s environment, since it disposes of any carrion that might otherwise breed bacteria harmful to other animals.

On occasion, you may spot the secretary bird. Behind its ears it has crest feathers that resemble the quills once used by secretaries for writing. Always in haste, it seems to be rushing from one appointment to another. Other birds include hammerkops, crowned cranes, saddle-bills, and cattle egrets.

The park, relatively small though it may be, is an ecological masterpiece. In its western part, a forest occupies almost 6 percent of the land, receiving rainfall of between 27 and 43 inches [700 to 1,100 mm] annually. Here, one can see a profusion of trees that include the Cape chestnut and the beautiful croton. Extensive plains, valleys, and ridges cover the southern and eastern parts, where rainfall ranges between 19 and 27 inches [500 and 700 mm]. Red oat grass, desert dates, arrow-poison tree, and several types of acacias combine to give the area a true savanna environment.

Not to be overlooked are the magnificent sheer walls of rock that drop some 330 feet [100 m] to the valley floor. These can be exhausting for rock-climbing enthusiasts​—at least those willing to try!

The Park Under Threat

Many problems associated with wildlife conservation have one common denominator​—man. Thanks to man’s ‘development efforts,’ Nairobi National Park may soon sink into oblivion. The city of Nairobi, the human settlement that sparked the park’s world acclaim, continues to expand, pushing the animals into a corner. As more people settle in the urban area, demand for land continues to rise, with animals offering no resistance. Effluents from nearby factories are also a threat to all forms of life in the park.

Another factor essential to the park’s survival is the availability of a migratory route for some animals. Much of the park is fenced in to prevent the animals from straying into the city. Intense farming and herding of domestic flocks are choking up the small corridor that remains on the southern side of the park. Total closure might have tragic results. Animals moving out in search of pastures may never have a chance to return! To save the migratory route, Kenya Wildlife Service, the country’s top wildlife conservation body, has obtained a lease of land adjacent to the park. Despite the problems, Nairobi National Park continues to lure thousands of visitors annually to behold its contrasting charms.

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A flock of marabou storks

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Crowned crane

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Black rhino

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