NAIROBI NATIONAL PARK
By Daphne Sheldrick D.B.E.: UNEP Global 500 Laureate.
Fifty years ago, the first Game Warden of Kenya, Capt. Archie Ritchie, O.B.E. M.C. writing in the fledgling Park’s first handbook, had this to say about the Nairobi National Park:-
“I want to give an assurance, a guarantee that the Park is wholly “genuine”. Persons visiting it now for the first time may well imagine that its faunal population, varied and teeming as it is, has been laboriously built up, and that many of the animals to be seen have been brought from elsewhere, or at least induced by artifice to come in and dwell. The exact opposite is the case, and the area is essentially the same as when I first took charge of it as a corner of the great Southern Game Reserve in January 1924, and marvelled at the wealth and variety of its wild life….And the beasts are the same as those I found there that long time ago. Some species are now rather more numerous, some rather less, for populations, particularly of migratory or partially migratory species, are subject to periodical downs”.
Fifty years later, and the dawn of another millennium, the same is poignantly true today, despite the immense changes that have taken place in the country, though perhaps the term “teeming”, as a description of numbers as they were fifty years ago, today would have a lesser connotation, for what remains today is a mere shadow of that bounty. Everything is fewer, not through the natural “down” that Capt. Ritchie mentions, but due to human expansion that has constricted the animals’ once large dispersal area and brought human habitation right up to every boundary. Some rhinos have been brought in, as have some orphaned hand-reared buffaloes; the African wild dogs are no more and the predator population seriously eroded, but the Park remains still a rare jewel in the crown of Kenya’s conservation efforts. No other city in the entire world can boast a natural wilderness within easy reach of its centre, where visitors can spend a magic afternoon viewing a microcosm of what used to be a hundred years ago. Nairobi National Park is, indeed, unique – and must be nurtured at all costs, not just for its obvious tourist appeal, and the revenues it brings into the country, but for important therapeutic reasons also. The human soul needs access to Nature to heal its psyche, for humans, whether they acknowledge it or not, are also an integral part of Nature and need the tranquillity wilderness offers to offset the negative impact of stress. More importantly still, the Park serves the vital role of being the very lungs of Nairobi city, its natural vegetation and remnant forests renewing the oxygen levels and cleansing the air of pollution spewed forth from a sprawling city now harbouring close on 3 million human souls.
Capt. Ritchie goes on to write “you may imagine with what jealous care I watched and worried over it (the Park) during the long years when its ultimate fate was hanging in the balance, and the importunate claims of a fast-growing town were frequent and ominous”. Today, as another millennium dawns fifty years later, we still watch and worry over its ultimate future and the fate of all its wild denizens. But, before considering the hazards posed by the future let us step back in time and take a look at the hazards the Park has endured in the past, before it was afforded National Park status way back in 1945.
At the end of the 1800’s, a handful of white immigrants – all adventurers, prospectors, traders and hunters happened to be camped around the swamp known by the Masai as Nairobi (meaning “cold”). Here the advance gangs of the Uganda Railway had just established an advance base and lions still slaked their thirst at the swamp, as did all other forms of wildlife. Even elephants passed by periodically in their long range meandering and it was said that giraffe ate the washing from the lines and the monkeys and baboons swung on the guy ropes of the tents. The animals were unafraid then because they had never heard the sound of a gun. They lived in harmony with the indigenous peoples who took only what they needed to survive and who were sparse and scattered. Then the population of Kenya was estimated at just 8 million and the human bones strewn around the swamp were evidence of the countless scourges and battles that kept the population static.
Whilst the white adventurers exchanged yarns around the camp fire by night, the pulse of wild Africa beat all around them, undisturbed. They regarded the wild animals as just one of many unavoidable hazards of the unpredictable “Dark Continent”, providing a boundless larder there for the taking. Instead of sending an order to the butcher for tomorrow’s dinner, a man would simply take up his gun and pick off the nearest antelope without even having to move from the entrance of his tent.
Time passed and Nairobi grew into an embryonic town as shacks and shelters replaced canvas. Early pioneers such as Delamere and Percival, who had adopted the country as their own, saw that its character changing for man with his machines and industry was driving the game into retreat. They managed to persuade the incumbent Colonial Governor to pressurise Whitehall into setting aside areas where hunting was prohibited by law. One of these was what became known as the Southern Game Reserve, a huge chunk of country which at that time even embraced Nairobi and Kiambu.
However, the Southern Game Reserve was a sanctuary only in name, for the laws that were designated to protect it could not be enforced through lack of manpower. Nor was the intention that a National Reserve be established solely for wildlife – the animals coexisted with the people, as, indeed, they had done through millennia long before the advent of the White Man. Then wildlife was teeming in seemingly infinite abundance. It was not uncommon to see huge dust clouds rising into the air thousands of feet for weeks on end as the great herds moved Westwards towards the Yatta escarpment, making the Mara wildebeest migration of today pale into insignificance by comparison.
Whilst today traffic speeds from Nairobi to Thika on a dual carriage way in half an hour, in those days the pace was much slower. Travellers made their way by ox wagon, mule or rickshaw on a rugged track hewn by hand through the bush, and en route they faced many unexpected hazards. One old Kenya tale relates how a drunken fortune hunter in-spanned a lion instead of his missing ox whilst making his way to Thika and it was no uncommon to find a traveller sitting dejectedly by his wagon, all his oxen having been killed and eaten by a pride of lions during the night!
Then came the First World War of 1914 with the German enemy in neighbouring Tanganyika right on Kenya’s doorstep. The German East African Campaign called forth all the limited resources and manpower the young country could muster and thoughts of a National Park were relegated to the back burner. The road to the front line ran clean through what is now the forest of Nairobi National Park near Mbagathi where a large military camp was established. There was even a light railway, field firing ranges, battle trenches and row upon row of tents and inevitably the forest suffered as did the traumatised animals who sought shelter in the thickets and gorges and who were also slaughtered indiscriminately to feed the troops.
Peace came in 1918 and with it came more white settlers via a Soldier Settlement Scheme initiated by the British Government. Furthermore, way back in 1900 Queen Victoria had apparently given dispensation for a dozen or so Somali ex Servicemen and their families to reside in the heart of what is now the Park, but was then known as the Nairobi Commonage. These men were heroes, their chests sporting a host of campaign medals won in battles fought for the British Crown in far off lands, some even commemorating the famous siege of Mafeking in South Africa. Over time their numbers had proliferated, as had their livestock and cattle sheep and goats now swarmed all over the battered plains, whilst the gorges and thickets harboured a growing number of vagrants. Also, by this time tribes that had been displaced by Masai expansion were clamouring to regain ancestral lands and in 1933 the British Government sent out a Commission to try and establish the rights of the various factions and fix defined boundaries. Capt. Archie Ritchie, the Chief Game Warden, took this opportunity to resurrect the question of upgrading the Nairobi Commonage to a National Park to preserve what he already knew was a unique biodiversity. The Commissioners concurred, but whilst their recommendations were being buffeted between Nairobi and Downing Street, the Commonage continued to be systematically ravaged, being now the very back door of a fast growing city. However, public apathy prevailed, everyone too busy doing their own thing, so i n 1938 Colonel Mervyn Cowie, who resided on the outskirts of the town, orchestrated a cunning press campaign using reverse psychology to fan the flame of public emotion and rouse the populace from its lethargy. He recommended that all wildlife be annihilated because it served no useful purpose. This had the desired affect on the white population of Kenya, bearing in mind that only they had a voice in those days. A massive public outcry ensued forcing Whitehall to establish a Game Policy Committee with a mandate to recommend how and where National Parks could be set aside in the troublesome Colony, Britain having already accepted the principles of a National Park at an International Convention in London in 1933.
No time was lost in preparing to establish Kenya’s first National Park which was Nairobi. By the middle of 1939 most obstacles had been overcome and the boundaries of the Nairobi National Park had been established but then the Second World War broke out and yet again the Commonage had to pay the full price. Yet again a huge Army Training Camp sprang up where the first had stood in 1914, but this time there were more machines, more men and more instruments of destruction, even though the theatre of War was further removed. The famous landmark known as Lone Tree was labelled as a Royal Airforce bombing mark, and the peaceful valleys groaned again with the disturbance of grinding army trucks, again sending the terrified animals fleeing back into hiding. Only some of the lions benefited by preying on unsuspecting pedestrians!
Six years later, in 1945, peace came again a second time and miraculously, against all odds, the four-legged inhabitants had managed to survive, despite the presence of South African troops, who were well known as indiscriminate killers. The land, however, had taken a severe thrashing. Furthermore, pressure mounted with demands for local settlement, transit slaughter houses, quarries, firing ranges, military bases and a hundred and one other activities none of which were conducive to wildlife conservation. And yet, in spite of the upheaval the world had endured, or perhaps because of it, the yearning for unspoilt wilderness close to the hustle and bustle of town life endured, and in 1945 the Nairobi National Park came into being, supported by the strongest legal authority that could be devised within a system of Colonial Government. The dream of those early far-sighted Settlers had, at last, been fulfilled.
However, now another kind of struggle began. People had to be convinced of the justification for stricter control, money was in short supply, but had to be found, the infrastructure had to be created; roads constructed, poaching stopped and above all, the game afforded full protection in order to recover from its fear of man. Gradually the Somali ex servicemen were restricted, their cattle reduced from thousands to just 220, salt-licks replenished, flood waters impounded and trespassers prosecuted. And gradually, the wildlife came out of hiding and returned in vast numbers, swelled by immigration from the still well stocked wide open dispersal areas of the Kitengela and Kapiti plains. At last Nairobi had on its doorstep something that no other city in the world could claim – a wildlife sanctuary only four miles from its centre, just a fence segregating the folly of man from the wisdom of Nature.
The reason for such a variety of animal life in a tiny Park only 44 square miles in extent is, of course, that small as it is, it includes many different habitats, each harbouring its own typical fauna. The Park comprises open plains, broken bush, some real forest, a permanent river with fringe thickets, luggas, long grass, short grass, flat land and foothills, so a multitude of forms can live in close proximity to one another. On the open plains, grasslands alternate with Acacia dominated savannah, whilst the Athi River, cuts deep gorges of considerable depth and varying width as it winds its way through. The slopes of the gorges that are not sheer rock provide dense cover for many shyer creatures and where there is a good depth of soil large wild figs with spreading crowns, attaining a height of 80 – 100 ft. are plentiful. In areas where the water table is closer to the surface, such as at the Hippo Pools, yellow fever trees form beautiful stands, conspicuous with their sulphur yellow trunks and pale foliage. Stunted whistling thorns predominate in the shallower soils of the open wind swept plains, providing food for browsing species such as giraffe and rhino and on the black cotton soils, the highly nutritious “oat grass” (Themeda triandra) dominates amongst a wide variety of other grasses and legumes. Dry luggas and riverbeds afford places preferred by lions, and the forest which is confined to more broken country on higher ground, shelters forest species such as bushbuck, suni and monkeys.
The forest is, in fact, the southern fringe of what used to be the extensive Langata Forest and is comprised of Crotons, Muhugus, Cape Chestnuts and other indigenous species, but because the soil in the section that is in the Park is shallow, the tree growth on the whole does not reach the height of the forest proper. Nevertheless, its air conditioning role is irreplaceable. Hence the Nairobi National Park is a memory that echoes in microcosm the land as it was when it was young and unspoilt one hundred years ago. The variety of species it shelters is unique indeed for such a small area and in its capacity as the lungs of Nairobi, it is, of course, crucial. Yet the future of the Park today is no less certain than it was in Capt. Ritchie’s time. With human settlement right up to the boundaries and the Park electrically fenced on three sides, but not on the fourth, the Park is now more vulnerable than ever. Today the migratory species run the gauntlet every time they set foot beyond that fourth boundary, becoming entangled in snarelines, chased and killed by poachers with packs of dogs, and shot legally on culling quotas allotted to landowners – all to fuel the run away commercial bush-meat trade. Where there is money, there is graft and many licensed operators fudge their quotas, their outlets being tourist lodges and up market hotels. Meanwhile a voracious meat hungry escalating poorer population helps itself to free pickings, it being preferable to snare a wild animal than part with a goat or cow. As before, the laws in place to try and protect wildlife simply cannot be enforced, this time not through lack of manpower, but due to too many in an unwieldy and unworkable bureaucracy that inhibits field operations. Beset by the commercial meat trade, the migrant species return to the sanctuary of the Park in fewer numbers every year, and dangerously, the dispersal area reservoir which seemed infinite a hundred years ago, is now beginning to run dry, likened to an egg timer with a hole in the bottom.
Up until 1992 the possession and sale of game meat was illegal and hence meat poaching could be kept in check. Legalising the possession and sale of game meat has been a mega conservation blunder and one that threatens the very survival of many species. Game meat must again be placed off limits, and rapidly so, otherwise East Africa will follow West Africa in becoming a faunal vacuum. The tourist industry will collapse and the people become even more desperate and impoverished.
However, all is not lost yet. Whereas previously only the white population had a voice, today more and more concerned young Kenyans value their irreplaceable heritage and are urging the Government to address this issue issue. Youth Clubs undertake de-snaring patrols along Park boundaries and help to spread the word. They want to see the Wildlife Service bureaucracy streamlined through retrenchment so that the Service can function efficiently again and run on its own momentum.
The outlet for the migratory inmates of Nairobi National Park is via what today is known as the Sheep and Goat land situated adjacent to the Park boundary near the Hippo Pools. Concerned people have come together through Friends of Nairobi National Park and are in the process of trying to initiate a lease scheme whereby Kitengela landowners are remunerated for allowing the wildlife unhindered access through their holdings. However, this is not the first time that attempts have been made to secure the migration routes to and from the Park. A similar scheme was in place in the 1960’s whereby people all over the world contributed money to actually purchase one acre of land for a corridor for the migrants, but the funds simply vanished when Government disbanded the National Parks’ Board of Trustees, and seized control in 1976. Today, however, with greater transparency and accountability within Government circles, the lease scheme has a better chance of success.
And if it doesn’t succeed, what then? The Nairobi National Park will have to be fenced on its fourth boundary before all is lost, and what can naturally live within such constraints will, and what can’t won’t. Those who lack faith in the ability of Nature to adjust to changing circumstances contend that the Park would then have to be artificially “farmed”, but who, for instance, farms and manipulates the numbers of wild animals in the world famous Ngorongoro Crater, which is only 12 miles across, and has been a closed basin for thousands of years? The answer is, no-one other than Nature through evolution, yet the Crater holds a veritable array of wildlife in spectacular abundance. There the migrant species such as wildebeest, zebra and the gazelles simply satisfy their urge to trek by going round and round the crater in an endless merry-go-round, grazing down the pastures in one section and then moving on to the next. Neither does anyone actively farm the wildlife of Solio Ranch which is half the size of Nairobi Park and holds the country’s largest population of Black Rhino plus a spectacular array of other animals. Lake Nakuru is another example of an island Sanctuary, harbouring a good diversity of wildlife even though some species have still to adjust to a satisfactory balance. If the bushmeat trade cannot be closed, and if the lease scheme founders, then Nairobi National Park will also have to become an island Sanctuary before it is lost, but even as such, as long as all its indigenous components are represented, it will remain a priceless jewel for the country if humans have the wisdom to let Nature work its wonders and dictate what can and cannot live there naturally through a hands-off policy. Above all, it must remain a place of peace and sanctuary for the wild animal neighbours of Nairobi city.