The little known story of Nairobi National Park

By Peter Muiruri | 1 month ago
Tourists take photos of a lion at the Nairobi National park, Nairobi. (Elvis Ogina/ Standard)

Does the name Mervyn Cowie ring a bell?  Perhaps not. Save for his colour, not many people would recognize Cowie were he to walk in the streets of Nairobi today. He had “characteristically quiet-spoken sentences,” according to the March 1966 issue of Africana Magazine. But as you visit Nairobi National Park, his name ought to be at the back of your mind. Cowie was the man who single handedly fought to set up the only national park within a capital city to date.  

Cowie was born here in April 1909 and trained with the Kings African Rifles during the Second World War. But his love was in safeguarding Africa’s wildlife. As the human population grew Cowie advocated for the establishment of parks and reserves, an idea that was not received well by the colonial authorities.

“Good idea, old boy,” they told him as reported by Africana. Undeterred, Cowie decided to use the press and had an anonymously authored letter published by The Standard in which he urged the colonial government to slaughter all wildlife in favour of agriculture.

Startled, the government gazetted Nairobi National Park on December 16, 1946, the first in East Africa.

His resourcefulness was especially seen six years later during Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s visit to Kenya where he was tasked with protecting the royal couple from wild animals.

“There was a bull elephant lurking in the trees nearby and the problem was how to shoo him away,” reported the UK’s Independent.

“He selected a large pebble, rubbed it vigorously under his armpit and then hurled it past the animal and upwind of it. Hearing the thud as the stone dropped, the elephant turned in that direction, picked up Cowie’s aroma and immediately charged, happily in the desired direction.”

Back to Nairobi National Park, it took time for Cowie’s colleagues and other settlers to get used to the idea of hiving off prime city land as an exclusive wildlife habitat with some saying that park laws “were so strict that you could not even blow your nose in there.”

The animals, though, were never at peace as soldiers used the park as a training ground.

Cowie said: “The area which is now Nairobi National Park had been ravaged by military needs of two world wars; it had been used as training ground and depot areas, with the animals acting as living targets. It took a hell of a hammering.”

The park recovered and is today an ecological masterpiece encompassing several ‘miniature ecosystems’ with a predominant environment of open grass plain with scattered acacia bushes and a thick forest on the western end.

The 117-square-kilometre park is fenced on three sides, with the open southern boundary serving as a migratory corridor to the Athi-Kapiti Plains.

Few know that the park was the scene of a wildebeest migration similar to the annual spectacle witnessed in Masai Mara.

“These plains used to teem with wildebeests when I settled here, similar to what we see in the Mara during the migration. These herds are now gone, perhaps forever,” said Alan Donovan, the avid art collector behind African Heritage House in a previous interview with this writer.

The migration is gone, aided by a mushrooming urban population and modern infrastructure development.

However, the park is still home to the lion, leopard, African buffalo, black and white rhinoceros, giraffe, spotted hyena, plain zebra, cheetah, Thomson’s gazelle, Grant’s gazelle, common eland, impala, hartebeest, waterbuck, common warthog, olive baboon, black-backed jackal, and the common ostrich. The dams within the park are home to the Nile crocodile and hippos.

The park is globally acclaimed as an ornithological paradise with more than 400 species of birds making Nairobi the birding capital of the world.

Most of the park’s birds are resident species that breed here and may be seen at any time of the year. Of Kenya’s 76 raptor species, 57 have been seen in the park.

The park is also home to two endangered species – the African white backed vulture and Ruppell’s Griffon vulture.

The park has been central in the country’s conservation agenda with Kenya’s presidents using the grounds to burn large stockpiles of ivory, beginning with the historic ivory burning presided over by the late former president Daniel Arap Moi in 1989.

Speaking at the launch of events to commemorate the park’s 75th anniversary, KWS Director-General Brig (rtd) John Waweru enumerated the park’s accolades while acknowledging the park’s struggles over the years. “Nairobi National Park has aged with beauty and grace,” said Waweru.

“As we prepare to celebrate the park’s birthday, we acknowledge the many challenges and milestones the park has achieved, including the recent Covid-19 pandemic that was a threat to many economies world-wide.”

Cowie died on July 19, 1996. He had resigned as National Parks’ director 30 years earlier.

He would have been elated to learn that the park he vigorously fought for still exists, to quote his words, “as a going concern” and a beacon of hope for the hit and miss conservation efforts in the country.

Share this story