It is hard to ignore Nairobi National Park. As Kenya’s parks go, it is the oldest, established in 1946 through a colonial proclamation.
But the park is more like a firstborn that the parents never intended to have. Throughout its 75 years of existence, it has fought relentless battles for survival, worried that younger siblings are getting all the limelight.
I have visited the park a number of times times, and every time, I stop at the Impala Picnic Site to marvel at the beauty and serenity of the open plains below.
In my rest here, I also ponder as to what would have happened had the park’s birth aborted. Because it almost did.
At the turn of the last century, killing animals for fun was the in thing in Kenya, then part of British East Africa. Big game hunters, among them American statesman Theodore Roosevelt and Prince Edward of Wales, were among the foreigners who boasted of their wild animal slaughtering prowess.
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Along the railway line from Mombasa, they hunted whatever big game they could lay their eyes, and rifles on, including animals around the present-day Nairobi National Park.
Then one Mervyn Cowie happened on the scene. Cowie was born in Kenya in 1909. He was the son of a judge who had resigned from his job in South Africa to settle in Kenya.
As he grew up, Cowie saw the wanton destruction of wildlife and begged the colonial government to set aside land where they could be legally protected.
With a growing population that needed more land for settlement, his pleas were ignored. He devised a plan.
Cowie turned to the East African Standard, the forerunner of this publication, where he anonymously authored ‘reverse engineered’ articles that advocated for the complete destruction of all wild animals in the colony.
The articles stung the authorities who, in Kenyan parlance, ‘swung into action’ and set in motion legal instruments that set up Nairobi National Park.
“It would have been bad if we never had this park,” says Daniel Mpararia, a driver with the Nairobi Tented Camp as we talk about the beauty of the park.
I had met Mpararia at the park’s main gate. It had rained a bit the previous night, an unusual weather pattern in January that we blame—right or wrong—on climate change.
Apprehensive that my small car might not maneuver through the gullies resulting from the rains, I enlisted Mpararia’s help, putting my trust in his all-terrain safari truck.
The park is still a wildlife haven, contrary to naysayers. Five minutes into our drive, we came across a troop of noisy baboons, descendants of those that ruled the park a century ago. Any time the din of their shouting subsided, they groomed each other. Then shouted again. One mother within the troop reprimanded a wayward young one, the latter screaming in agony. It is discipline served the wild way.
In a nearby thicket, a Suni antelope, one of the world’s smallest, peered through the leaves, startled both by the baboons’ cacophony and the engine noise. These tiny creatures must stay hidden. They are at the bottom of the food chain — snakes, larger birds of prey and leopards will not mind a Suni snack.
The park is also home to thriving herds of the reclusive but endangered black rhinos. Lions abound and so are a host of herbivores such as buffaloes, zebras and Maasai giraffes. It is also an ornithological wonderland, with visitors trooping from all over the world to spot any of the more than 900 species in the region, well, before Covid 19 halted mass tourism.
An hour into the drive, we took a detour for a brief inspection of Nairobi Tented Camp.
The camp lies off the beaten path, deep in the park’s woodlands and away from the ever-prying eyes of tourists. Unknown to many people, this is the only visitor accommodation facility within the park.
The camp is well hidden from prying eyes with crotons and other indigenous trees acting as the perfect cover for the nine tents that have been crafted with creature comforts in mind. Do not worry if you miss a game drive, you might just be fortunate and wake up to the sight of a lion at your doorstep!
A visit to the park is to relive the memories of a paradise that almost never was. And despite the January woes, the Sh400 entrance fee for locals may not be so prohibitive. Your visit matters because the park is a storehouse of key biodiversity that much of the world has lost.
It matters because by cleaning the air, acting as a carbon sink and absorbing most of the runoff water during heavy rains, the park contributes to the good health of more than four million Nairobians.
Visit the park as if your life depends on it—because it does.