Published Nation newspaper Saturday Magazine 18 February 2017

I’m over the moon – l’ve never seen an African wild dog in the wild when unexpectedly l’m staring at one. I’m so excited because l’ve been everywhere in Kenya where they are seen – Samburu, Laikipia, Kajiado – and never seen it. This poor creature had such bad press in the early 1900s that it was shot on sight by farmers – to the extent that the species nearly went extinct.

It was only when wildlife researchers began watching their behaviour did they record that the wild dogs were efficient pack hunters and very caring parents. Their soft playful side was captured by Karl Ammann the wildlife photographer, author and now exposing the horrendous illegal trade in wild animals like chimpanzees and other wild life. People did not believe him until he showed photographs of a pack in the Maasai Mara playfully tugging a sheet from him.

Their numbers are increasing but l yet have to see one in the wild.

The next one that takes me by even more surprise is a Stripped hyena – again this is the first time l am seeing one. Being nocturnal and incredibly shy creatures, l’m going to make it a point to keep vigil at night when on safari next time.

It’s a Family Event organized for members of the East African Wildlife Society at the Nairobi Animal Orphanage by the main gate of Nairobi National Park. The Society is the voice of conservation in Africa and celebrating its 60th anniversary. Parents with children signed up for the event organized by the Cheetah Team in the orphanage, the care-takers who have spent anywhere between a decade and four  making sure their charges are well kept and treated for any medical problems under the supervision of the Vet Curator, Dr. Kariuki.

The orphanage has a long history with famous icons like Sebastian the chimp that liked to eat ice cream out of a cup, using a spoon. Extremely vain, he loved looking at his reflection in a silver tray and showing off his acrobatic skills to crowds of visitors. He sometimes was allowed to go on game drives in Nairobi Park. He’d sit in the passenger seat of the Warden’s car, and hooted at the animals he especially enjoyed watching. Sebastian was immensely popular with us kids at the time. He was found dead of old age in his cage on the morning of July 19, 1996. He is fondly remembered.

Chimps aren’t indigenous to Kenya, but in the past people have kept them as pets. Sebastian had been hand-reared and when he was about eight years old he was given to the Orphanage, shortly after it opened to the public on 11th November 1963. I’m happy not to see any chimps in a cage – hopefully an indication that the brutal trade in chimpanzee for pets is on the down trend. For every chimp baby captured in the wild, a whole family is slaughtered. Like human families, children are closely guarded – and chimps and us have a 99 per cent identical DNA – we’re so closely related.

The E.A.W.L.S. Family Event is turning out to be really fun with a quiz at the end. What’s the difference between a lioness and lion apart from the obvious looks and manes? It’s something l didn’t know but a hand shoots up from an observant person – the forepaws of a lioness are much larger than that of a lion – and rightly so – she’s the one out hunting.

It’s been a great morning walking under the old wizened trees of the orphanage with Talek the leopard being fed by Patrick Kivondo his carer in his fenced enclosure around a gigantic fig tree.

A little girl stands by the young lions rescued as cubs near the park. She’s been standing there for a good ten minutes when she’s called by her parents. She runs along the fence and the lion does the same – it became a race. The cheetah cubs watching the girl and lion running up and down join in – it’s enchanting watching a little girl sandwiched between two big cats in a game that started so spontaneously. When the girl stops, panting, so do the cats that have really enjoyed the exercise.

“I like to see the children come to the animal orphanage. They learn about these animals and the challenges they face today and hopefully conserve them,” comments Julius Kipsang who has worked at the orphanage for 13 years. “I would like to see more children visit – especially from Kibera (the slum) neighbouring us. It would encourage them to learn more about wildlife.  It would be nice if we could have a free day for them.”

For most of us city-bred grown-ups now, that’s how we started our encounters with the wild – at the Nairobi National Park and the Animal Orphanage.

Nairobi’s Wildlife

Visit Nairobi National Park, the Nairobi Animal Orphanage and the Safari Walk

Join the East African Wild Life Society – it’s East Africa’s oldest wildlife conservation organization with members actively engaged in its advocacy and wise use of natural resources.