Above: Grey crowned cranes in Nairobi National Park February 2019. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: 2 March 2019
The Nairobi sky was red-hot before sunrise as we made it to the gates of Nairobi National Park…and l got to say this again with pride – Nairobi’s first national park established in 1946 and the only park in a city that is home to free-ranging wild animals like the big cats – lions, leopards and of recent, a cheetah spotted after decades. It’s 117 square kilometres.
Feeling a little self-important because not everyone goes counting lions so near home – literally from my door to the gate minus traffic took 20 minutes, we the members of Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP) listened in rapt attention to the Lion Guardian research scientists giving instructions on how to go about logging in lions spotted by each team, with great prizes to be won for most lions sighted and most distance covered.
And the hunt was on.
Sunrise on Nairobi’s open spaces is ethereal. Only we missed the sunrise by a few minutes because it takes so long to get through the line at the Kenya Wildlife Service pay-station. But picture this – a rising mist over the great expanse and sky turning blue over the gold-coloured plains of the park.
With the lion ID sheet and camera ready to shoot, a thought passed my mind. Each lion seen had to be shot face-on, left face, right face and clear pictures. This is because lion whisker spots are like human finger-prints. They never change and you can identify an individual from the spots. But would the lion oblige?
There are Nairobians like Patricia Heather-Hayes who has been in the park every Sunday since she was a teenager and now a few decades older. She’s on first name basis with the lions. There are serious people including youngsters so addicted that you can see them in the park most weekends – and have created a FB for FoNNaP with fantastic sightings.
In the early morn, the buffalos herd was still limbering up having their morning drink at the stream. The ostriches strode the plains with the gazelles and giraffes. By the dam near the Athi-Kitengela side a crocodile lay on the banks and a hippo inside with the critically endangered listed Grey crowned cranes and other water birds.
But no lion – despite having driven to the very extreme of the eastern side past Mokoyeti Gorge. We returned our lion ID sheet blank while others over two full days returned with pictures of Amani, Leboya, Alamayia; Morana; Sidai plus 14 more that included three cubs.
“Nairobi National Park is a small area and well-studied by citizen scientists like FoNNaP,” explained Dr Salisha Chandra of Lion Guardians, a conservation organization dedicated to finding and enacting long term solutions for people and lions to coexist across Africa. So far, they have worked in Amboseli.
They are trying out a software called LINC, the acronym for Lion Identification Network of Collaborators (in this case FoNNaP). It’s a facial recognition software. Now 14 of the 19 lions seen over the weekend of 19-20 January 2019 have individual lion profiles (ID cards) on LINC.
“We’re looking at lion movements in a broad landscape,” says Chandra. “Lions move out of protected areas and we want to know where they disperse and which corridors they are using to inform conservation.”
Nairobi National Park is a challenge because it’s increasingly becoming surrounded by buildings and now with the eye-sore in the park that is the standard gauge railway cutting right through it despite the fact the national parks are gazetted.
It goes against the epic words of the founding father of Kenya, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta in 1963 – “The natural resources of this country – it’s wildlife, which offers such an attraction to visitors from all over the world, the beautiful places in which these animals live, the mighty forests which guard the water catchment areas so vital for the survival of man and beast – are a priceless heritage for the future.
The government of Kenya, fully realising the value of its natural resources, pledges itself to conserve them for posterity with all means at its disposal. Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, the 1st President.”
We’re back in the park for another FoNNaP activity – to pull out the super-invasive parthenium weed that’s spreading like wildfire across Africa. The tiny wicked weed is lethal. A plant matures in a month and bursts up to 50,000 seeds – and then renders the soil infertile while no wildlife or domestic animals eats it.
But it’s the wrong weekend. However we get to see a lioness in the morning mist and follow her crossing the plains. To add to the excitement, a gigantic white rhino and her calf cross the road and by lunch time the guest from India, a senior citizen – is over-whelmed – even with the ostrich – because he’s never seen animals in the wild.
We settle for a sumptuous barbeque at the Kenya Wildlife Service club house, a fund raiser organized by FoNNaP.
FoNNaP – https://fonnap.org/ – is a great group of people. Join in and enjoy the many activities that are fun but at the same time contributing to science that will help us co-exist with the last of the wild.