Celebrates 70 years

Publsihed Nation Saturday Magazine 31 December 2016

A saffron sunrise announces another dawn in a city that’s fast changing face into a vertical cosmo. Amidst this high-rise landscape, Nairobi’s iconic national park by the same name celebrates its 70th anniversary and we’re in this natural world that only Nairobi can boast of.

Past the dam with a lone hippo that shies in it, we continue to the forest where a Crowned eagle perches on a tall tree. Generations of this mighty raptor have nested in the park – by a tree on the edge of Langata Road. Whereas our Crowned eagle still holds its territory supreme, the Malagasy crowned eagle became extinct as humans wiped them out in Madagascar.

It’s a fantastic morning with birds in the pools – from the dainty jacanas to the bigger Spur-winged goose. White-backed vultures ride the hot rising thermals. It makes an interesting picture to have the vultures and the giraffes in one frame as we enjoy breakfast at the Impala observation hill where at independence in 1963, Caltex built a view point. Both the vulture and the giraffe are now listed ‘critically endangered’ – a step short of becoming extinct. Habitat loss, poisoning, bushmeat – all related to human activities are listed as causes of the increasing demise.

Down on the plains again, a pair of black rhino browses near the road –another critically endangered species – with flocks of male red-collared widow birds in full plumage of long tails and red badges to attract the females. Our attention is on the rhinos when suddenly something comes running across the grass, all wet and heavy with pounding steps, passes the browsing rhinos and to our complete amazement and amusement, it’s the hippo from the dam sprinting in broad day light to somewhere.

Huge herds of handsome impala lick the salt on the road with wild flowers in abundance. One of the main reasons for protecting this area as Nairobi National Park was because of its variety of habitat – grasslands, forest, salt licks, gorges and dry mudflats – that attracted different kinds of wildlife.

Wild flowers in Nairobi National Park
Wild flowers in Nairobi National Park Copyright Maya Mangat

It was the foresight of men like Mervyn Hugh Cowie CBE (13 April 1909 – 19 July 1996) born in Nairobi and grew up near the area that is the park. Sent abroad for education, he was alarmed upon his return in 1932 after nine years by the decrease in wildlife. Even then there were challenges – no government policies to protect Nairobi’s dwindling wildlife and increasing human pressure. He penned his famous later under the name ‘Old Settler’ and asked for all the wildlife to be slaughtered to make room for human settlement and agriculture. It was published in the East African Standard newspaper.

It was a smart ploy.

After some silence, there was a public outcry – some even advocating that this ‘Old Settler’ be shot instead. But it forced the government into action.

Ahead of his time, Cowie’s idea was to have a series of national parks to attract the tourist dollar that would go into wildlife conservation.

However things were interrupted by World War 11.

After the war, Captain Archie Ritchie, the Chief Game Warden, took up the cause. He sat outside the rickety steps of the government office for days to have the area called Nairobi Commonage upgraded to a national park. The letter was flung unceremoniously at him – and Nairobi National Park was gazetted in 1945 – and opened to the public in 1946.

A small band of supporters with the Friends of Nairobi National Park have marched from Nyayo National Stadium to the Bomas of Kenya carrying a banner reading Save Nairobi National Park.

“We’re celebrating the park’s 70th anniversary today,” says Sydney Shema, a FoNNaP member, studying wildlife management and conservation at the University of Nairobi. He’s with a group from the university.

“We want the park to celebrate the next 70 years and more. The standard gauge railway can be re-routed outside the park. There are alternatives,” he states. The SGR is a Vision 2030 development project of the government and a suggested route is through the national park. The argument by conservationists is that development is needed but it has to be done sustainably.

“Yes,” agrees Allan Kipruto. “The park is an important breeding area for endangered species like the black rhino – and Nairobi is the only city in the world that boasts of a wildlife park in its midst.”

Wild natural spaces are important in a world increasingly cluttered by roads, farms, bridges and buildings.  Wild spaces act as carbon sinks in the face of global warming; wild spaces are home to spectacular biodiversity and wild spaces give the freedom of space for the spirit to roam.

May Nairobi National Park continue celebrating its very existence.

More on Nairobi National Park – Kenya Wildlife Service

Be part of Nairobi National Park – Friends of Nairobi National Park