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Nairobi National Park's Top Five

Nairobi National Park may be much maligned and fears remain over its future, but the park is one of Africa's most accessible and it has the potential to provide some signature safari experiences:

  • that photo of a lion or rhino with skyscrapers looming in the background;
  • spotting black rhinos from the world's densest population of the species;
  • seeing a host of plains wildlife (giraffes, impalas, zebras) and four of the Big Five (lions, leopards, rhinos and buffaloes) before your safari has really begun;
  • epic birdwatching: 400 species have been recorded here; look for the threatened Madagascar squacco heron, corncrake, lesser kestrel, red-throated tit and Jackson's widowbird – the latter featured in the BBC's Planet Earth 2 series in 2017;
  • sponsoring an orphaned baby elephant at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

Nairobi National Park: A Troubled Park

There’s one very good reason that Nairobi has its own national park: cities and wildlife don’t mix. As Nairobi boomed in the early 20th century, conflicts between humans and animals were rampant. Early residents of the capital were forced to carry guns at night to protect themselves from lions and rhinos, while herd animals routinely raided country farms. As a result, the colonial government of British East Africa set about confining the wildlife to the Athi plains to the west and south of Nairobi. In 1946, Nairobi National Park became the first national park in British East Africa, although the event was not without controversy, as the Maasai pastoralists were forcibly removed from the parklands.

The conflict between humans and wildlife continues in the park today. The park is fenced in parts to keep the wildlife out of the city, although it’s not a closed system and is instead kept open to allow animals to migrate along narrow corridors to southern Kenya or the Masai Mara. With human settlements almost completely encircling the park, however, such corridors are almost completely closed and the migrations will soon be a thing of the past. Efforts to keep the corridors open included paying landowners to not build fences, but when the money ran out for such projects in 2013, the last unfenced land began to disappear.

Conservationists are greatly concerned about the implications of this for park ecosystems and for animals that survive by following the rains. Pressure for land and for grazing has prompted calls in some quarters for the park to be reduced in size or even closed. As a result, the park's future appears more uncertain than ever.

For more information about efforts to save the park, contact Friends of Nairobi National Park. As well as raising awareness about the park, the group aims to protect migration corridors connecting with other Kenyan regions.

Worth a Trip: Karunguru Coffee Estate

An excursion to this 200-hectare coffee farm near Thika is a wonderful way to escape the clamour of Nairobi for a day. It takes just 30 minutes to drive here from the capital, and the five-hour tours are well worth the journey.

Lions in the City

More than any other animal, lions highlight the tightening noose of human settlements that surround Nairobi National Park and the problem this causes. In May 2012, a lioness was shot dead by park authorities after it spent a period of months frightening the life out of residents of the upmarket Nairobi suburbs of Karen and Langata; its cubs were taken to Nairobi National Park's orphanage. The following month, six lions wandered out of the park, killed a number of goats, and were killed by angry residents before the authorities could arrive. Four years later, a lion attacked an elderly man and another injured a motorbike rider just outside the park. Earlier in the same year, lions were sighted in nearby suburbs, causing panic across the city.

Lions move beyond the park's boundaries for a number of reasons. Most significantly, when lion populations increase, young males and breakaway prides, pushed out by dominant males and existing prides, leave their home patches in search of new territory. Such dispersal serves as an insurance policy against inbreeding. In the past, lions also followed the migration of wildebeest and zebras in search of new pastures. But such are the human pressures crowding in upon the park that these processes have become fraught with peril, for lions and humans alike.

Learning to Love Nairobi

On my first visit to Nairobi, the city seemed like an altogether unappealing vision of hell. For a start, crime was rampant, with violent muggings and carjackings daily occurrences across the city. Later terrorism – the American embassy bombing in 1998 and the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in 2013 – cast a pall of fear over the city. And the traffic was simply awful. The traffic may be worse than ever, and violent crime does still occur, but I've noticed a small but significant shift in the city on each subsequent visit – Nairobi feels safer than it has done for years. Locals attribute this to the security crackdown that followed the Westgate attack. Others suggest it was never as bad as people made out and that talk of 'Nairobbery' was always unfair. Whatever the reason, on my most recent visit I saw more well-to-do locals and expats out walking than I ever have in the past, and not just in the central city. Security seemed more relaxed. And people, myself included, seemed less wary, less afraid. Whether this was merely a personal perception or the start of the rehabilitation of Nairobi's reputation in the minds of travellers, only time will tell.