Nairobi is one of the world’s fastest growing cities.
It is also unique in encompassing, within its precincts, a major national park that supports lions, rhinos and other large wild animals. The co-existence, side by side, of bustling metropolis and natural wildlife paradise sets Nairobi apart from every other capital city on Earth. Established in 1946, Nairobi National Park is Kenya’s oldest conservation area. Despite its modest size, its biological diversity is greater than that of some entire countries! It is also a sanctuary of global significance for some endangered species, notably the black rhinoceros.
These wonders lie within easy reach of millions of Nairobi residents, as well as tourists and business visitors from all over the world. Arriving in your own car or by taxi, you can simply pay the entrance fee at the gate and drive in. Most Nairobi hotels organise full and half-day tours to Nairobi National Park, while Nature Kenya provides specialised bird tours. Another highly recommended option is to book a place on the half-day guided tours run by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). An expert guide will take you round the Park in a purpose-built safari vehicle that provides an elevated viewpoint. By choosing this option you will also be contributing directly to the agency responsible for the upkeep of the Park.
The Park is open daily from 6am to 6pm – arrive early if you can. Viewing is generally most rewarding early in the day and in the cool of the afternoon, when the animals tend to be most active.
You can buy food and drinks at the main entrance of the Park, or at the KWS Club House (near the ivory burning site), which serves complete meals in its grassy garden. For a half-day visit, a dawn start with a picnic stop along the way is recommended.
If you have a little more time available, why not stay the night? You will experience the magic of the Park at night and be there the next day in time to see the animals in their early morning haunts, without having to get up in the middle of the night. The Nairobi Tented Camp (www.nairobitentedcamp.com) is set in a beautiful forested ravine in the Park’s upland forests, while the luxury Emakoko Lodge (www.emakoko.com) is located in a picturesque small valley on the Park’s southern boundary. Both offer excellent accommodation, food and a range of services for the traveller.
The lie of the land
Geographically, the Park straddles two distinct zones. The northwest corner contains a mix of dry forest and tall-grass savannahs. The wide-open landscapes of the lowland zone, where it is drier and hotter, consist of short-grass plains with scattered trees and shrubs, criss-crossed by rocky gullies and scarps. Connecting these two zones, the Mbagathi River forms a green thread winding its way along the Park’s southern boundary.
Each of these zones contains a myriad micro-habitats favoured by different animals and plants. The best way to appreciate the full range of wildlife in the Park is to plan your route to pass through a variety of habitats. However, Nairobi National Park is a natural ecosystem, not a zoo: animals may not be found where they are ‘supposed’ to be – or may turn up where they are least expected!
Highlands: The tall grasslands in the north of the Park are good places to spot giraffe, gazelle, impala, buffalo and eland. Lions can also be seen in the highlands – from this vantage they can look out onto the plains where mammals wander and graze.
Forest and scrub: The forest in the highlands extends down to the lower reaches of the Park along the banks of rivers and streams where it is mixed with scrubby thickets and rocky habitats in river gorges. This is where to look out for black rhinos, browsing on the foliage of woody shrubs. Where the forest is denser, you may (if you are lucky) spot the elusive leopard, perfectly camouflaged as it lies draped over a branch in the dappled light of an acacia tree, or watching silently from the undergrowth.
The savannah grassland: More than 100 species of grass in the Park sustain the roaming herds of grazing mammals, including zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle. The neatly rounded crowns of scattered acacia trees are the result of regular ‘pruning’ by giraffes that move from tree to tree, browsing on the foliage. The savannah is also where you will find white rhinoceros. This species, introduced from South Africa, now thrives at several locations in Kenya. Unlike black rhinos (which are browsers, feeding on shrubs) white rhinos are grazers, at home in the grasslands.
Rivers and wetlands: As well as sustaining the woody vegetation and grasslands that draw terrestrial animals to the Park, the rivers are home to wildlife of their own. In addition, many small dams have been constructed along the watercourses, creating areas of open water and marshes. A highlight of these areas is the Nile crocodile. These monstrous beasts can often be seen basking on mud banks or lurking in the water, eyes and snout tips protruding.
No birding foray in the Park is complete without visiting the Athi Basin Dam. Waders, storks and African spoonbills congregate at the dam, while the surrounding grasslands are an excellent place to see some of the Park’s large terrestrial bird species, including the flightless ostrich and the world’s heaviest flying bird, the Kori bustard.
The Park offers great opportunities for visitors to get out of their cars and immerse themselves in its unique wildlife:
• The Impala Observation Point is a fresh grassy area, with a well-maintained picnic site, offering views over the plains.
• The Kingfisher Picnic Site is an ideal place for a picnic in idyllic surroundings. The big fig trees provide shade on a hot day, and are home to the striped kingfishers that give the site its name. Antelopes and zebras graze peacefully in the surrounding areas.
• The Hippo Pools Trail is a self-guided nature trail, patrolled by KWS rangers. The riverside trail leads out of a shaded picnic area and offers one of the best opportunities to view the few remaining hippos. The Hippo Pools are also home to a troop of small, black-faced vervet monkeys, as well as crocodiles and terrapins.
Its location within the precincts of a major city is what gives the Park its iconic status, making it the envy of the world. However, the rapid expansion of the same city today threatens to undermine the Park.
Along the boundary fences to the north and west, the Park is increasingly hemmed in by urban clutter and sprawl. To the south and east, informal settlements and industrial development are curtailing the seasonal movement of migrating wild animals across its unfenced southern boundary.
The unique ecosystem of the Park is also threatened by a number of ill-conceived development projects. The northern boundary is being encroached by Nairobi’s Southern Bypass, currently under construction, while Phase 1 of a major new railway modernisation project will shave a slice off its southern end. Worst of all, current plans for Phase 2 of this project would take the railway through the heart of the Park. Although it is proposed to be elevated 40m above the forest, to avoid cutting the western forests off from the rest of the Park, the railway would cause unacceptable disturbance to the animals below, especially the black rhino.
Conservationists are working hard to make sure this does not happen in the hope that policy makers will see sense and preserve this priceless wildlife asset for the future generations.
Family day out!
In combination with a half-day tour of the Park a visit to one or more of three nearby wildlife attractions will give you and your young companions the chance to see wildlife close-up and learn about the challenges – and successes – of wildlife conservation in Kenya.
Nairobi Safari Walk
The Safari Walk is a showcase for Kenya’s parks and reserves across the country. Visitors have an uninterrupted view of captive wild animals in large enclosures from a circuit of raised wooden boardwalks and gravel pathways. From the raised boardwalk you can see a sample of the country’s rich animal life including the rare bongo, white rhino and albino zebra as well as big cats, antelopes and primates. It is also home to some 150 species of local trees. www.kws.go.ke/content/nairobi-safari-walk
Elephant Nursery of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
The Nursery is the world’s most successful orphan-elephant rehabilitation centre. Since 1987, the Nursery has raised more than 100 baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya, many of them victims of poaching or human–wildlife conflict. You can visit between 11am and 12pm and see the orphans feeding and taking their midday mud bath.
Nairobi Animal Orphanage
The Orphanage is a refuge for wild animals and birds found abandoned or injured out in the bush, as well as a popular educational resource for school children. Feeding hours (2-3pm) are an especially good time to visit. The Orphanage hosts lions, cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, serval cats, rare Sokoke cats, warthogs, leopards, various monkeys, baboons and buffalo. A range of birds can also be viewed including parrots, guinea fowls, crowned cranes and ostriches.
Dr Paula Kahumbu
Paula Kahumbu received her PhD in Ecology at Princeton University where she studied elephants in coastal Kenya. She is one of Africa’s best-known wildlife conservationists. She is the CEO of WildlifeDirect and instigator of the HANDS OFF OUR ELEPHANTS campaign with Her Excellency Margaret Kenyatta, the First Lady of the Republic of Kenya. She is recognised as a Kenyan conservation ambassador by Brand Kenya and in 2015 received the presidential award and title of Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW).
For more information about WildlifeDirect, visit: www.wildlifeDirect.org