Monday, November 7, 2011

Concrete and the Jungle

Nairobi National Park... in 20 Frames

As I set foot in Nairobi three years back, the first sight to greet me on the way from the airport to my new home was giraffes on the horizon strutting in their slow motion gait oblivious to rush-hour traffic. If that got the pulse throbbing, imagine the excitement of seeing the city skyline from across the divide through the eyes of the game. After many safaris and becoming wiser in the ways of the African bush and its beasts, I come home to the Nairobi National Park (NNP) to experience the thrill of a wild world co-existing with human habitation of a capital city. Where on earth will you find urban wilderness and cacophony trailing intimately the silence of the savannas!

On a holiday, with little traffic, it takes us less than 30 minutes to reach the park and we are instantly ushered into a parallel world just 10 kms off the City Centre!

NNP has a phenomenal diversity of birdlife with nearly 500 bird species. But to see birds one must be geared for that and in fact, follow certain walking trails to maximize sightings. We were on a game drive and hence got to see only guinea fowls, fish eagle, secretary bird, this lark and of course, ostriches.

NNP also has large number of the endangered and rare black rhinos. There are two species of rhinos – white and black. Black rhinos are browsers unlike the white who are grazers. We did spot the elusive black rhino, but true to its shy nature, it scurried for cover before we could get a good look at it. The ‘white’ rhinos are grey and not white; they have a wider jaw and it is believed that the descriptive “wide” got distorted as “white”. Here is a pair of white rhinos who are so unlike their brethren!

It was here for the first time that I could take pictures of the eland – the largest of the antelope species – comfortably. Elands are another of those shy creatures who slink away at the slightest sight of humans. We have come across elands on many safaris earlier but they are so quick to take to heel that it is difficult to get within comfortable distance for a good picture. The elands of NNP are pretty bold and one strode right next to our vehicle. The proximity to human habitation may have something to do with this altered or acquired trait.

The grassland savanna of NNP resembles a mini-Mara dotted as it is with all kind of game. Burchell’s zebra, Coke’s hartebeest, wildebeest, impalas and gazelles mingle with birds – ostriches, secretary bird, bustards - the size of mammals in a stunning mosaic. The game seems rather easy-going and relaxed; may have something to do with the presence of fewer predators.

Lions are still the royalty here, though their numbers have plummeted over the years. There have been incidents of human-lion conflicts, when the predator has picked on grazing cattle of the Maasai. The Maasai, for whom the cattle is everything, stalk the lions in vengeance and either spear them or cruelly bait them by  poisoning the cattle carcasses. A decade back, 11 lions were killed in a single such episode! Two nomadic young males strolled into our viewfinder on this somnolent sunny morning much to our delight.

Lions, leopards, and even cheetahs, grace the environs of NNP; the only missing element here is the elephant. But there is an Ivory Burning Site inside the park, a monument to Kenya’s commitment to halting ivory poaching. In a brave public display, in 1989, President Moi on the advice of then Director of Kenya Wildlife Service, Richard Leakey burnt tons of confiscated ivory preventing it from re-entering the market.  This symbolic gesture was to set a precedent which, ironically, not many nations have followed ever since! The following picture was taken on an earlier visit hence the lush green grass.

The grassland savanna gradually gives way to sparse acacia woodlands. There are the whistling thorn trees and yellow-bark acacia patches which are primarily giraffe habitat.

Stick figures stride the savannas swaying gently as they trot and canter. The giraffes are aptly called the Maasai Giraffes due to the lean and lanky attribute they share with the tribesmen. 

An impala herd – a male with its harem - is waiting to cross the road so we pause too. But for a while, both watch each other warily without making a move. The male, distinctive, with its antlers, leads a harem of females numbering anywhere between 10 and 50, sometimes, more. Before the males of my species rejoice at this “dame luck” let me recount what my naturalist friend, Richie (based in Tsavo), had to say about the impala male. It is the male’s duty to protect the females and calves, not only from predators but other males, too.  The dominant male is constantly looking over its shoulder to see that no female strays or falls prey to the charms of an adversary. The relentless task of guarding so many females and having to feed at the same time puts undue stress on the male; this in turn takes a toll on his health in the long run. Such a weakened male is easily replaced by another young male.  The impala on the road in the picture below is a female, though.

The city skyline stays with us for a large part of the game drive, but this once the wildlife is posited against the  magnificent Ngong Hills. Ngong Hills are the ubiquitous backdrop in Karen Blixen’s opus “Out of Africa” and they overlook her house and coffee garden that stand even today. The former is now a museum, and the latter, a cafĂ©, the coffee plantations having long gone.

We nearly miss the well-camouflaged waterbuck and would have continued onward but on second thought reversed to get a clear look, and were we glad!  The male common waterbuck…

In 1906 Nairobi railway station was completed and it was this project that saw human habitation grow around what was largely swampy, marshy land. Indian dukas and make-shift offices of the colonial administration marked the beginnings of what was to become the centrestage of a capital city. In those historic times, wild animals were known to roam the streets freely come darkness confining  people indoors.Today, the lions and leopards are still around. This, to my mind, is one-of-a-kind "wonder of the world", indeed.


  1. Lovely! Almost felt that I was with you in that safari vehicle.

    However, I was told that there are no cheetahs and elephants here as they have a tendency to stray into human territory.

  2. Anoushka, to the best of my knowledge there is a minimal floating population of wild cheetahs - maybe, one or two. Also, there are cheetahs in the enclosure in NNP, hence technically there :-) THere are no elephants and I state so in my blog, no ambiguity there. But elephants roamed free here once upon a time.
    Check this cheetah census report.