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In Nairobi, Lions on the Loose Raise Questions About Living Next Door to Big Wildlife

Nairobi National Park’s unique location makes it attractive to both conservationists and development proponents

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyOn a hot February day in Nairobi, the Whatsapp group for my residents’ association chimed an urgent message: Lions had escaped from  Nairobi National Park. Living a few miles from the park, we were advised to stay home.

Not long after the two lionesses made their way safely back, my Whatsapp pinged again. This time it showed a video taken out the car window of a bushy-maned male lion running in panic alongside the busy highway on the other edge of the park.

Photo by Peter StewardThe park, that’s bordered on three sides by human settlements, is the largest national park in the world that lies within a capital city, and the only one to house big wildlife.

In the seven years I’ve lived in Nairobi, these are the first instances of wandering lions, yet in recent months the incidents have quickly multiplied. It’s not a coincidence. Work on a highway through the corner of park has been distressing and disorienting wildlife. It is believed that the activity is confusing the lions to the point that they flee the park, winding up panicked and aggressive in densely populated urban areas. Though it’s far from Kenya’s first instance of human-wildlife conflict, the rampaging lions are rapidly becoming the most visible example of the problem  — one that demands an effective response.

In a sense, it was inevitable. Nairobi National Park is the largest national park in the world that lies within a capital city, and the only one to house big wildlife, featuring not only lions but rhinos, giraffes, zebras, buffalos, antelope of all kinds, and even a few shy leopards. Fenced on the three sides that border human settlements — with Nairobi’s skyscrapers clearly visible in the distance — the park empties into a vast wild savannah on the fourth, unfenced side. This is by design, as wild animals need to follow traditional migration routes or they stop being wild. But recent development inside the park environs threatens to bring this delicate balance to an ugly end, and nowhere is this more in evidence than with the wandering lions.

I live a few miles from the park, but hundreds of thousands of people live in the Kibera slum that lies literally a stone’s throw away from it. The park is home to about 40 lions, separated from their human neighbors by a fence that no longer keeps them inside. After the last lion outing, an elderly man was hospitalized, the first Nairobi resident to be attacked. It’s a pressure-cooker situation — and some speculate it may not be simply chance that has led to this.

Paula Kahumbu, a well-known conservation advocate, speculates that the lions are being encouraged to run free by those with vested interests in developing the park, in hopes that people will fear for their lives and demand closure of the park. This would free the highly desirable land for development. Regardless of any truth to that claim, it’s clear that the current controversial transit development in the park is causing problems.

In the past few years, a bypass road has been built around Nairobi to divert the heavy flow of traffic — particularly large trucks carrying goods from Mombasa port to inland countries such as Uganda, Rwanda, and South Sudan — but after the bypass route was approved, influential landowners erected unauthorized buildings along the route. They were ordered to knock the buildings down but refused to do so. Instead of prosecuting them, the government simply decided to on a new route for the bypass road — one that passes through a corner of the national park.

In 2013, Kahumbu and her colleagues sued to block construction. The Kenya Urban Roads Authority retaliated by moving to de-gazette that section of the park. The standoff continues, but so does construction of the portion of the road leading directly to the park  — and as the noise pollution increases, the lions, it appears, are panicking.

Nairobians view the situation largely as a curiosity. Facebook has been flooded with memes featuring lions popping into town to get their manes dressed or renaming the region Simbabwe, but despite the general hilarity, there are realities to the marauding lions that Nairobi residents have not had to consider before. “My friend and I were walking home late from the bar one night, [when] a car stopped and the driver called, ‘Don’t you fear the simbas?’” says Martin Kamau, a young man who lives near the park. “We had forgotten. We were walking at night just near the place the lions keep breaking through.”

Inevitably, some lions never return from their treks into human habitat. The first known lion to be killed was Mohawk, a male distinguished by his spiky black mane, well-known to city dwellers who like to drive through the park on a weekend. After Kenya Wildlife Services staff failed to knock him out with a half-full tranquilizer dart when he escaped the park in March, he was shot at close range with eight bullets. The wildlife agency claimed this was unavoidable, but Mohawk’s killing created an uproar among Nairobi residents. It’s not clear if any other lions have been killed since, as information about this kind of thing has been kept under tight wrap after the big stink over Mohawk.

Conservationists treasure Nairobi National Park for its unique nature. Nowhere else in the world can you leave your urban home and be driving among endangered wild game, including predatory big cats, within minutes. Defenders of Kenya’s embattled tourism sector, which has suffocated in recent years following a series of terrorist attacks attributed to Al Shabaab, recognize the value of the park and its appeal to short-term international visitors.

Such beautiful camps now exist along the park’s boundaries that many locals — and tourists —don’t bother to venture any further for their safaris. All notable animals except elephants can be seen in the park, and, as one guide put it: “Al Shabaab are not going to attack a camp in Nairobi National Park.”

But beyond this, the park is viewed largely as a curiosity that could be done without. Voices in favor of protecting the park and its dwindling number of animals are drowned out by proponents of development who value the land only for its economic potential. With its117 square kilometers of urban frontage, Nairobi National Park represents an awful lot of development-ready land.

Next up is a railway line that will also cut across a corner of the park. Its design calls for the portion through the park to be elevated, allowing wildlife to pass underneath without danger, but recent events make it clear that the construction itself — which is likely to last several years — will cause disruption as great or greater as the eventual passage of trains themselves.

Even creating a fully-fenced conservation area with a captive wildlife population is not the best solution, as  Beth Robbins, another local conservationist with a lifetime in the East African bush explains: “As populations become isolated, they quickly become susceptible to all sorts of diseases.,It changes their mindsets and makes them highly aggressive. Lions that are inbred, their system changes, and that’s where you get more instances of humans being attacked.”

As I was writing this, Whatsapp sent out another warning: lions have been sighted inside a school compound. Yesterday it was two males roaming the residential streets.

“Why aren’t other animals escaping?” asks my neighbor, James Otieno. “Are lions the only ones that can identify a hole in a fence? The human aspect here is more intentional than incidental.”

The lions of Nairobi National Park have brought human-wildlife conflict to light in a way no one can ignore. With the park’s very survival at stake, the abstract issue of wildlife conservation has suddenly become up-close-and-personal for millions of people who’ve never considered animal welfare before. Just how precious is this park to an urban-centric population that has seen Nairobi become the hub of East Africa’s booming private sector? Just how much do lions’ lives matter against human comfort and convenience and, most of all, profit? The dividends brought in by visitors to the park are dwarfed against the land’s property value. As the battle continues between preserving and developing Nairobi National Park, the predators are becoming the prey.

Anena Hansen
Anena Hansen lives in Nairobi, where she writes educational content for female entrepreneurs.

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