History of Nairobi National Park

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Nairobi National Park History

Nairobi National Park was established and gazetted in 1946. It is Kenya’s oldest Conservation area. For the past 75 years, the park has been the setting for numerous studies on wildlife behavior, ecology, and conservation management. The park has also gained prominence as a secure refuge and breeding ground of global significance for some endangered species, notably the Black Rhinoceros.

NNP is unique among wilderness areas in that it is located on the doorstep of a major city.

From within the precincts of no other capital city can such a broad array of a locality’s original wild and flora still be seen and cherished in a natural, wild setting that has remained intact, despite the mushrooming backdrop of modern skyscrapers.
In preserving a microcosm of Nairobi’s natural history, the park is a heritage of inestimable value. It preserves rock shelters the Maasai used in centuries gone by, including on one overhang, dubbed paintings of immense cultural importance. The park gives the Kenyan capital a tourist attraction like no other while providing city dwellers with a tranquil, scenic retreat from the stresses of daily urban life. It functions as the ‘lungs’ of today’s choked, overcrowded city, replenishing oxygen and soaking up pollutants.

In the 19th century, the wildlife spectacle was nothing short of awe-inspiring, teaming herds of wild animals of limitless numbers and variety were ubiquitous, roaming the plains from horizon to horizon. This abundance reflected how few people and domestic livestock existed in the landscape at the time. The Maasai were still recovering from the devastating bovine pleuro-pneumonia and rinderpest epidemics that had, in the 1880s, wiped out most of their stock and were experiencing a famine, exacerbated by a deadly smallpox epidemic. In 1899, the coming of the Uganda Railway triggered an influx of European opportunists who, while seeking their fortunes as traders, prospectors, and pioneer settlers, set about indulging in hunting exploits. As news of this hunting spread, more big-game hunters flocked in. This soon became a wanton-free-for-all.

This irked some in the Administration, who wanted controls imposed on hunting in the Protectorate. Some of the more established settlers, alarmed by the indiscriminate shooting antics of newcomers, stepped forward, urging the administration to intervene. In response, Whitehall (the London seat of the administration) agreed in 1900 to set up what became known as the Southern Game Reserve. This was to be a vast area extending south of Nairobi and beyond what is today Kajiado and onwards the then Tanganyika border. In this area, all hunting would be prohibited. The area now occupied by Nairobi National Park-then known as Nairobi Commonage, was to form just one small corner of the giant Southern Game Reserve. Nothing ever came of this ambitious plan. The Administration, distracted by events leading up to World War I, had neither the personnel nor the resources to implement such a grandiose scheme. When the 1914 war broke out, the commonage, because it lay south of the fledgling protectorate’s capital, became a base camp, a training camp, and a thoroughfare for soldiers serving in Britain’s Tanganyika campaign against the Germans. Wildlife in the area was plundered to feed the troops.

Parts of the Nairobi commonage had been used to resettle ex-servicemen, retiring after years of distinguished military service to Britain, and their families. After the war, an imbalance became apparent between their growing livestock numbers and returning wildlife populations. Maasai groups and livestock herds had recovered, sparking tension with outsiders who had been taking advantage of the vacuum left by the calamities that had temporarily undermined Maasai dominance.

In the 1920s, there were renewed calls for a wildlife area to be established on the scale of the Southern Reserve. These calls found a champion in Capt. Archie Richie, the first chief game warden for Kenya’s colony, as the protectorate was now called. He campaigned for Nairobi’s commonage to the status of a national park. His plans were approved by the government in Britain but met with apathy on the ground. A commission set up in 1933 to diffuse tribal rivalries on the commonage, redefined the boundaries of the proposed Nairobi National Park. In the late 1930s, Ritchie found a formidable ally in Col. Mervyn Cowie, who in 1938 publicly called the British Government a bluff, arguing in effect that if the colony had no intentions of honoring Whitehall’s mandate to establish the National Park, then all wildlife should be eliminated so that the land could be put to better use. This gambit had the desired effect, raising an outcry from the white settler community (which had a political voice in those days). A game policy committee was hastily convened to look into the matter.

But then, just as work on the new national park began in earnest, World War II broke out again, and the Nairobi Commonage was commandeered as a military base, this time for troops serving in the Allied campaign against the Italians in Ethiopia. Again, the wildlife suffered. Miraculously, after the War ended in 1944, the wilderness recovered and wild animals again returned in large numbers. Work resumed on the stalled National Park project. The families of the Somali veterans were relocated (remnants of their old Kei-apple and cacti stock enclosures can still be seen today near the park’s Maasai gate). New roads and bridges were constructed, dams were built, salt licks were laid down, and trespassing by people and livestock was forbidden. Anti-poaching measures were initiated. Progress was slow, but in 1946, the Nairobi Royal National Park was formally inaugurated.

Today, 75 years later, Nairobi National Park continues to face many difficulties. The dispersal areas to the south and east, which have in the past provided a secure lifeline for the park’s migrating wildlife populations, are now seriously under threat. Despite all these, the park’s ecosystem struggles to thrive with its habitat ranging from savanna grassland, open woodland, and scrub to bushed thickets and upland dry forest, from rocky gorges to wetlands and streams, supporting biodiversity. Over 500 plant species, more than 100 mammal species, a bird list of more than 520 species, reptiles and amphibians of more than 60 species, and butterflies of more than 150 species are found inside the park.


Nairobi National Park

Biodiversity Drive

FoNNAP’s NNP Biodiversity Drive aggregates the species identified in Nairobi National Park and avails details on each specimen recorded online. The drive features a mammals, birds, reptiles and plant section.

Mammal Drive
Bird Drive
Reptile Drive
Plant Drive