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16 Sep, 2021
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Nairobi Lion Days!!!- Article by Gareth Jones

Nairobi Lion Days: Save Our Lions!

Starting as an idea with a humble beginning in 2013 World Lion Day has continued as the brainchild of co-founders Dereck and Beverly Joubert, a husband-and-wife team with a passion for big cats. The 10th of August of every year has been called World Lion Day in the hope that many people worldwide would reflect and move towards taking meaningful action regarding the current realities of lions in many places. While World Lion Day is a general term for all lion-type species, eg American mountain lion, Asiatic lion, and African lion, there are parts of Africa in particular where lions are no longer found. In recent years African lion populations have been seriously reduced. Lions have lost 85% of their ancient historic range. Due to the continued expansion of human populations and the resulting growth in agriculture, settlements, and roads, many wildlife species in Africa are paying a sad penalty and some have become endangered. Lions are extinct in 26 countries across Africa. Lions are currently listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In some parts of Africa, lions are classified as “critically endangered” because lion populations are still plummeting at an unprecedented rate.

Just about 100 years ago, the African lion population was estimated to be well over 200,000, however, there has been a dramatic decrease in numbers to possibly less than 20,000 in the last few decades. Sadly, this is a dramatic decrease of about 90% in just about 100 years. There are some who say that based on the current downward trend, the African lion as a species could even be extinct before 2050. It is my sincere hope and prayer that lions in Africa will be saved due to the corrective actions of individuals and organisations who really care.

So, I therefore simply believe that having a mere day for all the remaining lions of the world is absolutely not nearly enough to address the current realities. Dare it be said, that regarding the plight of the Nairobi National Park lions, we need to have Nairobi lion days. In other words, the lions need to have constant daily attention and related management to ensure their long-term survival, including being monitored. For thousands of years, lions have roamed the area we call Nairobi today. Humans have also co-existed with wildlife in this area for thousands of years. However, within the last 120 years and especially in the last 30 years, there have been dramatic changes due to rapid human developments. The area immediately south of central Nairobi used to be known as “commonage” in the 1920s & 1930s, and military guns were used to fire practice rounds across the plains during the second world war. It was thanks to the efforts of people like Mervyn Cowie that the Nairobi National Park became the first National park to be gazetted in Kenya on the 16th of December 1946.

It is an amazing miracle that wildlife, including lions, have managed to survive for so long next to a growing ever-expanding mega-city. The Nairobi lions are indeed remarkable in that they live with so many millions of humans around them, and tourists come from all over the world just for a glimpse of the approximately 25-40 lions that frequent the tiny 117 sq/km Nairobi National Park. Over the years there have also been a number of very sad occasions mostly when lions move out of the relative safety of the park in the rainy season, and as a consequence start killing local livestock. The locals in turn then seek revenge and some lions are killed. However, there has been a measure of good success in recent years with the installation of flashing LED “lion lights” around livestock bomas, significantly reducing the amount of predation on local livestock. However, all technical solutions have associated costs and also need to be maintained over time to ensure operational functionality.

I have over many years been one of the few people that have had the privilege to spend much time in the park, with over 4,500 visits. As a result, many of the lions are well known to me, and some of them have even been given names. It should be mentioned that there are a few special people that have given much of their free time towards conservation, people like Trish Heather-Hayes (aka Mama Simba) who has a really in-depth knowledge of most of the Nairobi lions, also David Mascall who for many years ran the orphanage, and in recent years did lion ID research and then began installing flashing LED lion lights. Michael Mbithi has also done some noteworthy work together with David Mascall to ID the Nairobi lions about 7 years ago. It is also well overdue that the lions need to be systematically identified again, hopefully, this will happen in 2021? There also are quite a few other people who really do care and continue to support lion conservation in the park, mainly through the efforts of FONNAP (Friends of Nairobi National Park) in partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and organisations like Wildlife Direct, the Conservation Alliance of Kenya, including the valued support of the local communities adjacent to the park boundary.

A typical blunt greeting that I have experienced on a number of occasions, is when an approaching vehicle on a game drive waves to you to hopefully stop, and then proceeds to ask “have you seen lions?” or “where are the lions?” very often bypassing less important mannerisms like “good day!” and “thank you!”. Yes, it is very clear that certain people get a serious case of “lion fever” especially when there has been a sighting close to a road involving cubs or a kill. To me, this again highlights the immense importance of ensuring the future of the Nairobi lions as they are globally renowned. I never imagined that my series of photos taken at 06h30 on the 17th January 2013 of “Nairobi traffic lions” rolling in buffalo dung “leo deo”, would go worldwide to promote the lions and the Nairobi National Park.

(An extract from my diary in October 2012): Driving through the park on a Saturday afternoon I suddenly noticed a lioness walking towards the lone tree, after arriving at the tree, she amazingly actually climbed up the small tree and then proceeded to give low roaring calls, within minutes two large cubs came running through the grass and stopped below the tree as if to say “Hi Mom, have you seen dinner yet?”. It is rare to see lions up trees, and especially up a tree, like the lone tree, yet amazingly over a period of about 10 years I have personally seen lions up this tree on two occasions, the other incident involved a young lion climbing up and then his mother standing on her hind legs as if trying to get him to come down.….. The history of the park and this particular tree is interesting, the area at one time was an open wild area, and during the 2nd World War was used by the RAF for target bombing, legend has it that a shell landed at the tree site and killed some lions, and it is strange that to this day lions still often frequent the area around this tree. The tree that stands near no5 junction today is a replacement for the original tree. So if you are looking for somewhere to go to “escape the maddening crowd”, then the Nairobi Park is such a place. Awake early, drive slowly, relax and let nature come to you, take time to visit a picnic site, and soon you will be able to say “I have a had a Soul Tonic” Update – the tree fell down a few years ago, and has not been replaced.

Extract from my diary Oct 2018 – Just imagine if we understood Lion talk!… Cleo the little lion cub lay on her back with her mother in the long soft green grass, under the tall leafy trees, almost next to the main gate. As Cleo lay there for some time, a low grumbling noise could be heard occasionally, “Mama!!..what is that noise we keep hearing?”. Mama replied in a knowing tone “Well my cub …we know them as “grumble-shines”, they have strange rolling legs and always seem to be in a mood as they growl where ever they go, and they also do not smell good and are filled with humans”. Cleo thought for a while and then said “but Mama why do so many “grumble-shines” go past us all the time ?”. Mama replied “Well my cub, there are many theories, but the baboons seem to know the main reason after listening carefully to the humans talking, as I listen to the baboon jabber-jabber-jabber every day, and my understanding is that the many humans go through the gate in their “grumble-shines” to “LOOK FOR LIONS!!”, they are known to rumble around for hours in the heat and dust, just to try and find one of us, then when they see us the humans behave very strangely, they point funny things at us that click and sometimes flash brightly, and some of them even climb on top of their “grumble-shines”. ‘Wow, Mama!! ….that is really crazy!” said little Cleo, “We relax here all day in the cool shade while they must get so hot in their “rumble-shines”. Seeing lion cubs is always a cute moment, however, sadly in reality very few of them survive the struggle to grow up as adults.

In April 2016 – a Magnificent lion we called Mohawk was shot south of the Nairobi National Park – this is a tribute to his life. It was September 2007, on a cold cloudy grey morning as I drove along slowly. Suddenly a young lion emerged from the long grass and walked into the road, he looked to be about 2 years old and had a long funky looking tufty mane on the top middle of his head. Soon people gave him the name “Mohawk” because of his funky immature mane. At that stage the King was a lion known as Ujanja who was a mighty lion, whom many people believe was Mohawk’s father, however, the young prince Mohawk still had many years of maturing and testing moments before he also emerged as the King of the Middle part of the park in 2011, when Ujanja was getting old. Mohawk was a magnificent lion in almost every way, powerfully built, with a dark black mane, and he was definitely popular with the lion ladies and many cubs came through him. I remember once being amazed that he killed a huge eland near No6 dam, the pride really enjoyed that feast.

For many years I drove through Mohawk’s territory almost twice daily, and always looked to see if he was around, sometimes he would go roaming for a week or two. On the 30th of April 2016, the sad news of Mohawk’s terrible killing quickly went global. We cannot bring him back. I know many people including International tourists loved him. He was one of the most photographed lions in the park, seemingly not bothered by people in cars all looking at him. We hope and pray that justice for Mohawk and Lemek will follow, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service will ensure the future of the Nairobi National Park lions by improved conservation management methods. Rest in peace – Mohawk the Magnificent.

Lions are virtually iconic symbols used worldwide to promote anything from Sports teams to beer. Sadly, the majority of mankind seemingly adores the symbolism and fashion of lion themes, while virtually ignoring the reality of the crisis lions face daily. Thankfully there is a dedicated remnant of people who do really care, and who will continue to be guardians through their timely actions to ensure that lions continue to survive in the wild irrespective of the difficult circumstances.

And so the constant battle continues for the Nairobi Lions to survive every single day, currently, it is estimated that there are only about 25 adult lions with a number of small cubs in the Park. We hope and pray that God will make a way where there sometimes seems no way for the Nairobi National Park to survive and thrive into the future. Long may the Nairobi lion days be!

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Gareth Jones – Nairobi Park Diary – A passionate writer & photographer
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