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09 Feb, 2023
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Nairobi's Struggling Lions - Article by Gareth Jones

Nairobi’s Struggling Lions – Article by Gareth Jones


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 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 1920’s & 1930’s, and military guns 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 less than 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 & 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 boma’s, significantly reducing the amount of predation on local livestock.

I have in recent years been one of the few people that have had the privilege to spend much time in the park, with over 4500 visits. As a result many of the lions became 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 over 5 years ago. It is also well overdue that the lions need to be systematically identified again, hopefully this will happen in 2019? 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).

(An extract from my diary in April 2013) – I watched Mica with her family for some time late one afternoon this week, her two young cubs were lying next to her, however I was glad to see her two older (2yr & 2 month old) offspring lying nearby, Raffie and Elsie. Raffie had a very swollen mouth, possibly caused by a porcupine quill that lodged in his mouth last week, he is still very thin but is slightly better then when last I saw him. Elsie is also looking thin, as I had not seen her for a few months, however she was limping badly! But the cubs seemed to be really enjoying the wet conditions, as they played games like “catch me if you can” & “jump the puddle” and “catch the
tail”. It was delightful to just sit and watch them as they played in and around the muddy road. They also tried to play with the older lions like Raffie and even Mica. When watching the cubs play, it is easy to reflect on the old English saying “as playful as a kitten” being applicable to lion cubs as well. The joyful mood of the cubs seemed to lift the sombre mood of the other lions, much like young human children often lift our spirits at times.

As it began to get darker, Mica suddenly decided it was time to go, and I watched them as they walked off, past the No5 junction stone sign and eastward past the lone tree.

Sadly Raffie & Elsie were also small cubs about two years ago and now they are both struggling. We hope and pray that both the current cubs survive and thrive, and that both Raffie and Elsie recover in the wild.

(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 to area around this tree. The tree that stands near no5 junction today is a replacement of 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“.

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 “grumble-shines”.

Seeing lion cubs is always a cute moment, however 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 I 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. But often he was seen in his territory that consisted mainly of the Embakasi plains (from no4, 5, 6, 7 junctions and the Eland valley area), Masai gate, and Kingfisher area and even stretched up into the forest. Mohawk reigned successfully not just because of his power, but also because he had coalitions with various lions like Charlie, Sam and Cheru.

On the 30th 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.

And so the constant battle continues for the Nairobi Lions to survive, 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.

The park is open daily from 06h00 to 19h00.




Gareth JonesGareth Jones – Nairobi Park Dairy – A passionate writer & photographer
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