There is hope yet for Nairobi National Park

Sunday March 24 2013

PHOTO | JOHN FOX Silole Villa.

PHOTO | JOHN FOX Silole Villa. NATION MEDIA GROUP

By JOHN FOX [email protected]

He was magnificent. I can’t claim to have found him; I was alerted to his presence by the crescent of attendant vehicles.

The huge male lion walked unconcerned to the waterhole and crouched to drink. He then climbed up the bank, he looked out over the plain – and he roared.

It was the kind of roar — a challenging opening and a dying refrain — so well described in a Korokoro saying, one often quoted by the man who walked with lions, George Adamson:

“Who is Lord of this Land?... Who is Lord of this Land?... I am... I am... I am...”

It was in Nairobi National Park last Sunday evening, as the sun was going down behind the Ngong Hills. For quite some time I have been wondering how much longer lions like this could go on claiming to be Lords of this particular Land — how much longer they would be following the herds moving up to the park across the southern plains.

I had begun to accept that, with all the unplanned development to the south of the park – the selling and fencing of plots — the animal migration routes would inevitably be choked. I had begun to accept that the Nairobi National Park — the only open park anywhere in the world so close to a nation’s capital — would become a kind of zoo.

But what gave me pause were a few paragraphs in the superb guide recently produced by the Friends of Nairobi National Park (FoNNaP). The guide points to a number of initiatives underway in the dispersal areas: the combination of community-led conservation efforts, conservation ‘easements’ (lease-agreement partnerships) and undertakings by individual land owners.

The Wildlife Conservation Lease Program, operated by The Wildlife Foundation, has secured more than 16,000 hectares of community-owned rangeland to the south and south-east of the Park. Under this scheme, families receive the equivalent of $4 (Sh340) per acre per year for agreeing to leave at least part of their land unfenced.

Conservation easements are keeping open corridors linking buffer zones on the fringes of the park with larger community conservation areas in the south, such as the 1,920 hectare Olerai Conservancy near Kipero.

Private property

Also, right alongside the park’s southern boundary, a number of small sanctuaries on private property are playing a crucial role in safeguarding wildlife habitats in the Mbagathi Valley. They cover about 1,000 hectares along 12 kilometres of river frontage.

Last Sunday, I went to explore one of these - the Silole Sanctuary - where the main landowner, John Keen, in collaboration with other local landowners, has partnered with the Kenya Wildlife Service to establish an environmental easement of about 200 hectares.

I hadn’t been back to the Masai Lodge for some time. It’s a very relaxing, wild place, less than an hour’s drive from the city. The bar and lounge areas look out to a dramatic gorge of the Mbagathi River. Down below is a swimming pool, bright blue and clearly well maintained. The cottages are spread out to the east, along the banks of the river and with a more open view over the park.

Then, set further east in the sanctuary, there is the Silole Villa, a delightful cottage with a lounge, kitchen, three bedrooms, and a veranda with a magnificent view across the plains. It could do with a spruce-up, but it is an ideal spot for a brainstorming retreat — or a weekend party in the bush.

I had lunch back at the lodge. Just as the cottages have been refurbished, it seems that the kitchen has been re-energised. The steak was sweet and tender. (But the house-wine needs some re-thinking too!)

Before going into the park proper, I called into the nearby Rolf’s Place. For quite some time, this boutique hotel and restaurant has been one of my favourite places. It is very, very special – a hotel with a beautiful setting on Leopard Cliff; a restaurant with Rolf Schmid’s distinctive dishes.

Sadly, after fiercely fought battles with cancer and then a stroke, Rolf died last October. But his Place is still very much alive. I was glad to see his partner, Sarah, is carrying on. The chefs are the same; the menu is the same; let’s hope Sarah can ensure that the character stays the same.

When you go...

Nairobi National Park: The FoNNaP Natural History Guide (At bookshops in town and at the Nairobi National Park; Sh1,600)

Contacts for Masai Lodge: Mobile: 0723-160888/0736-160888

Rolph’s Place: 0721-618855

Getting there: From Langata Road, take Magadi Road, and turn left on the tarmac of Masai Lodge Road, which is signposted to the lodge and Nazarene University. Keep straight on the murram road. Masai Lodge is on the left – six kilometres from Magadi Road. Rolph’s Place is on the right, just before the lodge.

John Fox is Managing Director, iDC