On March 18 this year, Cheru, a male lion, ‘escaped’ out of Nairobi National Park and wandered onto the chaotic Mombasa Rd, one of the major arterials that is almost always congested with traffic. He clawed a man- and then let the man go free- and was then captured shortly after by Kenya Wildlife Service and returned safely back to the park, which sits at the border of the bustling metropolis.
In the month prior, 6 other lions had reportedly escaped from the park and were found in the informal settlement area of Kibera and near Langata, near Karen- both residential areas. Many took to social media to express their panic and to also assist the KWS in tracking down these wild cats. Many pleaded not to shoot the lion as had been done once before, which had left orphan cubs in its wake- but instead, deliver him back to the park alive.
It wasn’t until March 30, when another lion, Mohawk, escaped from the park which led to its death. The 13-year-old male lion of Nairobi National Park and a popular tourist favourite, endured torment and heckling by crowds for hours in Kajiado county where he was found. The 13-year-old lion was cornered and surrounded by a large rowdy mob of roughly 400 people, for up to 6 hours, stoned and taunted, and became highly stressed, which drove him to swat a man on a motorbike- prompting a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger to shoot him 9 times.
The first KWS team that was dispatched to contain the situation, interestingly, only had rifles. The second team were on their way with tranquilisers, but Mohawk was shot before they arrived. The fact that rangers arrived 6 hours after the first report of Mohawk’s location came in raises further questions- Kajiado is only 30kms away from the Nairobi NP headquarters, and even with traffic, southbound, they would have arrived far faster than the time that they did.
Lions escaping Nairobi NP has not happened like this before with such frequency and in such numbers. The park, gazetted in 1946 by British settlers, is the oldest national park in Kenya, but sadly one that is under threat due to the need to manage the rapid development of this fast-growing nation. A railway is currently being built through the park to improve trade routes from Mombasa to Nairobi and through to neighbouring countries. The noisy construction work is assumed to be driving lions out through an open migratory corridor in the south. The livestock that they find in the villages also draws them out of the park. It may only be a matter of time before another lion escapes, which could ultimately lead to its unnecessary death.
While the Government prioritises development, protection of these areas of wilderness becomes all the more paramount. Nairobi National Park is as much the lions’ land as it is ours. There has been discussion on relocating residents near the southern perimeter of the park, or relocation the lions to other parts of Kenya. These may be effective strategies in the long term, however in the short term, clear standard operating procedures on how to effectively handle wild must be established immediately before more animals are unnecessarily killed. Controlling crowds and educating society on how to handle wild animals is critical to ensure safety for all. This was a typical case of human-wildlife conflict, but one that was preventable, as highlighted in the suffering that Mohawk endured in the final hours of his life. This death didn’t have to happen. But it did, and by it, we are all diminished.
As Phase 2 of the Standard Gauge Railway construction begins, the issue of how wildlife can coexist with a train line running through the core of the park remains at large. Perhaps it may only be a matter of time before more lions are driven out of the park, or a matter of time for them to adjust to the bustling city's rapid development. Either way, their space is becoming smaller and smaller, and in a country with only 2500 lions left- a number that is fast decreasing- there has to be a better way to creating the space they need for this extremely vulnerable species.