NAIROBI, KENYA — Last month, I visited Nairobi National Park with four friends.
Plains Zebras, Equus quagga — mesmerizing, beautiful animals that sound as though they’re laughing. The animals in the foreground are fuzzy youngsters who haven’t yet exchanged the soft, brownish stripes of youth for the glossy black stripes of adulthood.
A male Common Ostrich, Struthio camelus. When the bird is grazing, its flexible, active, almost serpent-like neck seems to move independently of its massive, shaggy body and powerful legs. This is by far the world’s largest bird; the biggest males can stand nine feet tall and weigh 350 pounds. More about ostriches.
Nairobi National Park lies on the southern edge of Nairobi, Kenya’s crowded, bustling capital city. It is fenced on its western, northern, and eastern sides, where it abuts the city; on the south, it adjoins the Athi-Kapiti (Athi-Kaputiei) plains. Despite its proximity to such a major urban area, its savannas, grasslands, and forests host most of the well known East African megafauna (elephants are absent) and over 500 bird species. Here’s a map:
Giraffe, Giraffa camelopardalis. No photographs, TV specials, or trips to the zoo had prepared me adequately for an encounter with wild giraffes — for the intensity of their coats, for their marvelous faces, for their extraordinary stature (towering nearly two stories!) and unimaginable proportions, for the sharp swish! of their tails, for their tolerance and seemingly unflappable demeanor. These animals are truly magnificent.
Yellow-billed Oxpeckers (Buphagus africanus) cling to giraffes’ necks and bodies like woodpeckers to tree trunks, feasting on their hosts’ parasites, ear wax, and — yes — blood.
White-bellied Go-away-bird, Corythaixoides-leucogaster. The yellow-green bill identifies this bird as a female; males have black bills. Go-away-birds belong to the order Musophagiformes (that is, banana-eaters), whose extant members occur only in Africa and also include the plantain-eaters and brightly colored turacos.
White-browed Coucal, Centropus superciliosus. Coucals are large, brush-dwelling cuckoos (non-parasitic) that are common across much of the Old World tropics, from Africa across tropical Asia and out to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Among the African members of the genus, White-browed Coucals are quite distinctively patterned.
And with all that potential food, carnivores are not absent. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, and other predators live in the park, though we saw none during our visit.
The future for these animals is by no means certain, despite the park’s protected status. East Africa’s great herbivores must stay on the move throughout the year, moving to new grazing areas in response to seasonal rainfall. These huge migrations deeply affect the entire ecosystem; a cessation of the rhythm would change everything.
But that’s what’s happening here and elsewhere in Kenya. Intense and rapidly increasing human pressures on the Kitengela corridor south of the park are steadily cutting off the animals’ remaining migration routes (more at the BirdLife IBA factsheet and here).
A study published just this month showed that across Kenya as a whole, “national park and reserve populations have declined sharply over the last 30 years, at a rate similar to non-protected areas and country-wide trends” (The Status of Wildlife in Protected Areas Compared to Non-Protected Areas of Kenya). This is due in part to the restriction of animals’ movements and destruction of habitat in non-protected areas.
A female Impala (Aepyceros melampus) watches us closely as we pass by her young one (foreground).
Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris) flock beneath a small tree. Their weird, horned, blue-and-red heads are fantastic, and I think their plumage looks like strings of pearls or dewdrops on a spider’s web. The guineafowl family, endemic to Africa, is in the order Galliformes with pheasants, grouse, and quail.
A hyrax peers out from beneath two large rocks, where it and several family members were scampering around.
A very dapper Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiaca) proves that brown can most definitely be beautiful.
At midday, the hippos (Hippopotamus amphibius) were almost completely submerged and motionless. This made it hard to sense how huge and formidable they really are, though as we’d approached the pool where they rested, we’d heard some pretty fearsome roars.
A slightly less menacing resident of the hippo pool — a Serrated Hinged Terrapin (Pelusios sinuatus). If my identification is correct, this species is a member of a small group of turtles that cannot retract their heads fully backwards into their shells. Instead, they tuck their heads sideways into the shells, earning them the name “side-necked turtles.”
Marabou Storks (Leptoptilos crumeniferus) are abundant scavengers and opportunistic feeders. The small white blobs in the background are African Sacred Ibises (Threskiornis aethiopicus) — “sacred” because the species figured into ancient Egyptian religion and mythology.
A Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus) pauses in a tree. Old World monkeys, unlike New World monkeys, do not have prehensile tails.
The wonderful Secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius), a species I’d really been wanting to see. This is an extraordinary terrestrial raptor that stalks through grasses on very long legs, snapping up arthropods and small vertebrates.
Long-tailed Fiscals, Lanius cabanisi. I tend to think of shrikes as solitary birds, but the Long-tailed Fiscal is a gregarious and noisy species. This group had gathered in a small tree, and all the birds were chattering vigorously and waving their tails around in some sort of display.
We glimpsed the top of a Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) moving through the grasses. Nairobi National Park serves as a refuge for rhinos moved in from other less protected parts of the country and also as a source population from which rhinos can be exported to other Kenyan parks.
For more information and ongoing updates, check out the Nairobi National Park blog. More of my photos are posted in my Nairobi National Park gallery.
- Flycatchers in Nairobi
- Grenada Dove’s existence threatened by sale of park
- Birds out my office window
- Black Kite, Milvus migrans
- Variable Sunbird, Cinnyris venustus