Residents of Nairobi, Kenya, had a fright this week after several lions escaped from a national park and wandered into crowded neighborhoods. “Hey I hear there are lions on the loose,” one woman tweeted, “Should I lock my kids in???”
“Yes, please do until we report lions have been captured and safely returned to the park. Perils of born town lions,” responded Paul Udoto, an official with the Kenyan Wildlife Service. By which he means to say — that’s the tradeoff for having a mind-blowing African wildlife park in your backyard.
Fortunately, as far as officials can tell, the crisis has been averted. “Glad to report that lioness and cub safely back into the park. Two others suspected to have made their way back before daybreak,” Udoto later tweeted. “Grateful for public cooperation. No incident reported over lions on the loose. All is well that ends well,” he said. Earlier reports suggested that up to six lions might be wandering the city, although for now officials consider the issue resolved.
These are not zoo animals, but wild cats that just happen to live in close proximity to a town of 3 million people. Nairobi National Park covers 29,000 acres of land, just 4 miles from the city center. The park boasts incredible wildlife scenes set on a backdrop of skyscrapers.
Although electric fences separate the park from the city on three sides, the far border is open, so that migrating herds can wander through. The lions have been escaping the park into the city through culverts, a spokesperson told a local paper. One of the lionesses in this instance may have been pregnant and looking for a place to safely birth her cub.
In the wild, tracking a lion involves stealth and a keen eye. Urban tracking involves those things, but a few other things, too. Officials were out in force at 3 a.m. Friday donning fatigues and tranquilizer guns as they scoured wilderness corridors for the cats. It’s hard to see pawprints on pavement, though — it’s more likely the wardens were following cell phone tips and, potentially, the screams of local residents.
Wildlife populations residing within the park are under growing threats from urban expansion and poaching, which could incite more animals to wander out.
Yet in spite of the dangers, having such a diverse wildlife population so close to the city is a great boon. Just as residents of Churchill, Canada, have learned to deal with the occasional polar bear wandering through town, residents of Nairobi must know that in Kenya, big cats come with the territory.
Locals and tourists are drawn to Nairobi National Park for its promise of accessible views of lions, cheetahs, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, and even the rare black rhino. Non-residents have to cough up $50 apiece to enjoy the same privilege. Nairobians don’t seem to get too perturbed by these kinds of incidents. At least not yet.