In Kenya, the zoo that isn’t

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2000:

NAIROBI––Nairobi Safari Walk manager Samuel M. Ngethe and naturalist Joyce Engoke are emphatic that the Kenya Wildlife Service animal orphanage between the KWS headquarters and Nairobi National Park is not a zoo.

The term “zoo” has bad connotations for KWS, associated with brutal wildlife captures and exports, and with colonial menageries. Some such menageries in other African nations have been stranded ever since in old-fashioned cement-and-steel cages. Others starved––or were eaten by starving people––during bloody civil wars.

Even as ANIMAL PEOPLE visited, Karl Amman of the Kenya-based Bushmeat Project and Sarah Scarth, from the Johannesburg office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, sought help for an effort to rescue more than 100 animals including 12 chimps from the Kinshasa National Zoo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Scarth told a November 18 press conference that about two-thirds of the Kinshasa collection had already starved or been killed during the Congolese fighting.

KWS personnel were meanwhile preparing proposals for CITES which seek to prevent the capture of young rhinos and elephants for export to foreign zoos.

The KWS view of zoos echoes that of the international organizations it most often works with. Care For The Wild founder Bill Jordan, for instance, has long outspokenly opposed exhibition of captive wildlife in any form. The Fund for Animals, also critical of zoos, recently donated $5,000 toward anti-poaching efforts in Tsavo National Park––about enough to keep two rangers on the job for a year, at a time when the Tsavo staff is 160 positions short. IFAW, which traditionally hasn’t liked zoos much either, has begun to assist the anti-snaring team fielded by Youth for Conservation and the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

So it wouldn’t do for KWS to acknowledge that it runs a zoo––even a good zoo. Yet unlike the nearby Sheldrick Trust elephant-and-rhino orphanage, the KWS orphanage is open to the public, for an admission fee. It is promoted to some extent as a tourist attraction. Work is underway on expanded facilities for visitors, as well as for the animals. Though on natural grass, with native scenery, the animals are presently kept in cages.

Some are actually wild orphans, who will be released into Nairobi National Park when old enough to fend for themselves. Many others will be residents for life. Some have been out of the wild for too long to be rehabilitated; some have been too badly hurt; some are exotics, confiscated from illegal traffickers, whose origins are uncertain and who have no wild habitat in Kenya to go to.

Explains Engoke, “Our orphanage began as strictly a rehabilitation project, but it rapidly expanded with donations of exotic species by foreign governments and members of the public who surrendered exotic pets. It became very popular with the public, receiving about 200,000 visitors a year, but we were severely criticized because the facilities were inadequate to keep so many animals of so many different kinds. Finally we closed the original facility and opened the present mini-orphanage as a temporary holding facility. It is likely to be used later for short-term rehabilitation projects and for acclimation and observation of new animals. We are building a new orphanage and educational facility,” much larger than the mini-orphanage, “with advisory help from the Wildlife Conservation Society,” which manages the Bronx Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo, Central Park Zoo, and New York Aquarium.

The mini-orphanage is roughly comparable to the better public park zoos in the U.S. The facility under construction will be more ambitious, and will include a long boardwalk from which visitors may observe wildlife inside Nairobi National Park. The idea is to keep captive only those individuals who for some reason cannot be released.

Collecting by rescue

That, however, can be a considerable number, since all of the KWS-managed wildlife reserves send animals to the orphanage, as do police forces around Kenya, concerned citizens, and the customs service.

Just arriving when ANIMAL PEOPLE visited were a litter of cheetahs, whose mother vanished in Masai Mara National Park––possibly scared off or roadkilled by tourist vans, more likely killed by lions or hyenas. They joined a 10-week-old cheetah, rescued under similar circumstances; two newly confiscated tortoises of as yet unidentified species; two adult cheetahs; an African gray parrot confiscated from smugglers; five adult lions; a leopard who was taken to the orphanage instead of being shot for repeated livestock raiding; troops of colubus monkeys, green vervets, baboons, and several lesser known monkey species; several zebras; two cape buffalo; and a wildebeest who had somehow been separated from a migrating herd. Some of the animals were initially “rescued” by well-meaning private citizens, Engoke noted, but became so used to humans that they could not be released without risk either to themselves or the public. They thrive on attention from visitors.

A generation of urban Kenyans have never seen the animals for which Kenya is best known. As close as Nairobi National Park is, many cannot afford seats on a bus to take them inside. The KWS orphanage is giving them an affordable introduction. The boardwalk is envisioned as poor peoples’ access to the wild beyond the cages.

Then, KWS hopes, even the poorest Kenyans will share the national pride at having wildlife most other nations can only view on television.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *