• The park is a complete wilderness, meaning you can enjoy game drives uninterrupted
• Despite the recent severe drought, it didn't lose animals thanks to six perennial rivers
If you are a tourist and would love to visit a park that has the Big Five and no crowds, then the place to go is Meru National Park.
Senior warden Kitavi Kaloki said the park is a complete wilderness, meaning you can enjoy game drives uninterrupted.
In Kenya, which is East Africa’s leading tourist destination, there are few complete wilderness parks.
He said the Meru National Park is unique, with unrivalled resource values.
It was made famous in the 1960s during the shooting of blockbuster movie 'Born Free', which aired in 1966.
The movie is based on the true story of conservationist couple George and Joy Adamson.
"George Adamson was the park warden for both Meru National Park and Kora National Park, but he used to stay in Kora National Park," Kaloki said.
George was tasked by his boss to go and contain lions in the wider Kora National Park, which was then Tharaka North.
George and Joy were great admirers and lovers of lions and, therefore, the assignment came as a great surprise to George Adamson.
"The lions had caused a lot of human-wildlife conflict in Tharaka North," Kaloki said.
"This is after a woman was mauled and killed by a lion and there was an outcry by residents and he was tasked with killing the lions in the area."
George embarked on his task. He came across a cave, where a male lion charged at him. He managed to eliminate it.
"A lioness also came out and charged at him, and he also eliminated it. Unfortunately, he did not know the lionesses and the lion were guarding cubs," Kaloki said.
When George entered Mgongo cave at the Mgongo hills, he found three cubs, and that is when he realised the lions were guarding their cubs.
He could not leave the cubs. He talked to his spouse, Joy, and they took the cubs into their camp upon themselves.
"Instructions were they could not stay with the three cubs," Kaloki said.
"They renamed the cubs. The big one, they renamed it Big One. The others, Lastika and Elsa. Joy was so attached to the young one because it was the youngest."
Big One and Lastika were taken to a zoo in Rotterdam, Netherlands.
"George and Joy later realised that Elsa was not a captive animal, and there was a process of rewilding it," Kitavi said.
"It first started fighting with warthogs and was later able to form a coalition with a few male lions. It even sired three cubs, but it later died in 1961 through a tick-borne disease called Babesia. It was aged 10 years."
The Elsa grave is located in the Meru National Park.
George and Joy Adamson wrote a book about the experience in 1960, but the movie was aired in 1966.
The 'lion couple', as they are commonly called, also wrote another book, 'Living Free' in 1961, and 'Forever Free' in 1962.
MAU MAU HERITAGE
Apart from the story of the lions, there is also a baobab tree that is renamed after Mau Mau freedom fighter Mwariama from Meru.
Upon independence in 1963, he was decorated with the Order of Burning Spear (EBS).
The tree is where Mwariama hid during the Angli Operation in 1952-54.
"He led a group of 2,000 to 3,000 freedom fighters, and they would traverse Mount Kenya to Nyambene where they hid in the tree," Kaloki said.
"The tree is very wide and can accommodate about 50-100 people at a go."
Mwariama was among the few Mau Mau freedom fighters who managed to escape death and being caught in the entire insurgency.
He later Mwariama died from snake poison.
"He had gone to save his friend in Ukambani. He tried to suck the poison out of the wound and it killed him," Kaloki said.
Apart from the famous baobab tree, the park harbours Piper's grave.
Piper is a cheetah that Joy took at Samburu when she left Meru National Park to go and work in Samburu. She picked it in the wilderness and lived with it, but it later died.
Kaloki said George was buried in Kora National Park after he was killed by poachers in 1989.
His brother Terrence, who was also a great lover of lions, is also buried in Kora National Park.
"George fought livestock invasion into the parks and often quarrelled with herders,” Kaloki said.
"He also fought poachers who tried to invade the parks."
CONSERVATION PAYS OFF
In 1979, it was discovered there was a lot of poaching in both Kora and Meru national parks, mostly due to the Shifta war amid instability in Somalia.
"The Somalis who lost the war and were facing difficulties in their country came to the park to try and replenish their weapons by poaching elephants and rhinos," Kaloki said.
Due to the poaching activities, the Meru National Park, which had 200 black rhinos, had the endangered animals reduced to just one by 1979 that survived the poaching onslaught.
"It is estimated that from 1986-89, the Meru National Park lost about 3,000 elephants to poachers," he said.
The government realised the need to form a state cooperation to conserve the wildlife animals.
This led to the formation of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which was formed from the former Wildlife Conservation Department.
Upon formation, KWS brought modernisation, better staff welfare and efforts to restock the parks, with Meru among those in dire need.
"The communities were also taught the value of conservation," he said.
A sanctuary for rhinos was established in 2002, and six white rhinos were introduced in the 870 sq km park.
The conservation efforts at the Meru National Park have paid off, according to the latest Census in 2020.
The park now boasts of 986 African elephants that traverse it, and they are just part of the 4,000 elephants that traverse the Meru, Samburu, Laikipia eco system, which is about 4,000 sq km.
"There is also an increase in the numbers of black and white rhino from barely one black rhino, which was rescued and taken to Lewa conservancy for fear of having all black rhinos becoming extinct," Kaloki said.
"Later, we reintroduced black rhinos and the white rhinos from Nairobi National Park and Lake Nakuru National Park, and now there is a high number of white and black rhinos."
Kaloki said the park also hosts about 700 reticulated giraffes, which is a very unique breed, and about 70 lions that have been identified and catalogued.
"The lions are identified from the age of one year and above. So far, we have about 90 lions, but we have been able to identify and catalogue 70," he said.
You can enjoy uninterrupted game drive through the park, camping, game circuit, nature walk, bird watching, lion tracking and sport fishingKitavi Kaloki
The senior warden said they have northern hemisphere species that are not usually found in the southern hemisphere.
They are called the Special Five and include the reticulated giraffe.
Most of them are found in Mandera and Wajir, but they are also found in Meru.
The park also has the Somali ostrich and the Grevy's zebra.
The Meru National Park has about 420 different bird species, so for bird watchers, it's a place to visit.
Kaloki said they have affordable rates for domestic tourists, where they charge Kenyan and East African Citizens Sh300 and Sh250 for children below 18.
"It is not expensive as people may think. For vehicles, a saloon car and a Prado only costs Sh300, while a matatu van costs only Sh1,000," he said.
"You can enjoy uninterrupted game drive through the park, camping, game circuit, nature walk, bird watching, lion tracking and sport fishing."
There are also a lot of job opportunities in the park. Kaloki urged the youth to venture into tour guiding and curio shops and register with associations to benefit more from the park.
He said KWS has self-catering accommodation, where they have two guest houses, namely Kina, which can accommodate 10 people per night, and Murera guest house, which can accommodate six people.
"We also have Kinna cottages and Murera cottages with a capacity of eight people," he said.
"There are also other private accommodation facilities 500m outside the park, such as Elewana Elsa's Kopje and Rhino River Camp, and Equator Safaris, which is just 2km outside the park."
He said despite the severe drought, they did not lose animals in the park because they have six perennial rivers flowing to the park.