By Lee Foster
“Elephants!” whispered my driver-naturalist. “I often find them here.”
Several massive, grey objects began moving slowly toward us out of the dark mist. As the first light of dawn fell on the Kenya grasslands of the Masai Mara Reserve, our four-wheel-drive land cruiser paused in an open meadow for the encounter. In the next ten minutes a parade of 18 elephants materialized, passing us as they headed into the dense brush by the Mara River. Several of the females had accompanying babies.
Late that day, in the hour of sunset, came another special moment with wildlife: out of the brush stepped a lioness and her three cubs as our land cruiser carefully picked its way amidst the thorn acacia.
“Lions!” said the naturalist. “We’ll wait. I think there will be more.”
As we paused to watch the cubs frolic like kittens, out ambled another lioness with two cubs, then a third with four cubs, and then two young females. In front of us were 14 lions, a dense cluster in the reserve with one of the most impressive lion populations in Kenya.
A hundred yards beyond the lions stood a scattered herd of wildebeest, an ungulate that is prime lion food. Within the wildebeest herd were zebra and various antelopes, such as impala.
This wildlife tapestry presented itself as the orange sunset fell on another evening of animal abundance in Kenya. For such primeval nature experiences many foreign travelers make a trip to Kenya each year.
Fortunately, the future prospects of safaris with such optimal animal viewing of elephants and lions now look good.
“We’ve stabilized the numbers of our major wildlife species,” said the naturalist, as we headed back to our tent camp, the Mara Safari Club on the Mara River. “Since the passing of international sanctions against the trade in ivory, poaching of elephants has come to a standstill. The price of ivory has dropped so dramatically that the poachers are now the endangered species in Kenya. At the height of poaching, we lost 200 elephants a week. Now we lose only about 50 elephants per year to poachers. The same trend now holds for the black rhino. Last year our elephant population rose and our rhino population rose. The big changes came a decade after we banned all hunting of game in Kenya. That was in 1976. The turnaround is a conservation success story.”
I went to Kenya wondering if I would return to communicate a gloom and doom report on the major Kenyan wildlife. I concluded, after this field experience, that a historic reversal had occurred.
Careful management in the future will be necessary to insure the preservation of these resources. Kenyans have also become savvy enough to realize that ecotourism interest in wildlife viewing is the most valuable economic use of their land resources. Sharing the revenues from tourism with the local residents, such as the Masai tribe around the Masai Mara Reserve, can insure the cooperation of Kenya’s diverse people in the preservation effort. Tourism brings in more dollars for Kenya than any other source, including the famed Kenyan coffee.
What Kenya Offers
Kenya offers the most impressive herds of large land mammals on earth, considering both the numbers and variety of animals indigenous to the area. The animals can be seen on a landscape with an overpowering vastness. From a slight rise on the Mara plains, for example, I gazed over the classic African landscape, a 360-degree sweep of thorn acacia trees sparsely located on a grassland of red soil, stretching all the way to the horizon, with a cornucopia of wildlife observable in all directions. The word Kenya means “abode of the gods” in the Kikuyu language. From a landscape and wildlife point of view the description is apt.
The U.S. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming or Denali National Park in Alaska are our closest approximations to the Kenya experience.
On a good day of wildlife viewing at the Masai Mara Reserve, you may see three of the Big Five–lion, elephant, and cape buffalo. Rhino and leopard are the other two most-prized species. Rhino can be seen easily at other reserves, such as The Ark in Aberdare National Park or at Sweetwater Rhino Reserve. You may see a leopard at Samburu Reserve.
The variety and abundance of animals beyond the Big Five is equally impressive, ranging from large wildebeest herds in the Mara to dense herds of impala at Samburu. Samburu also hosts an astonishing range of bird life, plus a light-skinned Grevy zebra and a long-neck antelope, called a gerenuk, that walks like a giraffe. A safari presents a continuing discovery because you never know what will transpire on your next “game” or wildlife drive, two-hour sessions in a safari bus or four-wheel-drive land cruiser that take place early each morning and late each afternoon. Around the next curve you may stumble on a herd of giraffe, feeding on the tops of acacia trees, or a swarm of baboons, making an overland trek between a feeding area and a waterhole.
Kenya’s Major Wildlife Parks
Kenya boasts some 16 major wildlife reserves and parks, but two are of especially compelling interest: the Masai Mara Reserve and Samburu Reserve.
The Masai Mara Reserve is fascinating, both for the abundance of its animals and for the intriguing people, the Masai, who inhabit the area. The Mara has the edge over all other reserves and parks both in the number and variety of its animals, plus the vastness of its classic African landscape. (Samburu Reserve excels in its rusticity, which is a pleasing bush effect, and each reserve or park boasts special animals that are found only there.) The basis of the fecundity on the Mara is a soil suitable for an immense numbers of grasses, which grow quickly in the mild well-watered highlands. Some 237 species of grasses have been identified here. The overall wildlife abundance in Kenya is said to stand now at only 20 percent of its primeval numbers, but the Mara still displays the historic, large concentrations of animals.
On the Mara you will likely see lions, often in fairly large groups. The lions rest in the grass as the parade of hooved herbivores passes. Lions wait for an auspicious meal of wildebeest, a heavy-bodied herbivore and their easiest kill. Cheetah can usually be seen lurking elegantly in the grasslands as they patiently move to get close to their prey, such as Thompson gazelle, a small antelope. Along the Mara River numerous hippopotamus lounge in the water by day and climb out onto the grasslands at night to feed. Cape buffalo, in herds of hundreds of animals, roam over the area. The most phenomenal experience here is the July-August migration of more than a million wildebeests. These grazers pass in numbers that rival historic concentrations of the American Buffalo on the Great Plains of the U.S.
Ironically, the Mara is also a massive grazing pasture for the domestic cattle herds of the Masai, a nomadic people who traditionally moved with their cattle, but now remain relatively stationery. About 200 square miles of the Mara is an inner reserve with no grazing, while a 500-square-mile perimeter area has both cattle grazing and wild animals. Masai grazing has created a lawn-like appearance to the Mara grasslands, which both prey and predators find ideal. Prey, such as impala, an antelope, like the ability to see their predators, so that flight can take place. Predators, the lion, cheetah, and hyena, also like the visibility that the open terrain offers. In the inner reserve within the Mara, where there is no Masai cattle grazing, the grasses are higher and the lions are thinner.
The Masai are a special group of people to encounter. Arrangements can be made for a trip to their living compounds, such as Njapit near the Mara Safari Club. Some lodges also present Masai dancing and song, which may be a celebration of strength against the lion, of circumcision coming-of-age rituals, or of praise for the abundance of grass. The Masai believe that the gods originally gave them all the cows and that the wild animals are the cows of the gods, so the Masai do not hunt or kill the wild animals, except the predators, such as the lion, which may attack their herds. The Masai are an ancient people who migrated into this region from the north only recently, about three centuries ago, and live in small, fenced compounds into which they bring their cattle and goats at night. They live in dung-plastered thatch houses and can be seen walking across the Mara, wrapped in a red rectangle of cloth. Most of the words in the Masai language refer to their cows. The word Mara, which refers to the area, is a Masai word for a spotted cattle hide. The Masai likened the landscape to this hide, when looking at it from a promontory above, because the green acacia thorn trees, seen against the dry grass, looked like spots on the landscape.
The Masai subsist on milk and blood from their cattle, drunk from a smoked gourd, which gives flavoring to these ingredients. The Masai cleverly tap the blood of the cattle by shooting an arrow, with a stopper behind the sharp point, into the jugular vein of the cattle. The blood spurts out and is collected in a gourd. Then the Masai make a plaster of mud and dung to close up the hole, which heals. This is a sophisticated art that Westerners can’t duplicate. The Masai’s favorite physical test is a jumping activity performed until exhaustion, partly to build endurance and learn to withstand pain.
Samburu Reserve offers a safari experience in marked contrast with the Masai Mara Reserve. Where the Mara is a well-watered grassland, south of Nairobi, Samburu is more of a desert environment, north of Nairobi. Where the Mara has a pasture appearance, due to the grazing of Masai cattle, Samburu presents a bush environment, with a much more diverse shrub and tree vegetation. In the Mara you are likely to see lion and cheetah, but these creatures are less numerous and more secretive in Samburu, though a leopard can commonly be seen each evening across the river from the Samburu Serena Lodge. Elephant and giraffe are common in both area, but the birdwatcher will be enthralled with the numerous species at Samburu. There you will see the immense Kori bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds, and some of the most colorful birds, such as the lilac-breasted roller. Kenya hosts more bird species than any other country in Africa. Up to 1132 species have been noted to date. Samburu is also home of the loveliest of the giraffes, the reticulated giraffe, a term referring to the way its blotches are so sharply defined.
Beyond these two major reserves, there are other specialized wildlife experiences to consider. At The Ark you can observe animals undisturbed at night. The Mt. Kenya Safari Club has an orphanage for animals, a major conservation effort breeding rare and endangered animals, such as the bongo. At Sweetwaters Rhino Sanctuary you can see rhinos up close.
Night viewing of animals is possible at The Ark in Aberdare National Park. You arrive in the afternoon and spend the night watching animals come to a large mud wallow for the natural soil minerals, which have been supplemented with salt. Floodlights penetrate the night, allowing you to watch as rhino, elephant, hyena, and lion meander into the mineral lick. The herbivores come for the salt; the carnivores come to eat the herbivores. A log is kept, enumerating the animals seen each night. On most nights viewers will see a rhino, usually only thirty feet from the lodge’s viewing decks. Between animal sightings at night you can sleep, instructing with an optional buzzer in your room that you be alerted when a major new animal species has appeared. The pleasure of the Ark is partly that you don’t intrude on the animals by driving amidst them in a safari vehicle. Rather, you observe them as they come, at their discretion, to the mineral lick. The appearance and behavior of the animals over a leisurely period can be savored.
The naturalist who managed The Ark offered an optimistic assessment of the Kenya wildlife situation.
“We came dangerously close to the extinction of the rhino, in particular,” said the naturalist. “But the populations are now increasing. We dropped from an estimated 20,000 rhino in 1970 to merely 500 or so in the recent period, of which some live near The Ark in Aberdare National Park. Now, however, the rhinos are on the increase, as is the elephant.”
The conversion of habitat into farmlands on the edges of Aberdare has decreased the normal migration range of the elephants. Only the parks and reserve present an assured future habitat for the major wildlife. If Kenya’s annual population growth slows down, the pressure on wildlife will be stabilized.
The orphanage for animals at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club is another rewarding encounter with the wildlife of Kenya. Originally an orphanage for the occasional stray baby of any species, the entity has blossomed into an ambitious breeding program for several endangered species.
Dedicated young Kenyan conservationists working there will show you around. One of their important works concerns the bongo, an antelope-family animal that once dropped in numbers to an estimated 40 survivors, all in Aberdare National Park. The small, protected herd now at the orphanage has climbed to a healthier number. The bongo, a favorite prey of the hyena and a trophy prized by man for its white-stripes-on-orange fur, breeds readily in this protected environment and was re-introduced into the wilds as the numbers became greater. At the orphanage you can also see a rare dik dik, one of the smaller African antelopes, and one of the smallest antelopes of all, the suni, which is also endangered. The white rhino, giant tortoise, and a breeding population of cheetahs are other attractions to see at the orphanage.
Nearby, at the Sweetwaters Rhino Sanctuary, located at the Ol Pejeta ranch, you can get close to some of the 30 rhinos in a protected and breeding herd. At close view you will note that a healthy rhino is covered with sores on its underside, due to its constant movement through the dense brush. The rhino’s back is a carpet of flies. Rhinos are difficult to get close to in many of the parks and reserves, but at Sweetwater you are certain to see one, and at The Ark, you are likely to see a rhino during the night viewing of animals.
Sweetwater Tented Camp is the lodging site in the Sweetwater Reserve. A specialty here is the night wildlife drive, taking you out in a land cruiser vehicle with a spotlight to watch the animals. You are likely to see many creatures that are primarily nocturnal. For example, during my night drive we spotted an aardvark, an ant-and-termite-eating mammal, known locally as an ant bear. We also saw hippopotamus browsing on vegetation, which they do only at night, returning to the rivers by day for a long soak. You may even see a leopard in the nocturnal foray. From the camp you also get a superb dawn view of Mt. Kenya.
Each of the Kenya parks and reserves presents a different range of scenery. The Mara has the classic vast expanse of grasslands, with huge skies and acacia thorn trees on the horizon, scenes associated with Isak Dinesen’s book (and movie) Out of Africa. Samburu presents drier shrub plants and a riparian environment along the dependable Uaso Nyiro River. The Aberdare is a high, mountain rain forest with extremely dense undergrowth on steep hills.
The Major Kenyan Wildlife
Delight in making the acquaintance of animals and insights into their niche in nature can be an endlessly absorbing experience in Kenya.
Lions have a regal appearance, especially the male, respected by all the grazers in the landscape. You may watch for an hour, as I did, as four lions waited in ambush for a herd of several hundred cape buffalo to pass a waterhole. The danger of a failed attack on a buffalo, which could bring the entire herd to the rescue, with horns ready, kept the lions at bay. They did not find a young buffalo or an errant buffalo coming close enough to them for an assured kill. The other herbivores, such as zebra or impala, present an easier target, but the cafe buffalo also has the meat. A lion can consume up to 80 pounds of meat and then not eat for a week. I watched as seven lions in Samburu made short work of ingesting an impala.
Elephants are social creatures, constantly in touch with each other physically. They browse across the landscape, felling trees as they go. Elephants are the landscape designers of the terrain, creating the grasslands that hooved animals require. Because of their need for at least 50 gallons of water per day, elephants also dig wells in the dry riverbeds for all animals to drink from during the dry season.
The cape buffalo are powerful and dangerous creatures, given a wide berth by the safari drivers and by all the creatures of the area, except the elephant. Cape buffalo have extremely strong necks and powerful horns. They are also adjudged by naturalists to be the most numerous resident animal in Kenya (the wildebeest takes the prize during cross-border migration periods).
Cheetah are the most cat-like of the big cats, slinking slyly and deceptively along. The cheetah pretends no interest in the surrounding herds of grazing animals, which are all alert and attentive to the cheetah’s presence. To observe a cheetah feasting on its kill, only a few feet from the safety of a safari vehicle, was a highlight of my trip in the Mara. Naturalists feel the safari vehicles have little adverse effect on the animals. Interestingly enough, the predators are also considered not essential to the ecosystem here. The stress of the dry season would kill each year the weakened animals if the predators did not.
Rhinos seem almost prehistoric in their tough armor and impenetrable hide. All animals, except the elephant, make way for the rhino. One night, I was told, those watching the nocturnal parade at The Ark witnessed an elephant-rhino battle that resulted in the death of the rhino.
Hundreds of other animal species and bird species will delight you in Kenya, especially if you have a good naturalist/guide to identify species and explain their interaction to you.
Many animal species are able to live together here in relative harmony because they occupy different niches in the way they consume vegetation. Some are browsers, others are grazers, and a few both graze and browse. They may browse or graze on different plants and at various levels. The giraffe harvests the topmost vegetation while some close-cropping antelopes graze on the tiniest grasses.
One insight into the animals concerns the massive, column-like, red-soil termite mounds. So numerous are the termites, naturalists assert, that the weight of the termites below ground exceeds the weight of the large mammals above ground.
On my trip to the Mara we happened to run across a Denham’s bustard, the rarest bird in Kenya. It is estimated that only 40 Denham’s bustards remain. Why they have declined no one is sure, but it does not appear that man has a role in this extinction.
Another typical insight: why does the zebra have stripes? Naturalists believe that the zebra, which is susceptible to diseases carried by the tsetse fly, has a black and white pattern than the tsetse fly tends to avoid. The tsetse fly’s eyes get confused by the pattern. Perhaps, over eons, the striped zebras survived and their less-striped comrades did not, for this reason.
Zebras often mingle with the giraffe, whose height allows long-distance spotting of predators, especially lions. The giraffe hisses when lions are detected, alerting the zebra, which may then take flight.
Much of the activity on the Mara occurs at night, rather than during the day. The hyena is known as the biggest night killer on the Mara.
Survival in the annual dry period is the critical test for every animal species. Some oryx, hooved animals with magnificent long horns, get all the moisture they need from the vegetation they eat.
The wildebeest, so numerous, give birth to all of their young at the same time, in February, adding about 750,000 animals to the plains. Even with heavy predation from lions, cheetah, and hyena, enough wildebeest will survive for the species to perpetuate itself.
Among plants, too, the more one learns about this environment the more satisfying a safari becomes. For example, thorns are a basic adaptation in this region for plants to protect themselves from being eaten. One form of acacia first puts out leaves and, after some of the leaves have been eaten, puts out thorns.
Planning a Safari
Going on safari is not a do-it-yourself affair. (Safari means, literally, to travel.) Leave all the details to a major safari company that can provide you with transportation to the reserves and parks, a necessary safari bus or four-wheel-drive vehicle, a driver/wildlife spotter within the park (you can’t walk or drive casually amidst the dangerous predators to view wildlife), and lodging/food in these remote areas (I stayed at the Mara Safari Club in the Mara and the Samburu Serena Lodge in Samburu). Don’t attempt to drive a rental car through the parks because you won’t be allowed, and if you broke down, you would be in imminent danger. If a safari vehicle doesn’t return to its lodging, the other guides will go out in vehicles until they locate the hapless breakdown.
The safari company will also know the important etiquette requirements for meeting the local people, such as the Masai, who might attack you if you photograph them without their permission. Small operators often work with major organizers. Individualized trips can be arranged or you can fit into a planned tour. Two days each at the Mara and at Samburu, plus one day at the other mentioned places, would be a plausible plan for a 10-15 day safari. Inquire whether you will have an assured window seat on the wildlife drives so that you’ll get a good view of the animals.
Transportation from the U.S. takes two days, flying over to Europe, then down to Nairobi. Several airlines can be considered. I flew to Brussels, stayed overnight there, then flew down to Kenya.
Kenya’s 40.5 million people are a diverse lot. A traveler is likely to make some contact with the Masai and the Samburu among the 43 tribes in the country.
Kenya may have been the cradle of mankind, according to Richard Leakey, who has studied how the ancient peoples of the high grasslands were stimulated to stand upright to observe their hooved food sources moving across the terrain. These dwellers in the Great Rift highlands were among the first people to make tools and fabricate pottery.
The primary challenge, since independence from Britain in 1963, has been suppressing tribal instincts in favor of the overall prosperity of the country. The dominant tribe after Independence was the Kikuyu, which, ironically, was the main tribe displaced by the British and hence also the first tribe to acquire western-style education and the skills needed to govern a modern nation. Jomo Kenyatta, the father of Independence, was a Kikuyu. When tribal strife rises, safari travel to Kenya becomes risky.
The high annual human population growth is so rapid as to challenge social services. Kenya’s success at controlling its population will have profound long-term implications for wildlife.
Since each of the 43 tribes has its own language, communication is through the international language of East Africa, Swahili. Swahili is a tongue that developed in the 18th century from a combination of African sources, to which were added some Arabic and Portuguese inputs. Among the many tribes, about 60 percent have a common origination in the Bantu racial stock.
Kenyans, even within a tribe such as the Masai, range from Oxford-educated sophisticates to bush dwellers.
The main crafts to look for in Kenya are wood carvings of animals, especially by the Akamba tribe, plus fabric with batik design. The colorful national dress of the women, a rectangle of cloth called a kanga, makes a fitting memento. Stamped brass metalwork, especially bracelets, neck pieces, and ear rings, can be purchased in the Samburu area. Crafts everywhere are made both commercially or with tribal authenticity. The authentic primitiveness of a Masai shield, for example, may appeal to a traveler who buys it direct on the Masai Mara Reserve from a Masai warrior.
Kenya’s Capital: Nairobi
The long night flight down from Europe to Nairobi requires that you rest up for a day or two in the Kenyan capital before starting a safari.
Nairobi boasts some good hotels, such as the Nairobi Serena, a modern hostelry, and the classic Norfolk Hotel, which has flourished from the colonial period to the present. The city enjoys a pleasant and temperate climate. Though located on the torrid equator, Nairobi is elevated at 5,500 feet.
The most interesting single attraction in Nairobi is the National Museum, which has encyclopedic specimens of all the fauna of the country, from elephants down to insects. Also on display is the extensive National Portrait Collection of the various Kenyan tribes, done in watercolor by Joy Adamson, famous also for writing Born Free, her book about lions. Beyond the portraits, be sure to see her drawings of the country’s flora. The museum displays many ethnographic materials from the tribes, showing how farming, herding, and hunting are their way of life.
Adjacent to the National Museum is the tour-de-force Snake Park, which displays a range of Kenya’s reptiles. In an open but walled area you can look at a variety of snakes, tortoises, and lizards. More secure cages house the most poisonous snakes, such as the luminescent green momba. You’ll also see the giant tortoise, Nile crocodile, and African alligator.
The Railway Museum is worth seeing to understand the British influence on the region. Nairobi, which means “cold water,” was originally a modest rail stop in 1899, as the train pushed from the coast at Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Here you can see engine 301, the oldest of the steam locomotives, which was brought out for filming of the classic novel by Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa.
The home of Isak Dinesen, whose real name was Karen Blixen, can be seen in the Nairobi suburb called Karen. The Danish author wrote under an assumed male name because women authors were not taken seriously in her milieu.
Within Nairobi town, look at the Central Market, a good place to buy souvenirs, such as wood carvings, metalwork, and batik fabric.
The downtown Jamia Mosque, the main Muslim holy place, shows the many threads of religious passion in this predominantly Christian country.
Colpro is the main store selling durable safari clothing, which wears well here and back home.
Some of the downtown architecture is quite striking, especially the Kenyatta Conference Center and other government buildings.
The restaurant to try is the Carnivore, which specializes in game species, such as impala or Nile crocodile. Though wild game can’t be hunted now in Kenya, some farm raising of game species is allowed, by government permit. Carnivore serves a half dozen grilled meats, which come to your table on immense skewers. Wash down your meal with the chilled local Tusker beer. Other excellent beverages are the tropical fruit juices, such as passion fruit or mango. Kenyan coffee is appreciated all over the world as a premium grade bean.
Giraffe Centre is another attraction worth a visit in Nairobi. The Centre is the home of a foundation for saving the Rothschild’s giraffe, a subspecies. At the center, built especially to educate the young people of Kenya about their wildlife heritage, you will see, in the children’s posters and written comments, the fervor with which the people of Kenya now support conservation of their remarkable wildlife resource. You can also feed the giraffes at this facility, marveling at the dexterity of their tongues.
A safari to Kenya will immerse you in the most impressive collection of wild animals on earth.
Kenya: If You Go
The main information sources about Kenya are the travel companies that sell Kenya tour packages.
You get to Kenya in two long airplane trips, USA to Europe, then Europe down to Nairobi. I traveled to Brussels, then south to Nairobi.
Travel agents have all the details on complete packages, the economical way to go, assuring you of air transport, lodging in Kenya (don’t leave for Nairobi without assured lodging), and the driver-guide with a safari bus or land cruiser vehicle that will take you through the wildlife viewing areas.
The long distance between Nairobi and the Masai Mara Reserve, about six hours, makes it worth considering taking a short hour-long air flight on a small commuter plane. Driving gives you a view of the country, but the distances are long. Don’t try to drive yourself because of the multiple problems that could arise.
Tourism revenue is a major foreign currency winner for the country. The infrastructure of roads is adequate and the hotels are good to excellent.
The dry season of August-February is regarded as the best time to go, with September the optimum month. The vegetation is then sparse, so you can see the animals easily. Animals congregate around water holes and rivers. In the Mara the wildebeests migrate in legendary numbers each August-September. March-May is the rainy season, which makes vegetation high, animal sighting more difficult, and dirt roads impassable. Animals also tend to disperse into remoter regions where they are more difficult to locate.
Two health precautions are important for Kenya travel: malarial pills taken in advance to prevent against the mosquito-borne disease and a tetanus booster to insure against serious infection.
One guidebook to buy for its encyclopedic lists and illustrations of wildlife is the Collins A Field Guide to the National Parks of Kenya, by J. G. Williams. Color drawings in the book will help you identify the lavish animal and bird species you’ll see. Paging through the volume, after a trip, will bring back fond memories of your encounters with Kenyan wildlife and help you identify photos you make of the wildlife.