Kenya is famous as the original safari country. Within Kenya there are over 40 national parks and wildlife reserves which have been set aside for the conservation of wildlife and natural habitat.
The Maasai Mara National Reserve
The Maasai Mara National Reserve is one of the greatest wildlife destinations on Earth and its profusion of plains game and stealthy predators has made it synonymous with the safari holiday. For decades the Kenyan game reserve has been a favorite location for film-makers producing nature documentaries as well as feature films. This is a diverse landscape harboring varied habitats within its majestic plains, rocky outcrops, ancient woodland and life-giving rivers. It adjoins the northern sweep of neighboring Tanzania’s Serengeti plains thus forming one huge ecosystem.
The Great Migration
The Mara lands are famous for the annual Wildebeest Migration (one of the Natural Wonders of the World) which occurs from June to October when the Mara becomes host to an almost unimaginable half a million wildebeest seeking the grasses raised by the Spring rains of April and May. Having exhausted the grazing in the northern Serengeti the wildebeest head north en masse. This is an awesome sight in the true meaning of the word which, when coupled with the sound of thousands upon thousands of hooves pounding the earth, makes it an unforgettable spectacle.
Kenya’s game reserves also host a Wildebeest Migration from Kenya’s Loita Plains to the Mara which moves into Ol Kinyei Conservancy earlier, usually by January, and the calving takes place there during February and March when the plains of the conservancy are teeming with wildebeest before they move through Naboisho Conservancy and into
Olare Motorogi Conservancy
The Wildebeest are not the only tenants of the land. The Mara is also the home to among others, zebra, elephants, and to the big cats; cheetahs, lions and leopards. Hyena, jackal, buffalo, eland, topi, impala, gazelle, warthog add to this huge diversity of wildlife.
Wildlife Conservancies of the Masai Mara
The Masai Mara region is comprised not only of the Masai Mara National Reserve (the original, state-run park) but of a vast area to the north of the Reserve, and for many years now, some of this has been set aside for wildlife and conservation of the habitat adjacent to the Mara Resreve. These are private areas of pristine wilderness with strict controls on the number of visitors and vehicles permitted. In each Conservancy there are normally just a handful of small safari camps with their guests gaining exclusive access to thousands of hectares of prime game-viewing land.
Nature doesn’t recognise borders and as a result the Mara conservancies have provided an additional area of sanctuary for many animals wishing to disperse beyond the National Reserve where there may be higher volumes of tourists and safari vehicle traffic especially in the peak season months.
Guests staying on the conservancies also benefit from additional activities not allowed in the main Reserve such as guided safari walks, off road driving with experienced driver-guides, meals in the bush and night game drives to observe the area’s nocturnal species.
Amboseli National Park
Amboseli National Park is situated at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro and is one of Kenya’s most popular national parks. The Selenkay Conservancy can be found 10 miles north of Amboseli National Park and is an unspoilt wilderness with a limited number of visitors allowed. The location of Amboseli National Park makes it a huge attraction for inclusion in a Kenya safari holiday. The whole park is overlooked by the world famous views of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Kilimanjaro is undoubtedly best seen at dusk or dawn when low hanging clouds thin out to reveal the iced summit of this continent’s highest mountain. This backdrop has contributed to this park being amongst the most visited in Kenya, which has brought its own drawbacks. Years of tourism and off-road excursions have impacted on the park making it appear rather dusty, overused and eroded. A program to improve access with new roads and a much tougher stance taken against off-roading are gradually remedying the situation.
Lake Amboseli, after which this Kenyan National Park is named, is usually an empty expanse of volcanic soil. Even during the wettest years its depth rarely exceeds two feet and this creates a mirage of a shimmering lake making the horizon appear fluid. The parched dry lake bed is offset by the contrasting lush green vegetation in the marsh and swamp areas which are created by underground springs rising to the surface through the porous soil. High doses of toxic salts from a raised water table are partially responsible for the decline in the number of acacias that used to tower around the marsh area, a decline that had previously been totally blamed on Elephants stripping the bark for food.
The park’s open landscape is home to large herds of elephants whose population is one of the few in Africa that has been spared the butchery of poachers. Elephant numbers are now well over 1000 and they live in their natural social structures of matriarchal families and bull elephant groups. Predators in the park include hyenas, jackals; lions, leopards and cheetahs. Birdlife in abundance flourishes particularly in the marshes and swamps. Over 420 species have been counted within the park as a whole including 6 species of vulture, 12 species of heron and 10 varieties of eagle.
Selenkay Conservancy: 10 miles north of the boundary of Amboseli Park is the Selenkay Conservancy. Selenkay shares the same eco-system as Amboseli and is established on 14,000 acres of land within the nearly 200,000 acres Eselenkei Group Ranch leased from the local Maasai by Gamewatchers Safaris with the aim of protecting the wildlife habitat and encouraging wildlife conservation as an alternative to farming as a means for the local population to earn a living.
Roads into the very heart of Selenkay’s Maasailand have been created and a single camp built: the Porini Amboseli Camp which is part of the Porini group of camps set up by Gamewatchers Safaris within some of the conservancies in Kenya which they were involved in setting up. The camp’s remote location off the beaten tourist track means that the local wildlife sees less vehicle traffic and therefore behaves in its natural manner. Visitors to the camp (only 18 at any given time) benefit from the knowledge and experience of the Maasai employed as game rangers, trackers and camp staff and from an environment still in its wild and unspoilt state.
Migrating species from Amboseli previously killed or driven off land set aside for farming are now encouraged to make the conservancy their home. Recent years have witnessed a significant increase in wildlife numbers with elephants returning to make the land their own after a 20 year absence.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy
Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 364sq km wildlife conservancy situated between the foothills of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares and its game-to-area ratio tops the Kenyan park and reserve league. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya has over 10000 large mammals and it is the only park where the big 5 and chimpanzees can be seen. It is also where the fastest growing population of rhino in Africa can be found. There are southern white rhino, about 80 endangered black rhino and in a special sanctuary there are two of the world’s last remaining northern white rhino.
Safari by vehicle is not the only option at Ol Pejeta. Safari game walks, horse rides and even camel rides are available, as are safari night drives. Since being established in 1988 Ol Pejeta has had a colourful list of previous owners including Lord Delamere, an early and influential settler from Britain, shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis’ father Roussel and the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. It was set up originally as a cattle ranch but herds of migrating elephant regularly destroyed the fenced enclosures making intensive cattle farming impracticable. Cattle still plays a role in Ol Pejeta today but as a managed livestock within the conservancy and is used to maximise the bio-diversity of the land making Ol Pejeta an integrated wildlife and livestock area.
The conservancy is keen to educate as well and has an Environmental and Conservation Centre that welcomes around 100 Kenyan schools through its doors annually. The Centre focusses on teaching ecology, culture and the importance of sustainable wildlife management to safeguard the future of the conservancy. Visitors can also learn about local culture and traditions by meeting the peoples of the Samburu, Turkana, Pokot and Maasai.
The Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Chimpanzee Sanctuary Formed in 1993 as a joint alliance between The Jane Goodall Institute and Kenyan Wildlife Services this sanctuary was established as a refuge for orphaned and confiscated chimpanzees and is the only place in Kenya where non-indigenous chimpanzees can be seen. The Sanctuary provides a permanent refuge in as natural environment as possible – the 40 or so chimpanzees are protected on an island and access to see them is by boat.
Lion Tracking Take this unique opportunity to head out on Ol Pejeta Conservancy to track the lion population. It is a great way to support the conservation project and to learn more about these fascinating animals. All of the information gathered is passed on to the Ol Pejeta Ecological Monitoring Department. Guests remain in the vehicle at all times. Tracking excursions depart daily between 06:30h – 09:30h and 15:30h – 18:30h.
Kenya’s Lake Nakuru National Park was set up in 1960 to protect the bird-life in the plains and hills surrounding the lake and the huge numbers of flamingos that were to be seen along the lake shore in those days. Its accessibility and close proximity to Nairobi (only 140 km by road) makes it one of the most frequented National Parks – popular with Kenyans and foreign tourists alike. The park’s relatively small size (188 sq km) allows you drive around the entire park in half a day and although you will need to remain in a vehicle there are designated picnic and camping sites at which stops can be made.
Although once-famous for its huge populations of flamingos, Lake Nakuru is not their breeding ground and numbers have greatly diminished in recent years due to rising water levels changing the alkalinity of the lake which has significantly reduced the algae on which the lesser flamingos feed.
For several years now lesser flamingos have been virtually absent from the shores of Lake Nakuru and are unlikely to return until the lake levels fall and algae is present once again. The flamingos still migrate to the other Rift Valley lakes especially to nearby Lake Bogoria where they can be seen in huge numbers.
However, Lake Nakuru is still worth a visit as it has many other notable park residents – including lion and leopard, plus black rhino and white rhino. Nakuru has become one of the most successful sanctuaries in East Africa for rhino and now houses healthy populations of both. Similarly, the endangered Rothchild’s giraffe from the Soy Plains of Eldoret was introduced in 1974 and it too has bred successfully. There are also quite a few pythons which can be spotted sometimes disconcertingly dangling from trees or crossing roads. The bird life is spectacular with hundreds of bird species and a large variety of water birds including big numbers of pelicans which have been attracted by the increased water levels.
The park is so close to Nakuru town that it is fenced to stop animals wandering into the town and also to prevent unauthorized persons or poachers from entering the park. The closeness of the park to the town means the local people have got to know their wildlife neighbors and school children are often bused in for game drives in the park to see the wildlife thus strengthening the links between the town and the park.
The remote location of the three adjoining game reserves of Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba make them some of the least visited in game reserves Kenya. Being uncrowded also makes them among the most pleasant of the parks to visit. The three parks are often treated as one – not least by the wildlife itself. Situated in the hot and arid north, formerly known as the Northern Frontier District, with daytime temperatures reaching up to 40oC between January and October the land is baked a reddish brown for most of the year.
The Samburu National reserve has as its backdrop the great table mountain Ololokwe. Vegetation is limited to a narrow stretch of doum palms tamarind and some woodland bordering the Ewaso Ng’iro River. Away from this is hot dusty scrubland and acacia woodland. Termite mounds and weaver bird nests are common Samburu sights. Some mammals are well adapted to this desolate landscape and are rarely seen in less harsh climes. The rare Grevy’s zebra, Beisa Oryx and reticulated giraffe are among these. Crocodile and hippo dwell in the river. The long necked gerenuk or ‘giraffe necked antelope’ as it’s also known, can often be seen on its hind legs seeking food from desiccated bushes. Leopards are rarely seen, birdlife however proliferates with large flocks of guinea fowl drinking from the riverbanks in the afternoon. One downpour can turn the normally brown baked land green overnight. A daily highlight of the area’s dry season is the visits to watering holes called ‘Sarara Singing Wells’ by Samburu warriers. The warriors descend into the holes which can be up to 10m deep.
The 3rd and largest of the 3 linked reserves is Shaba National Reserve (246 sq km). The park is names after the sandstone Mount Shaba which lies partially within the reserve and 5000 years ago oozed lava down the Nyambeni Hills. With 4 springs Shaba is ironically better watered than Buffalo Springs or Samburu. Heavy rainfall can make the tracks only suitable for 4 wheel drive vehicles which adds to its reputation of exclusivity for many travelers seeking a ‘genuine’ Kenyan experience. Heavy poaching has made the local wildlife shy although it is still possible to see elephant, cheetah, water buck and leopard as well as the mammals which are adapted for the harsher conditions of the north as seen in the Samburu Reserve.
Tsavo National Park
Tsavo National Park is vast. Put together, the western and eastern areas of Tsavo make up one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the world – imagine the whole of Wales being a park. Tsavo East became renowned, or perhaps more correctly, infamous in the early 20th century, as the home of man-eating lions which treated the railway workers building the Mombasa to Kampala line as a new food source. Tsavo was also the setting in the First World War of battles between British and German troops vying for supremacy in East Africa. Tsavo is old, in that is one of Kenya’s longest established parks and yet at the same time young, because the Ngulia Hills that dominate the area are of comparatively recent volcanic origin.
Tsavo West, Volcanic activity such as the cones, outcrops and lava flows are still visible. The most striking of the hardened flows is Shaitana, which looks like it cooled down only recently and whose name (meaning ‘devil’ in Swahili) seems particularly apposite as it burst from beneath the ground. The surrounding cave formations should not be missed but you will need a torch.
As each year draws to an end the Ngulia hills become host to an amazing nightly display when birds, literally in their thousands, appear out of the darkening mists. Some 40 species make this journey to escape the cold winters of Northern Europe. Netting and ringing project has tracked some of them back to as far as northern Russia.
The region is also home to an incredibly important water source – the Mzima Springs. The springs produce approximately 50 million gallons of water a day – 30 million of which are piped to Mombasa. The source of the springs is the ice-cap on Kilimanjaro and the rains that fall on the Chyulu Hills which soak through the porous volcanic rock to form subterranean rivers. The springs attracts Hippo, barbels and crocodiles and an underwater viewing platform allows you to see the animals. The best observation time is in the early morning before the hippos get too hot and shelter themselves out of sight in the surrounding papyrus cover.
Lake Jipe in southwest of Tsava West is very important wetland. Birds commonly seen are pied-kingfishers, knob-billed geese, palm nut vultures and the African skimmer. A few rhino are left in Tsavo protected in a enclosed sanctuary at the foot of the Ngulia Hills. Other wildlife includes cheetah, buffalo, oryx, eland, zebra, leopard, buffalo, spotted hyena, kongoni, waterbuck, impala, duiker and klipspringer. The lions of Tsavo may once have been infamous but when the rains have fallen and the grass is long – they are very difficult to spot.
Meru National Park
Meru National Park is one of the least visited and therefore one of the least spoiled of Kenya’s national parks. The equator bisects the park whose 1810 sq km landscape is mainly given over to bushland but with grasslands in the west. Thick forests grow along the park’s many watercourses.
The park has 13 rivers and a myriad of mountain streams that feed into the Tana river. Hundreds of bird species have made the park their home – among them the Pel’s Fishing Owl which can be heard hunting at night by the river and the rare Peter’s Finfoot. Being extremely secretive these duck-like birds are usually spotted hugging the tree-sheltered water’s edge. Keen birdwatchers should also keep their eyes peeled for the relatively rare Palm-Nut Vulture which feeds on a mixture of carrion and, not surprisingly, palm nuts.
Mammals inhabiting the park include leopard, cheetah, elephant, lion, both Grevy’s and plains zebra, hartebeest, hippo, reticulated giraffe and some decent sized herds of buffalo. The big cats can sometimes be difficult to spot due to areas of tall grass cover and dense bushland.
The Meru National Park has a exchequer history and fared terribly during the late 1980’s when poaching became rife and the entire white rhino population which had been introduced into the park was annihilated. The Kenyan government responded decisively and drove out the poachers and restored strong security. Although tourist numbers are still down on the pre-poaching era, wildlife numbers are encouragingly on the increase. The Kenyan Wildlife Service relocated elephants from the Laikipia plateau to Meru in 2001. This success led to the relocation of a number of other species during that decade and you can now see both black and white rhino as well as healthy herds of reedbuck.