The Wildlife of Kenya


Wildlife in Kenya is not confined to the parks and reserves although it is generally more abundant in such areas. Thus, although safaris tend to be routed through the reserves, a visitor will of often see plenty of wildlife outside.

On an arranged safari a visitor should have little difficulty in recording between 30 and 40 species of mammals and at least 150 bird species. From the reptile family he is certain to see crocodile and quite a few lizards large and small but he will have to search hard to find a snake although there are 169 recorded venomous snakes in East Africa!

Much of the land in game reserves is savannah; rich pasture shaded with trees and it is here that the antelope herds are mainly found. A remarkable harmony where several species can graze the same land, each eating different grasses and herbs and no one species so numerous as to interfere with the domain of others. Antelopes come large and small; the largest - the eland - weighs in at around 600 kg, a hundred times the weight of the dainty dikdik. Wildebeest, among the most numerous of antelopes, share their grazing with zebra and are naturally gregarious but the smaller antelopes such as the suni, oribi and duiker are rarely found in any numbers; indeed they are almost always solitary or in pairs. These are the antelopes which inhabit patches of thick cover found in the savannah and some of them, like the duiker, have evolved with shorter forelimbs thereby making the dive for cover easier. 'Duiker' means diver in Afrikaans.

Where there are antelopes there are also carnivores - lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, and hyena, the latter as much a hunter in his own right as the more familiar tag of a scavenger. Lion and leopard are rarely found making a kill in daylight. Not so the cheetah, who needs to be able to see to use his principal weapon, speed. Visitors will see a range of the smaller carnivores - serval cat, genet and jackal are examples. Jackals are also predators particularly the beautiful golden-backed (or oriental) species which, again contrary to popular concept, rarely scavenges. Even the most common jackal, the black-backed, finds only one third of its food from scavenging. But of the predators the average visitors first seeks out the lion. He is unlikely to be disappointed for they are quite common in most of the parks and reserves but nowhere more numerous nor more splendid than in the Masai Mara. Lions spend a good deal of the day sleeping or dozing becoming alert in the early evening especially when the need to feed exists. Lions are remarkably catholic in their tastes. On the whole they kill antelope and zebra, but warthog, baboon, ostrich and jackals are all killed and eaten. A lion eats around 20-25 kg at a meal, sometimes more.

Elephant range across a wide spectrum of habitats from the hot coastlands to the cold moorlands of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya at 3600m. Very few other animals have this range. Elephants are found in most of the parks, herds of 100 or more can be found in Meru, Amboseli and sometimes in Samburu. Despite their great size elephants are remarkably pacific when left to their own devices. The need to maintain its vast bulk (some 150-200 kg of forage a day) keeps an elephant on the move and constantly active - even at night the incessant search for food continues. It is this restlessness which makes elephant watching so rewarding.

The wanton destruction of the rhino, throughout the whole of Africa, has severely reduced the rhino population, to the point where it has become necessary to relocate most of the remaining few into safe sanctuaries. Nairobi National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park and Tsavo all now hold many rhino although in the Mara and in the forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya it is still possible to find rhino which have not been translocated. Few visitors leave Kenya without sight of these shambling, unpredictable monsters. The best time to see them is in the early morning for in the heat of the day they return to thick bush as their heat absorption capacity is poor.

Giraffe, too, roam the savannah with little competition for the tender leaves of the acacia trees which are their principal food. The reticulated species, found north of the equator, must be one of Kenya's most striking animals. The lakes, swamps, rivers and riverine forest support their own specialised wildlife.

Hippo, of course, irritable and cantankerous, share their habitat with the little loved crocodile. The largest concentration of crocodile, anywhere, is to be found in Lake Turkana - and at Sibiloi Park the numbers are especially great with as many as 50-60 crocodiles per kilometre of beach. Crocodile feed mostly on fish of which our rivers and lakes hold a considerable variety; the nile perch found in Lakes Victoria and Turkana is a notable species reaching enormous proportions - 50 kg specimens are quite common.

The cape (or African) buffalo, judged by most hunters to be the most dangerous of big game, inhabits grassland where there is preferably thick cover and swamp in which to lie up, but like the elephant it is also adapted to life in dense and cold forest. Yet ferocity is clearly not the mark of buffalo in groups. Their herds, which can be numbered in many hundreds, are quite timid. This is not the place to describe the wealth of wildlife in any detail. Suffice to glimpse this great pageant in anticipation of a visit. The chart opposite gives an indication of which parks and reserves contain which species but on the other hand can give no indication of the abundance or otherwise. A glance will show that the major parks (Tsavo, Amboseli, Masai Mara, Samburu and Meru) all feature not less than 50 species but there are other areas, such as Maralal and the Tana River Primate Reserve where there are as many species but less abundance.

Special thanks to the Kenya Association of Tour Operators for helping GORP develop Kenya parks information.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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