Tsavo National Park
Ruggedly beautiful Tsavo National Park (East and West) is among Africa’s largest wildlife reserves—some 8,000 square miles (21,283 km2) where, in Tsavo East, renowned elephant herds sometimes estimated upward of 6,000 are a unique red color different from anyplace else, due to iron-rich lateritic soil in which they take mud or dust baths.
Hippopotami walk on the bottom of clear aqua-blue Mzima Springs, supplied by water which originates on Mt. Kilimanjaro’s snowy peak and flows underground until it gushes out here at a peak rate of 110 million gallons (500 million liters) a day.
Habitat ranges from savannah to riverine forest to mountains up to 7,000 feet (2,150 m) and includes huge baobab “upside-down” trees which themselves are habitat to hornbills and dozens of other winged and four-footed creatures.
All the carnivores are here—lions, cheetahs, leopards, and both spotted and striped hyenas— keeping an eye on the grazers and browsers: zebras, giraffes, gazelles, elands, and, in Tsavo East, the only in-situ population of rare hirola or Hunter’s hartebeest, the most threatened large antelope in Africa.
Aardwolves are here, but despite their menacing name, these miniature hyenas subsist mainly on harvester termites.
Dainty goat-like klipspringers bound over rocky outcrops on tiny rubbery hooves which cling to the steepest incline, getting what water they need from succulent forage. So do gerenuks, standing on hind legs to get leaves unavailable to others. Fringe-eared oryx, which can regulate their body temperature, are also present.
Lesser kudus with elegant spiraled horns find 118 kinds of nutritious browse plants in the Tsavo East Galana area.
Miniature dik-dik antelopes skitter through busy woodland tracts. Savannah monitors, formidable dragonlike lizards, prowl the plains for small animal prey. Many species and large numbers can be accommodated on these vast parks—more than 70 mammal and more than 1,000 plant species, more than 400 kinds of birds—but they are so spread out the population in any one place may not be dense.
Shrubby woodlands hold an extraordinary array of brightly plumaged birds including yellowbilled hornbills, orange-breasted parrots, metallic-feathered sunbirds on flowering trees, superb and golden-breasted starlings—altogether there are 12 species of starling, including uncommonFischer’s—as well as fish eagles, bustards, scops owls, sacred ibis, open-billed storks, and black herons or “umbrella birds” which shade their heads with their wings while hunting.
Migrating palearctic birds sometimes funnel through the gap between the Ngulia and Kichwa mountains in flocks of thousands.
At mid-century there were an estimated 60,000 elephants here, too many for the scrub woodland which their foraging reduced to grasslands. Large-scale poaching in the 1970s and ’80s reduced herds by 90 percent. Now, with international ivory trade suspended and intense antipoaching efforts, numbers have stabilized at around 6,000 and they roam in family herds of up to 100 individuals, from 60-year-old matriarchs to lively newborns. Their distinctive red hue sometimes causes them to be mistaken at a distance for castle-like earthen termite mounds which dot the landscape. The mounds in turn can be mistaken for elephants (except when cheetahs use them as lookout perches).
Tsavo’s lions became world-famous when two males began killing workers employed to build the Uganda railroad in the 1890s. The man-eaters were shot and the trait fortunately was not passed on to others (the man-eaters were stuffed and are now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago).
Like many wildlife reserves, Tsavo was set aside for wildlife because it seemed unsuitable for any other purpose—too dry for farming, infested with tsetse flies, now a glorious natural haven.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Thousands of pink flamingos are attracted to seasonal blue-green algae on alkaline Lake Bogoria National Reserve. Uncommon spiral-horned greater kudu live on steep slopes of the lake’s eastern and southern shores. Impressive hot springs erupt in boiling geysers on the northern end.
Just 20 miles (32 km) north is Lake Baringo, with over 400 species of interesting birds, including Verreaux’s eagles, rare bristle-crowned starlings, endemic Jackson’s hornbills and the largest nesting colony of Goliath herons in East Africa. It was here that Scottish geologist John Gregory devised his theory of continental drift. The eastern Rift Valley is now named for him. There are lodges and campsites nearby.
Lake Naivasha is highest and purest of all the Rift Lakes and many say the most beautiful, with secluded lagoons and channels, fringed by feathery-headed papyrus, ringed by the Aberdare mountain range, renowned for great numbers of birds of more than 400 species. One of the best ways to see these is to take a boat out to the Crescent Island Wildlife Sanctuary where there are also zebras, giraffes, antelopes, and a few camels. There are lodges and a camp, just 50 miles (80km) from Nairobi.
Nairobi National Park, in view of Nairobi’s skyscrapers, has a large and varied wildlife population, with more bird and mammal species than national parks many times its size.
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