Kenya has attracted explorers for centuries, and even more so after the release of the movie Out of Africa depicting the life of Karen Blixen in Nairobi. Renowned for its savannas, rugged mountains, and vivid Maasai culture, it’s the safari animals that add the sense of adventure to one of the world’s most fascinating travel destinations.
There is no other travel experience like seeing animals in their wild, natural habitat. As you venture out into the reserves, national parks, and/or conservancies in a 4×4 jeep with a knowledgeable (most are licensed) guide, it is startling how close some of the animals will come to your vehicle, seemingly unbothered by nearby humans.
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- CONSERVATION IN KENYA
- THE BIG FIVE
- ANTELOPE SPECIES
- About the Author
CONSERVATION IN KENYA
Poaching, land expansion, and climate changes have put Kenya’s safari animals in peril. Elephant, rhinoceros, lions, giraffes, cheetah, and Grévy’s zebra populations are down substantially from what they once were.
But strides are being made with help from the Kenya Wildlife Service. Safari camps like the Elewana Collection partner with conservancies like the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Loisaba Wildlife Conservancy to work hand-in-hand with local tribal communities. Their goal is to protect the future of wildlife and open land by education on how this directly benefits the communities.
THE BIG FIVE
The “Big Five” moniker came about during the heyday of safari trophy hunting to classify the top African wildlife that was hardest to hunt and bag on foot. Nowadays, the term is more associated as a marketing term for safari tours.
It only makes sense to start with the King of the Beasts. Lions are the largest and most social of the big cats. Prides consist of between two and twenty lionesses, accompanied by up to three males (although just one dominant).
Lionesses do most of the hunting while the male lions defend the pride’s territory. Lions prefer to hunt and eat wildebeests, zebras, buffalos, and antelopes, although they are a lazy predator and prefer to steal dead prey killed by other animals rather than take down their own kill.
Lions hunt prey predominantly at night and only when they are hungry, seeking shade and resting during the day. It’s quite common to get relatively close to lions during daylight game drives if the safari vehicle is stationary and the people inside stay still and quiet.
Weighing up to seven tons, the African elephant is the largest living animal and undoubtedly one of the most fascinating of Africa’s safari animals.
The most identifying part of the elephant anatomy is their trunk, consisting of 100,000 different muscles. The trunk is actually a long nose used for smelling, breathing, trumpeting, drinking, and for grabbing.
Due to the fact that their ivory tusks are nearly worth their weight in gold, poaching has been a widespread problem in Kenya. With their numbers dwindling because of the demand for ivory (mainly coming from China), elephant poaching is now illegal, but that hasn’t stopped the poaching. A century ago there were around 3,000,000 elephants in Africa; now there are only 450,000. Without the help of conservationists and charities, the decreasing number of elephants could be completely wiped out within a matter of decades.
That would be a shame. Elephants play an important role in Africa’s ecosystem. They dig waterholes that other animals use; they trample brush and create pathways and open grasslands for feeding; they trample on their own dung and spread fertilizer throughout the savanna.
Elephants are very social animals, and perhaps the originators of “Girl Power.” Females and their young live in breeding herds with a matriarch, who is often the oldest female. Even though the males are often cast aside, they are never very far away since elephants generally have lifelong mating partners – whom they remember because the old adage is true, an elephant never forgets!
Known to be both intelligent and wise, elephants share more than 90 of the human genome. Elephants, like dolphins and whales, show signs of intelligence and empathy, with a highly developed and complex neocortex. They mourn their dead, returning to the locations where friends or family members died and have been observed lifting and dropping their bones to the ground in a mourning ritual.
They have six rows of teeth that grow one set after another. When they lose their last set of molars, they instinctively know they are going to die soon and start to wean themselves away from the herd.
Elephants have their own language, using their trunks to exert a variety of noises. Sounds, screams, trumpeting, rumbles, and chirps. Research shows that as many as 70 different calls have already been identified with a variety of meanings.
It can be quite intimidating to encounter an elephant in the wild. They are gigantic creatures that can outrun any human (reaching speeds of 40 mph). However, it is rare that they will charge unprovoked, with the exception of certain bull males who can be aggressive. These aggressive males are usually easily identified by the safari guides who will keep safari tourists away from them. Incidentally, our guide stated that elephants are the second most dangerous animal in Kenya, behind the buffalo, especially while in musth, a period of sexual activity during which their testosterone levels increase dramatically.
One of the most ancient animals in Africa, rhinos are also the most endangered, with extinction in the wild almost inevitable unless additional drastic actions are taken to protect them against poaching.
Rhinos have two horns, one long one just over the upper lip and a shorter one above it. Aside from that unifying characteristic, there are differences in the two species of rhinos in Kenya.
As far as behavior goes, black rhinos are mostly solitary, with both males and females preferring to live alone. This contributes in part to the lower number of black rhinos. Here’s why: when the females are in heat (7-14 days), it’s hard for the males to take notice, making it harder to mate and populate. Unlike humans, most animals mate to populate rather than leisure. Black rhinos are also known to have quick tempers. White rhinos are more social, staying in groups of 8-15, and easier for males to know when the females are in heat.
Physically the difference between the two types is (1) the shape of the mouth, and (2) bumps on the back. White rhinos have three bumps on their back, while black rhinos have a smooth back.
White rhinos have a wide mouth which is always close to the ground as they are constantly grazing (it sounds and looks a bit like a lawnmower!). The black rhino has a hook-shaped mouth that is higher off the ground for eating leaves off bushes.
According to our guide, the classification of the two types of rhinos has nothing to do with their color. The white rhino was not so-named because it’s white; it was named for its wide mouth for grazing, but the Afrikaans language was not able to pronounce “wide” – they pronounced it “white,” and it stuck.
Like the elephant tusks, the rhino horns are prized and have led to horrible, illegal poaching and drastic decrease in numbers.
Bigger than the also-spotted cheetah, the leopard is nocturnal and the most elusive of the large cats, residing in mountainous forests, grasslands, and savannahs. They are excellent hunters, stalking and pouncing on their prey rather than running after it. They frequently drag their dead prey up into a tree to eat.
The largest (1,000 lbs.) of Africa’s buffalos, the Cape buffalo is considered the most dangerous of the big five to hunters. When wounded, they will ambush and attack pursuers. They are grazers, most active in the evening and early morning, and never very far away from a water source.
Cape buffalos have an odd friendship with Oxpecker birds which can often be seen perched on their backs.
The massive horns and exceptional size of the buffalo afford considerable protection. A buffalo herd, when in danger of attack by lions, will form a defensive semi-circle, protected by bulls on the outer flank, with the cows and calves grouped in the center of the formation.
The Cape Buffalo is the only animal within the Big Five that is not considered endangered or threatened.
Hippos are the third-largest terrestrial mammal, weighing up to 4,400 pounds. They spend nearly the entire day underwater just below the surface to keep themselves cool because they have a thick skin but no sweat glands. They can stay under for up to seven minutes. Their eyes, ears, and nose are all on top of their heads, making it easy just to raise a portion of their head before submerging again.
They come out of the water at night, to graze close to their water source. Due to their foul temperament, aggression, and size, hippos are not usually preyed upon by other animals.
Surprisingly, despite its massive size and short, stubby legs, a hippo is capable of running up to 19 miles per hour. They have powerful jaws that can open up to a scary 150 degrees revealing gigantic incisors and molars with have great crushing power.
Arguably the most beloved of all African safari animals, the reticulated (long-necked) giraffes in the national reserves and conservancies are extremely social and curious creatures. Inhabiting wooded grasslands, their favored food is the leaves from the top of the acacia trees, which they can reach because of their long necks. They are capable of stripping the thorns off the leaves with their 18-inch long black tongues and thick saliva.
Seeing a tower (herd) of giraffes run is one of the most beautiful if not peculiar sights, on the savanna. At an average height of around 16-18 ft., the giraffe is the tallest land animal in the world. Weighing in at up to 2,000 lbs. with spindly legs, their center of gravity is high, lending it a graceful appearance. They walk by moving both legs on one side of the body at the same time and can reach a sprint speed of up to 37 mph.
Giraffes have skin-covered knobs, called ossicones, on the top of their heads, used to protect the head when males fight, which involves swinging their necks at each other called “necking.”
Sadly, giraffes are considered vulnerable to extinction. The number of giraffes, in general, has plummeted 40% since 1985, with the reticulated giraffe population declining by nearly 80%.
Zebras are one of the most iconic and fascinating animals in Africa. Derived from the Swahili word meaning “striped donkey,” Kenya has two species – the common zebra and Grévy’s zebra (named for the president of France, Jules Grevy).
Our guide told us that there is old folklore that Grévy’s zebra is white with black stripes while the common zebra is black with white stripes, but embryological evidence indicates that for both, the background color is black and the white stripes and white bellies are additions. The common zebra’s stripes go almost all the way around the belly while Grévy’s zebras have a white belly. Although there is no scientific agreement as to the evolution of the stripes, it is believed that they serve as camouflage from predators. Also, the juxtaposition of the black and white stripes is thought to cause air movement around the zebra, which could help to cool the zebra down.
Grévy’s zebra is highly endangered due to loss of habitat, restricted access to water, and poaching. There may be fewer than 2,500 Grévy’s zebras in the wild.
A herd of zebras is called a dazzle – quite an appropriate moniker!
In my opinion, the impala is the most beautiful of the antelope family. They are medium-sized (sort of a cross between a goat and a deer) and have absolutely gorgeous curvy, ridged horns that extend outwards from their heads. They have black stripes on their forehead, ears, and tail, all of which is said to aid them in recognizing each other.
Impala can jump up to 10 feet in the air and use this and a variety of other agility tactics to confuse predators.
Young males are usually kicked out of the herd by the alpha male. The bachelors tend to band together (our guide called them losers!) for protection, but they often fight with each other.
One of the most plentiful animals on the savanna, waterbuck have eyes on each side of their face, enabling them to see predators on either side. Their other defense mechanism is their strong odor which is repulsive to predators that will only prey on waterbuck if no other animals are available.
Waterbuck, as the name implies, stay near a water source and feed on plants and grasses.
11 Dik Dik
Dik Dik is the smallest species of antelope, growing to only about 14 lbs. Their large eyes give them an adorable look, but in actuality, they enable them to have enhanced sight to escape their many predators. Like other antelopes, it feeds on grass, leaves, and fruit. You’ll most often see them in groups of two because they mate for life.
Famous as the primary animals in the annual “The Great Migration” between the Maasai Maya in East Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, Wildebeests are constantly on the move in search of water and fresh grass. They cover long distances at a slow rocking gallop.
Wildebeest was originally known as the gnu, and while they look more like a buffalo, they are actually part of the antelope family. Their name derives from the Afrikaans language because of their wild and intimidating appearance. Interestingly, their appearance does not protect them from being hunted by lions and other predators.
The Black-Backed jackal is named for the streak of black fur that runs down its back. They are scavengers, active both day and night. They are opportunistic omnivores, eating many different kinds of animals and birds, but when meat is not available, they will resort to plants, berries, fruit, and insects. Jackals are one of the few animals that mate for life.
Opportunistic hunters and scavengers, the spotted Hyena will take advantage of leftover carcasses of just about anything once living and will hunt weak or sick animals in preference to healthy ones.
Hyenas can reach speeds of 37 mph and have the dubious distinction of attacking running prey with their powerful jaws, removing its internal organs while it’s still alive.
Lean and muscular, and considered the fastest animal in the world (as fast as 60-75 mph), They prey mainly on smaller animals, such as the impala.
Cheetahs are shyer and less aggressive than leopards or lions, making them harder to spot in the wild, and they also frequently have their prey stolen.
Some studies consider the cheetah to the most endangered of the three large cats, mostly due to their inability to adapt to the rapidly changing environment. In 1900, there were over 100,000 cheetahs across their historic range. Today, an estimated 9,000 to 12,000 cheetahs remain in the wild in Africa.
The Nile Crocodile is the largest fresh-water predator in Kenya. An adult male can grow to 16.4 ft. in length and weigh up to 1,650 lb. An apex predator, these terrifying reptiles are capable of taking down just about anything within their range. Nile crocodiles have razor-sharp teeth and an extremely powerful bite that is almost impossible to loosen.
The world’s biggest – albeit odd-looking and flightless— bird is found on the savanna, living in nomadic groups of 5 to 50 birds. The ostrich diet consists of roots, seeds, and leaves, but they will also eat locusts, lizards, snakes. When threatened, the ostrich will either hide by lying flat on the ground or run away. If cornered, it will attack with a kick of its powerful legs.
Ostriches in Kenya are listed as vulnerable. Although their exact population is unknown, it is believed that they are on a rapid decline.
Made famous by the endearing “Pumbaa” in the Disney movie The Lion King, warthogs feed on grasses, roots, berries, and bark. They live in family groups called soundings. Unlike the Disney character, they are very shy and can run up to 34 mpg to avoid predators and perceived threats – such as our jeep, which made it impossible to get close up photos.
Smaller than gorillas but bigger than monkeys, baboons have a lifespan of 25 – 30 years in the wild, inhabiting the open grassland near wooded areas. They have long, dog-like muzzles, powerful jaws, and sharp canine teeth. They are omnivorous, feeding on insects, fish, shellfish, hares, birds, small monkeys, and small antelopes.
Their principal predators are Nile crocodiles, large cats, and hyenas.
Looking like rodents, the hyrax is common in rocky environments, such as Elsa’s Kopje in Meru National Park. They live in large groups spreading throughout an area including in the trees. They eat leaves and fruit, digested by three stomachs.
Kenya’s vervet monkey is a herbivore with a black face and gray body hair color, They range in size from about 20 inches for males and 16 inches for females. They live in social groups of 10 to 70 individuals.
Monkeys serve an important role as a model for understanding the genetic and social behaviors of humans, exhibiting characteristics, such as hypertension and anxiety. Studies have been done on communication and alarm calls, specifically in regard to recognition and predator sightings.
They can also be quite mischievous. Tourists have reported that “shiny objects” have been stolen from their tents, so be sure to lock away any jewelry or items you don’t want to lose.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of the Elewana Collection during her stay in Kenya, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning blog Luggage and Lipstick. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.