Special five herbivores of Samburu

Friday September 16 2016

Reticulated giraffe at the Samburu National Reserve. PHOTO | KAMWETI MUTU

Samburu is a rugged, dry paradise of grasslands, riverine forest, doum palms and acacia trees. Everything blooms bright green when the rain falls, then fades to a yellow-brown in the heat of the dry season.

All kinds of wildlife exist in this wilderness northeast of Mt Kenya, but the most interesting are the special five herbivores found north of the equator: Grevy’s zebra, gerenuk, reticulated giraffe, Beisa Oryx and the Somali ostrich.

Samburu is a six-hour drive from Nairobi along the highway that leads to the cool Mt Kenya highlands before descending into the warmer Laikipia Plateau. Archer’s Post marks the turn-off to Samburu National Reserve. There are also daily flights.

From the first day in Samburu, we were literally tripping over the abundant reticulated giraffe. The giraffe has reddish-brown, polygon patches traced with fine white lines. The more common Maasai giraffe have ragged blotches of dark brown.

We came across a male Somali ostrich in breeding season colours of blue neck and legs. The Maasai ostrich, found in southern Kenya and Tanzania, turns a vivid pink when breeding. In both species, the males have a striking black and white plumage, but the females remain dull grey-brown. This is a survival tactic that helps to camouflage the female when she is sitting on the eggs during the day; the male takes up the night shift.

Occasionally we saw mixed herds of Grevy’s zebra and the common Burchell’s zebra, and the differences were clear. The larger Grevy’s zebra have fine stripes, a white underbelly, and brown muzzles. The smaller common zebra has broad stripes running all the way down to its stomach, and a black nose.


The male Grevy’s zebra is highly territorial, a trait which has contributed to the species’ endangered status.

The Beisa, or fringe-eared oryx, is one of the most elegant antelopes. The black markings around its face, flanks and upper legs resemble the body patterns of a traditional dancer. Both males and females have long, slender horns that are dangerous weapons when put to use.

My favourite of the special five is the gerenuk, a slender antelope with a small head, bulging eyes, prominent ears and an incredibly long neck. The name comes from the Somali word garanuug, meaning giraffe-like neck. The antelopes rise on their hind legs and stretch out their necks to nibble from trees. Perfectly adapted to the drylands, the gerenuks can survive without drinking water, taking in moisture from the plants they eat.

Samburu is an elephant paradise too, with numerous herds roaming throughout the park and drinking daily at the Ewaso Nyiro, the river of brown water.

On an afternoon game drive, we encountered three large lionesses walking on the road. They completely ignored our vehicle and gazed into the distance, most likely searching for the rest of their pride.

I wondered if they were related to Kamunyak, the famous lioness with misplaced maternal instincts that adopted several oryx calves in 2002. She made headline news and intrigued scientists and wildlife officials alike.

The birdlife of Samburu is prolific — weaverbirds, hornbills, doves, kingfishers, and lilac-breasted rollers. The morning birdsong is a delightful way to wake up, but the large, grey go-away bird that screeched when I was taking an afternoon nap made me wish it would just go away.

There are several lodges and luxury tented camp options to choose from in Samburu. Our safari lodge offered the usual entertainment of traditional dancers and wildlife movies in the evening. I particularly enjoyed a visit to a Samburu homestead nearby.

Late one afternoon we saw a leopard and her two cubs high up on a rock formation in an area where our vehicles couldn’t reach. We saw her again the next day. I spotted her sitting just off the road under a short thorn tree, staring at a group of impala she was clearly eyeing for a meal.

Within seconds, the driver had radioed his colleagues. In 20 minutes, the leopard was surrounded by safari vans, hindering her hunting and putting the impala herd on alert. I regretted having pointed out the leopard, and as we drove off, I hoped she would have better luck that evening when all the interfering humans had gone.