Kenya's northern drylands surprise with its teeming wildlife, springs

Tuesday October 19 2021
Reticulated giraffe

Reticulated giraffe endemic to northern Kenya in Buffalso Springs National Park. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT


Until the early 2000s, the road to Buffalo Springs (the lesser-known national reserve) between Shaba and Samburu was a long dusty drive from Nanyuki via Isiolo, into the vast territory defined as Northern Frontier District in northern Kenya. Isiolo was a tiny dusty hamlet, a settlement created for Somali soldiers after World War One, and was the last town before entering the then ‘wild’ desert and dangerous region with no roads.

Now Isiolo is a modern hub with a mega-mall coming up to complement the Isiolo International Airport, served by a tarmacked road, from Nairobi to the Ethiopian border at Moyale.

The road separates Buffalo Springs and Samburu national reserves to the west from Shaba, to the east.

Entering Buffalo Springs through Choka Gate across the tarmac from Shaba, the plan is for a quick swim in the natural pool fed by an underground spring that gives the park its name.

Natural pool

The natural pool formed from an underground spring after aerial bombing by Italians in World War II. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

During World War Two, as the British (in Kenya) and Italians at their Horn colony waged war, the Italians flying above Buffalo Springs looked down and saw a huge black area. Thinking it was the tented camp of the British army, they bombed the area – only to realise they had bombed a herd of buffaloes.


The result was a spring that burst and created a walled-off pool believed to have therapeutic properties. But as we find out, there is a ‘no swimming sign’.

We see a herd of almost 200 Beisa oryx, the antelope with long sharp and pointed horns, with face made up to look like a pharaoh’s.

The Beisa like most animals of the northern drylands has adapted to living in a land with little water and intense heat. It gets its fill of water from morning dew on plants and can raise and lower body temperature to match outside heat to conserve body fluid.

About 10 percent of the Grevy’s zebra, listed as endangered with a global population of 3,000 in the wild, can be found here. Once endemic in Somalia and Ethiopia into northern Kenya, the numbers have been declining since the 1970s.

The Grevy’s has a shinier coat with narrow strips, Mickey Mouse ears and a white belly. It got its name after Ethiopian Emperor Menelik gifted one to the French president Jules Grevy, in 1882.

As the day cools, antelopes come out – Grants and impalas and tiny dik diks scampering everywhere. An elephant herd browses near to crocodiles by a stream that drains into the Ewaso Nyiro, River that gives life to the dryland.

Very conspicuous are the finely-patterned Reticulated giraffes, nibbling on the acacia trees. The Reticulated giraffe is as threatened as the Grevy’s zebra and other species although at first glance there doesn't appear to be any threat in the plentiful herds all around us.

A herdsman drives camels into the reserve for pasture, proof of the pressure on the rangelands as wildlife and domestic animals increasingly share space.

Explore all three national reserves – Buffalo Springs, Samburu and Shaba – on one ticket: A game drive in Samburu early morning, Buffalo Springs mid-morning and Shaba late afternoon. The 300-km drive takes six hours.

To the north lies Chalbi Desert onto Loiyangalani on Lake Turkana and return via the magnificent Ndoto Mountains. There are many routes to explore Kenya’s spectacular northern drylands.