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Fauna of Kenya

Introduction

Kenya is abundantly blessed with a diversity in wildlife that can be compared to only a few other nations. As a matter of fact, this wildlife is the biggest attraction for the visitors who turn out in droves to witness the magnificence of animals in their natural habitat, such as the red elephants of Tsavo, the wildebeests who risk limb and life plunging into the crocodile-infested River Mara to make the Great Migration, or the polychromatic and occasionally psychedelic display of marine life. In addition, Kenya has more than 1,000 bird species contributing to a diverse avifauna. Human pressure, through poaching, destruction of habitat and blocking of migratory corridors constitute a rising threat to Kenya's wildlife and numbers have been dwindling in many parts of the country during recent years. On the other hand, Kenya is a trendsetter when it comes to new forms of nature conservation in community sanctuaries, which combine the traditional, mostly pastoralist lifestyle of the landowners, and wildlife conservation with tourism.

Mammals

Most of Kenya's well known animal species are mammals. Herbivores constitute a particularly large group – in numbers and species; savanna parks are literally teeming with them, herds of antelopes such as the impala, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, topi, kongoni, wildebeest, waterbuck and the shy and elusive dikdik.

It is virtually impossible to overlook the giraffes that tower over these landscapes. All three subspecies can be found in Kenya: the common Maasai giraffe, the darker coated reticulated giraffe, endemic to northern Kenya, and the Rothschild giraffe, the biggest of the three, that can be easily recognized by its white socks. Astonishingly enough, these animals reaching a height of up to 5.80m only have 7 neck vertebrae, like most other mammals.

Kenya is also home to two different zebra species: the common or Burchell's zebra, often seen outside of any park, and the rare Grevy zebra, which calls the dry spells of northern Kenya its terrain. Grevy zebras have thinner strips, larger ears and are generally bigger than Burchell's zebra.

A safari isn’t complete for many without catching sight of any of the famed predators, especially the king of the savanna, the African lion. A far rarer sight is that of the elusive leopard, stealing away in the high branches, or that of the cheetah – the fastest land animal on the planet – making an adrenaline-pumping dash to grab its lunch. You wouldn’t want to be in the way of a pack of wild dogs, whose hunting skills will amaze, just as you would not try to get very close to hyenas, who although often ridiculed in folktales and live on by scavenging every now and then, are capable predators who in sufficient numbers can chase away a lion from its meal. Their bone-crushing jaws are the strongest of all land predators.

The megafauna, i.e. elephants, rhinos and buffalos are also found in many of Kenya's parks and game reserves. Buffalos are often regarded as being one of the two most dangerous African animals, causing lots of accidents and casualties. So be extra careful when walking through dense bush, for this is where buffalos like to hide and rest.

The other dangerous animal is the hippopotamus. Looks are deceptive, and as lumbersome as they seem, these three ton beasts can outrun man; be on the lookout when out on a boat ride or strolling at night, because that is when they come out of the water to graze. They are armed with sharp, 50cm-long canines, a jaw that extends to almost 1800, and an ill temper; you will do well to be cautious.

Forest animals

In the dense forests, parks and gardens, you will often encounter various monkeys. The most common is the vervet monkey, which feeds on fruits, bark, roots, seeds, eggs, insects and will even not be shy to attack a traveler’s breakfast table. Equally widely distributed is the baboon, although it prefers open wood- and grasslands. It is feared by farmers as a pest that devastates crops with reckless abandon. Older males have an impressive physical appearance that is made more so by their frighteningly long canines.

Possibly the most elegant climber and jumper is the black and white colobus monkey which has several subspecies. Some of the rarer monkey species are the De Brazza monkey, found in the forests of Mt. Elgon and the Mathew's range, as well as the red colobus and the mangabey, which can only be found in the Tana River Primate Reserve. The bush baby is a species which is often heard, but rarely seen, because of its nocturnal routine. Apart from rescued chimpanzees which have found a new home in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, there are no primates in Kenya. They possibly once existed in Kakamega and Nandi Hills, surviving as recently as the end of the 19th century, but today only live on in folktales as the 'Nandi Bear'.

Other forest species in Kenya, which are mostly difficult to spot, include the giant forest hog, the bushbuck, the shy bongo antelope, as well as the lesser and greater kudu.

An odd forest species is the tree hyrax, which makes horrible, blood curdling sounds at night. Its cousin, the rock hyrax, can often be seen on exposed cliffs. It resembles a marmot, but in fact is a relative to the elephant.

Reptiles

Reptiles in Kenya range from the big and slow, such as the leopard tortoise that lives in semi-arid surroundings, to the tiny and fast lizards that reside within people’s houses and gardens. The tiny and slow include the chameleon, whose ability to mimic its environment makes it had to spot, even though they are widely distributed. By the way, chameleons are largely considered a bad omen by many Kenyans.

There are both venomous and nonvenomous snakes in Kenya. The venomous species include the puff adder, a very sluggish, thick snake, the agile green and black mambas, and various cobra species, amongst them the spitting cobra. However, encounters are very unlikely and by far most Kenyan snakes are absolutely harmless. Nevertheless, it is important to always wear proper boots and long trousers when in the bush. Be a little careful when lifting stones or collecting firewood.

Other dangerous animals which can be encountered are scorpions. To prevent an unforgettable painful scorpion sting, don't lie on the ground but use a field bed when sleeping in the open, or even better a tent.

Aquatic reptiles to be found in many rivers and lakes include the Nile crocodile, which has its biggest population in Lake Turkana, and the monitor lizard. Before swimming in such waters, check with the local people that there is no danger of a crocodile attack. The huge rock python also loves water and is a good swimmer; this giant constrictor has on occasion attacked people, but is generally not regarded as being aggressive towards man. Another rare aquatic reptile you might encounter when visiting Lake Turkana, is the terrapin, a soft shelled, spotted turtle with a long nose.

Birds

The huge variation in habitat across Kenya means that different areas of the country have very different bird lists. Kenya is home to 1132 different bird species, and since much of Kenya is open grassland or bush, it is easy to come across an average of 500 or even 600 different bird species within a rather short period of time! This makes Kenya one of the most fascinating parts of the world for birders to visit. And in fact, the world record of 24-hour-bird-views has been set in the country!

One of the frequent, yet most beautiful Kenyan birds is the superb starling which can be encountered in many lodges as it is raiding the crumbs from the tables. You can marvel the unique nesting architecture of weaver birds dangling in trees all over the country. In dry bushlands, the horn bills are the most common bird family, while Kenyan forests are the habitat of the turacos, a group of loud and often colorful birds.

Birds of prey show an incredible diversity in Kenya and you can't miss eagles, hawks, vultures and the long legged secretary bird, which feeds mostly on lizards and snakes, even if you are out to see lions and other plains game. So don't forget to bring your binoculars to Kenya. On many lake shores, the African fish eagle with its white head and shrieking calls is virtually omnipresent. It is monogamous and lives in a steady relationship for all its lifetime. Possibly the biggest bird of all is the mighty pelican, boasting a wingspan of up to three meters! Especially at Lake Nakuru you can witness huge gatherings of this incredibly versatile glider, hunting jointly in schools, forming floating rings on the surface and catching fish with the huge skin sack they wear below their bill. But one of the most spectacular natural shows, are the lesser and greater flamingoes, which seam the rims of some of the alkaline Rift Valley lakes in their hundreds of thousands – if not millions, tinting the landscape pink. Dependent on water levels and concentration of their nutriment – they feed on small crustaceans and algae – they can be seen on Lake Nakuru, Lake Bogoria, Lake Elementaita, Lake Magadi and Lake Logipi in the Suguta valley.

Fish

The rivers and lakes of Kenya host a variety of fish. Especially popular for human consumption is the tilapia from the cichlid family. A rather peculiar family member of the cichlids has developed adaptations to even stand the alkaline, hot waters of springs at Lake Magadi.

By far the biggest fresh water fish, also found in the slightly brackish waters of Lake Turkana is the Nile Perch. Reaching impressive dimensions of up to 2 m in length and a weight of over 100 kg, the predator also plays an important role as an export commodity. It is an alien species introduced in Lake Victoria in the 1950s, leading to the extinction of several local fish species there.

A quite odd species is the lungfish. They have an eel-like shape and generally inhabit shallow waters, such as swamps and marshes. They can live out of water for many months, surviving in burrows of hardened mud beneath a dried-up stream bed, patiently waiting for the water to return.

Marine fish

Huge game fish such as tuna, marlin, sailfish, dorado, kingfish and various shark species are found along the Kenyan Coast at certain times of the year. Specific attractions are whale sharks, the biggest, but most benign fish on the globe. The prospect of diving with these peaceful giants attracts divers from all over the world.

In recent years, humpback whales, which are similar in size to the whale sharks have come into Kenyan waters more frequently. Possibly the rarest aquatic animal in Kenyan waters is the dugong which feeds off sea grass. They are estimated to be not more than thirty of them at the Kenyan South Coast, as many have been killed by fishing accidents.

The mesmerizing myriad of corals, fishes and other sea creatures in marine national parks are best explored by snorkeling or scuba diving, and centers for the same are to be found in the practical travel information section of the Coastal Treasures.

Insects

Even insect life in Kenya is exceptionally diverse. In the savannah, you will often see the dung beetle rolling balls of animal droppings. Termites are the building masters of impressive castles in many of the drier areas of the country. During rainy seasons, they spread, causing a harmless invasion into houses, before losing their wings and dying. In Kambaland and Western Kenya, they are regarded a traditional delicacy. The National Museums in Nairobi hold a huge collection of colorful butterfly specimen. Out in the country, you will often find them drinking in their dozens at ponds and puddles.

Mosquitoes pose as a nuisance in many areas hence it is important to consult health advises concerning malaria or purchase anti-malaria drugs sold in chemists before traveling to areas of prevalence. Another insect to be very careful about is the Nairobi fly which in fact is a beetle belonging to the Lytta genus that produces a secretion causing a burning sensation if crushed on the skin. It normally occurs after rains in Nairobi and other regions of Kenya. At times, locusts haunt parts of the country, destroying large tracts of agricultural crop. A more pleasant sight, however are colorful specimen of grasshoppers found in Kenya.

Interesting animal facts in Kenya

• The hair that makes up a giraffes tail is about 10 times thicker than the average strand of human hair
• It is possible to identify the sex of the giraffe from the horns on its head. Both males and females have horns but the females are smaller and covered with hair at the top. Male giraffes may have up to 3 additional horns.
• A leopard’s body is built for hunting. They have sleek, powerful bodies and can run at speeds of up to 57km/h. They are also excellent swimmers and climbers and can leap and jump long distances. They hunt at night then drag their food up trees for safe keeping
• Elephants can swim – they use their trunk to breathe like a snorkel in deep water. Aside from this, their trunks are able to sense the size, shape and temperature of an object. An elephant uses its trunk to lift food and suck up water then pour it into its mouth.
• The name rhinoceros means ‘nose horn’ and is often shortened to rhino
• Lions are very social compared to other cat species, often living in prides that feature females, offspring and a few adult males.