Betsy Gidwitx Reports

Travel to Kenya

Summer 2007


Betsy Gidwitz


Included in this account are photos and commentary about a venture of almost two weeks in Kenya, a country slightly smaller than Texas on the east coast of Africa.  My focus was on African wildlife, which is staggering in its diversity.  I visited four wildlife areas: Amboseli National Park, the Laikipia (Mount Kenya) region, Samburu Game Reserve, and Masai Mara Game Reserve.  Amboseli and Masai Mara are near the border with Tanzania; the other two regions are in central Kenya.


My visit to Amboseli was independent, whereas my journey to the other three areas was as a member of a small World Wildlife Fund group (six participants) whose aim was to observe the famed wildebeest migration.  Transportation between some areas was by Safari Link, although we also traveled by Land Rover between Nairobi and the Laikipia area and then to Samburu.


Safari Link uses Cessna Caravan aircraft that land on dirt strips.  The aircraft accommodates about 12 people.



A former British colony, Kenya is dominated by seven tribal groups.  Its total population is about 30 million; non-Africans, who include longtime residents of British ancestry and a strong Indian merchant class, comprise about one percent of the population.  English and Swahili are official languages.  About 40 percent of the population is Protestant, 30 percent Catholic, and 20 percent Moslem.  Kenya gained independence in 1963, led by Jomo Kenyatta.


Nairobi , the capital and largest city, has a population of about 2.1 million people.  It is very crowded and is afflicted by a pervasive acrid odor of diesel fuel that stings one’s eyes, nose, and throat.


Some compare the topography of Kenya to that of Colorado.  Although I was close to both Mount Kilimanjaro (which is in Tanzania ) and Mount Kenya , clouds prevented good views of each.  The climate is moderate, reflecting Kenya ’s position on the equator.    In Kenya, as elsewhere in Africa,    sunsets are dramatic.





Elephants travel in cohesive herds of nine to twelve females, led by the oldest cow, and their juvenile offspring.  Males leave the group at about age 12, alternatively associating with other males or wandering alone.  Large bulls over the age of 35 dominate breeding.  The gestation period is 22 to 24 months; elephants are in their prime in their 30’s and 40’s, and may live to be 70. 


Elephants need space, a commodity that is increasingly scarce as human populations expand.  About 250,000 elephants live in Africa today, almost all in reserves to protect them from poachers in search of ivory.


A typical herd is seen below.  (Some adults were grazing out of view of the camera.)  Elephant calves nurse until the age of five, when the next baby usually arrives; mother’s milk is supplemented by vegetation.    Elephants begin to grow tusks at about age two.  Young males often spar with each other.








In common with elephants, rhinos are herbivores.  Solitary by nature, their eyesight is poor, but their sense of scent is acute.  Their bodies are barrel-shaped, their legs are thick, and their feet have three toes.  They have two horns of keratin (similar to a human fingernail), which are valued in the Far East for medicinal and aphrodisiac purposes; in the Near East, the phallic shape of a rhino horn supposedly makes a man in possession of a dagger with a rhino horn handle invincible.  Thus, rhinos remain a hunted animal and are an endangered species worldwide. 


Two species remain in Africa.  The white rhino (pictured) is characterized by a wide, square mouth.  The animal is not white in color; 'white' is a corruption of the Dutch word for 'wide.'   Black rhinos, which also are grey in color, are smaller and less common; black rhinos also are known as hook-lipped rhinos because their top lip protrudes over the lower lip.

















The Common Hippopotamus has a barrel-shaped body and short legs.  It spends much of its day lying in water, sometimes submerged for as long as six minutes.  When on land during the day, hippos often lie on sand or mud banks.  They may move as much as six miles (10 km) inland at night in search of grasslands.  They usually live in herds of 10 to 15 animals, often in very close contact with each other.








The tallest mammals in the world, male giraffes may be as tall as 18' (5.5m) at the top of their horns.    They range widely, browsing mainly on deciduous species.




 The Reticulated giraffe (left), common in Kenya and Ethiopia, is most striking, with its rich chestnut patches well defined by white lines.  The Masai giraffe (center), at home in Kenya and Tanzania, has irregular brown patches against a buff background.  The Rothschild or Ugandan giraffe (right) has blotchy patches uneven in coloration.


Females and young live in maternal herds.  Males separate in their third year to form bachelor herds and often "test" each other by swinging their necks against the torso or neck of an opponent.  Several of the adolescent male Masai giraffes at right engaged in shoving matches from time to time.  Giraffes may live 20 to 25 years.










The Plains zebra is built like a solid, sturdy pony with bold black stripes extending onto the belly.  The Grevy's zebra is modestly taller and less brawny; its stripes are more numerous and narrower, and its belly is white.  Both species live in stable harems, each shepherded by a mature stallion.  Adolescent and young adult males form their own herds.  Additional species and sub-species are found in southern Africa.







Africa is home to 73 different species of antelope, many of which are present in Kenya.  Up to a dozen different species may live in close proximity to each other on the savannahs; most have strong limbs that facilitate leaping and running to evade predators.  The size and shape of their horns are key features in identifying the different species. 

Among the smallest are dik-dik, barely two feet tall.  Their coloration blends in with local vegetation, but they rely mainly on jumping and running to escape lions, cheetahs, or other killers. 










Thomson's gazelles are a bit larger, standing slightly over two feet in height.  They are easily identified by their bold black side stripes, facial and tail markings, and strong horns.










Grant's gazelles are larger yet, standing 30 to 36 inches (75-90 cm) in height.  They are sand or fawn colored with a flank stripe that diminishes with age.  Their underbellies are white.  This Grant's gazelle is shown with a warthog, which kneels while grazing.





The gerenuk is peculiar to Kenya and the neighboring countries of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda.  Gerenuk (Litocranius walleri) -  Shaba National Reserve - November 1996It is 32 to 42” (80-105 cm) in height when standing onfour legs; when on its hind legs, it can reach foliage more than 6’ (2 m) high.  Its neck and legs are very long.  No other antelopes are able to stand on two legs.




Waterbucks are large, shaggy antelopes that are reddish brown to grey in color.  White markings include their eyebrows, insides of ears, muzzles, throatbib, and buttocks.  The horns are long, curved, and heavily ridged.  They are over 4 feet (1.19m) in height.


The Oryx is a large antelope with long straight or slightly curved horns.  They are powerfully built with compact bodies.  Males are about 4 feet (1.19m) in height.  The oryx is noted for its pronounced markings: a black flank stripe, black and white facial pattern, and a black garter on its forelegs.







The Topi or Tsessebe also is about 4 feet tall.  It is tan to chestnut in color, with conspicuous purple blotches on its face and upper limbs.  The topi often stakes out an observation post on top of a termite hill or other protuberance and stands there, gazing into the distance, doubtless looking for predators.  It has great speed and endurance as a runner.











The Wildebeest or Gnu migrates twice annually, a topic that is discussed in some detail later in this essay.  According to the National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife, the wildebeest is unusual looking.   It is 3" to 4" (1.15 to 1.45m) in height, blue-grey or brown in color with cow-like horns, a short neck, and high shoulders.  Wildebeest have black vertical stripes of hair, black manes, and white or black beards.











The African or Cape Buffalo is a massive animal with a short neck, barrel shape, and short sturdy legs.  It is 4’8” to 5’4” (1.4 to 1.6m) in height and can weigh up to 1,540 lbs (700 kg).  They live about 20 years in the wild.  Buffalo form herds of up to several thousand ani-mals, although these usually are aggregations of distinct female-led clans plus a few mature bulls.  Bulls past their prime gather in bache-lor groups or become solitary.







Ten species of the cat family inhabit Africa, all of which are well-designed as predators equipped to stalk, capture, and kill prey of any size, including animals larger than themselves.  They have camouflage coloration, muscular limbs with large padded feet, and large eyes.  They also are characterized by powerful jaws with sharp teeth, quick reflexes, rapid acceleration, and great leaping ability.  However, they are short-winded and rely on concealing themselves and then ambushing their quarry.  Two lions below exhibit the art of blending into their surroundings.




However, if sleeping off a recent meal of zebra or just letting the world know who is king of the savannah, lions may be more visible.





Leopards are large cats with short powerful limbs, a heavy torso, and thick neck.  Their spots are grouped into rosettes on their torsos and upper limbs.  They frequently drag  prey up into trees to keep lions and hyenas from stealing their food.  The full belly of this leopard suggests that a meal has been consumed recently.









The Cheetah is longer and has longer legs and a thinner torso than the leopard.  Its head is smaller and its facial marks include “tear stains.”  Its spots are solid black round or oval dots.  Cheetahs are the fastest cats; they will chase down prey at speeds up to 70 mph (112 kph), but they tire easily.  These cheetahs were cubs, waiting while their mother stalked a future meal.  From time to time, they would rise and follow their mother, then stop and wait for her to capture lunch or dinner.






Jackals are scavengers, attempting to seize the left-over prey of larger animals.  In addition to following the big cats, jackals hunt small animals (such as small antelopes) on their own.  Jackals also eat insects and berries.   A black-backed jackal is in the photo at left; it resembles a small fox.  A spotted jackal in the second photo has the more characteristic jackal posture formed by hind legs that are shorter than its forelegs; the spotted jackal is holding carrion in its mouth.






Africa is host to 86 different species of primates, which include apes, chimpanzees, baboons, and monkeys.  Many species are very social, often living in troops of up to 200 individuals.  In general, they forage on the ground during the day and roost in trees or on cliffs at night.  Monkeys may take up residence in tourist camps, jumping from trees to tents to buildings; they will snatch unattended food and other objects.


At left are a Savannah baboon and her baby.  Infants are carried in various positions by their mothers.  Baboons of all ages spend considerable time grooming each other.









Six species of hyraxes live in Africa.  Most are smaller than a common housecat, weighing 4 to 12 lbs (1.8 to 5.4 kg).  Notwithstanding the substantial difference in size, many scientists believe that the hyrax is closely related to the elephant, a theory that is supported by DNA evidence.  The two species share numerous features, such as toenails, excellent hearing and high brain function, good memory, and the shape of some bones.  In general, hyraxes are very sociable, as are many elephants.  The Rock hyrax at left was a frequent visitor to the outside deck of the writer’s tent in Kichwa Tembo (Masai area of Kenya).










Some 2,000 of the 9,000 known bird species in the world have been recorded in Africa.  Many are colorful and exotic.  The Ostrich is a well-known flightless bird with a very long bare neck and long legs.  The male, at left in the photo below, is much more colorful; his neck and legs turn bright orange-pink when breeding.  In contrast to the black coat of the male, the coat of the female is light brown; her neck and legs remain a non-descript grey-soft pink.  Males normally are 6 to 7 feet (1.8 to 2.1 m) in height, but may be as tall as 9’ (2.75 m).









Some other commonly seen birds in Kenya are the Marabou stork and the Secretary bird.  The Marabou stork is a large bird with a long wingspread.  It successfully challenges vultures for carrion.  The Secretary bird was named for its long feathers in an era when secretaries used quill pens.  This bird is similar to a crane and stands out for its extremely long tail feathers.  Among its favorite foods are snakes.






The Grey Crowned Crane conducts a complex courtship dance, bowing and jumping and even tossing objects into the air.  It feeds on insects.  The bird on the left in the photo at right is a Vulturine Guineafowl; it does not need to drink water, but obtains liquid from seeds, leaves, berries, fruit, insects, and spiders.  Its two smaller cousins are Helmeted Guineafowl; they drink water and eat seeds and insects.




The Yellow-billed Hornbill is omnivorous, feeding on insects, rodents, bird eggs, fruit, and ants.  It uses its powerful bill as a lever to turn over rocks and logs, searching for prey.  The Ground Hornbill is a turkey-like bird that is able to fly, but rarely does so; it walks the savannah, usually with others, preying on small mammals, birds, turtles, frogs, and insects.






The Wildebeest Migration


One of the great wildlife spectacles in the world is the twice annual wildebeest migration in which more than 1.5 million wildebeest migrate from the Serengeti plains Maasai Mara Wilderbeest Migration Safari From Serengetiin Tanzania and Kenya to the Masai Mara in Kenya in July and August and then back to the Serengeti in October.  In search of rain-ripened grass, the more-or-less circular move covers about 1,800 miles and occurs over a broad territory in crossings over the Talek and Mara rivers.  In the photo at left, wildebeest mass before crossing the Mara River.


The wildebeest appeared to wander aimlessly for several days, then made their way to the river bank where they again seemed to move slowly and hesitantly.  With great suddenness, a large male charged down the bank and into the river, triggering a mass movement as some wildebeest scrambled down well-worn paths and others, more daring or desperate, jumped from one level to another en route to the silt-laden Mara.  Some animals fell and recovered; others fell and were trampled.  Nile crocodiles awaited those unable to continue.


At times, the wildebeest appeared to be swimming in a curve-like formation.  However, the “formation” probably was just a random phenomenon; the survival instinct generated a more arbitrary mass movement across the river.



Upon reaching the other side, the wildebeest scrambled up the river bank and sprinted inland.  Several hundred meters on to the plain, they stopped, seemingly breathless and exhausted.  Upon recovery, they resumed grazing. They would repeat the migration, going in the other direction (south) in October.


We observed the migration from a Land Rover, as did other tourists in about 30 vehicles jockeying for position along the river bank.  At times, it was a bit chaotic as drivers moved around, attempting to find the best position for their particular clients.











Wardens from the Kenyan national park system attempted to keep order, directing vehicles away from areas where, they said,they were absolutely certain that wildebeest would cross the river.  In most instances, the wildebeest crossed elsewhere, 20 to 50 meters away from the wardens’ predicted path.



The noise of the migration is deafening, with the sound of wildebeest hoofbeats accom-panied by cacophonous grunting and snorting.  Some observers refer to wildebeest as “Harleys” because their distinctive vocalizing sounds very similar to a revving motorcycle.


Although zebras often migrate with wildebeest, we did not see any zebras or any other animals moving with this group of wildebeest.  However, we did see hundreds of zebras in large herds near the river, just at the point of crossing it.



Up, Up, and Away


Balloon rides are available over several wildlife areas in Africa.   Typically, they begin in the pre-dawn hours, permitting passengers to view a sunrise and early morning mists from a height of 80 to 400 meters above the African plain.  In my experience, three nearly identical balloons flew at the same time, each holding 12 to 16 passengers (3 to 4 people in each of four compartments) in a wicker basket or gondola.  In the photo at left, ground crews forced hot hair into the balloon before the pilot and passengers climbed into the basket.






The direction of the flight depends on the wind, but the altitude of the balloon can be controlled by the pilot who changes the temperature of the air that is blowing into the balloon from burners mounted inside the gondola.

(It may be difficult to discern with exactness, but the two black “blotches” at the tops of branches in the photo at top right are vultures.)






Our flight lasted about 45 minutes, the three launched balloons flying in close proximity to each other.  We flew over magnificent savannah landscapes, moving higher and then lower as the pilot glimpsed wildlife of interest.  Although balloons fly over the area almost every morning, some of the animals seemed spooked as they looked up at us.



The balloon ride was spectacular.  The landing was less comfortable.  We landed in an upright position, but wind caught the collapsing balloon and pushed it along, dragging the gondola behind.  The gondola soon tipped over on its side; we had been warned that this would happen and held on to handgrips inside the basket as instructed until the balloon came to a stop.  We then crawled out of the gondola, which remained on its side as the balloon deflated on the ground.


Some photos from the balloon ride were transferred from a CD provided by Governors’ Balloon Safaris, the operators of the balloon rides.  Information in the narrative is from National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995), passim.

August 28, 2007


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