Tribes of Kenya

The tribe remains an important aspect of a Kenyan’s identity: upon meeting a fellow Kenyan, the first question on anyone’s mind is, ‘What tribe do you come from?’ Although we have divided Kenya’s tribes into geographical areas, this is a guide only, as you’ll find Kenyans from most tribal groupings well beyond their traditional lands. In the same way, distinctions between many tribal groups are slowly being eroded as people move to major cities for work, and intermarry.

Rift Valley & Central Kenya

Kikuyu (also Gikikuyu)

22% of population

The Kikuyu make up 22% of the population and are Kenya’s largest and most influential tribe. This tribe contributed the country’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, and its current one, his son, Uhuru Kenyatta. Famously warlike, the Kikuyu overran the lands of the Athi and Gumba tribes, becoming hugely populous in the process. Now their heartland surrounds Mt Kenya, although they also represent the largest proportion of people living in Kenya’s major cities. With territory bordering that of the Maasai, the tribes share many cultural similarities due to intermarriage. The administration of the mwaki (clans) was originally taken care of by a council of elders, with a good deal of importance being placed on the role of the witch doctor, the medicine man and the blacksmith. Initiation rites consist of ritual circumcision for boys and genital mutilation for girls (although the latter is slowly becoming less common). Each group of youths of the same age belongs to a riikaan (age-set) and passes through the various stages of life, and their associated rituals, together. Subgroups of the Kikuyu include the Embu, Ndia and Mbeere.

Kalenjin

12% of population

The Kalenjin (12% of the population) comprise the Nandi, Kipsigis, Eleyo, Marakwet, Pokot and Tugen (former president Daniel arap Moi’s people), and occupy the western edge of the central Rift Valley area. They first migrated to the area west of Lake Turkana from southern Sudan around 2000 years ago, but gradually filtered south as the climate became harsher. The Kipsigis have a love of cattle rustling, which continues to cause strife between them and neighbouring tribes. However, the tribe is most famous for producing Kenya’s Olympic runners (75% of all the top runners in Kenya are Kalenjin). As with most tribes, the Kalenjin are organised into age-sets. Administration of the law is carried out at the kok (an informal court led by the clan’s elders).

Meru

6% of population

Originally from the coast, the Meru now occupy the northeastern slopes of Mt Kenya and represent 6% of Kenya's population. Up until 1974 the Meru were led by a chief (the mogwe), but upon his death the last incumbent converted to Christianity. Strangely, many of their tribal stories mirror the traditional tales of the Old Testament. The practice of ancestor worship, however, is still widespread. They have long been governed by an elected council of elders (njuuri), making them the only tribe practising a structured form of democratic governance prior to colonialism. The Meru now live on some of the most fertile farmland in Kenya and grow numerous cash crops. Subgroups of the Meru include the Chuka, Igembe, Igoji, Tharaka, Muthambi, Tigania and Imenti.

Samburu

0.5% of population

Closely related to the Maasai, and speaking the same language, the Samburu occupy an arid area directly north of Mt Kenya and make up around 0.5% of the population. It seems that when the Maasai migrated to the area from Sudan, some headed east and became the Samburu. Like the Maasai, they have retained their traditional way of life as nomadic pastoralists, depending for their survival on their livestock. They live in small villages of five to eight families, divided into age-sets, and they continue to practise traditional rites like male and female circumcision and polygamy. After marriage, women traditionally leave their clan, and their social status is much lower than that of men. Samburu women wear similar colourful bead necklaces to the Maasai. Like the Maasai and Rendille, Samburu warriors paste their hair with red ochre to create a visor to shield their eyes from the sun.

Western Kenya

Luhya

14% of population

Made up of 18 different groups (the largest being the Bukusu), the Bantu-speaking Luhya are the second-largest group in Kenya, representing 14% of the population. They occupy a relatively small, high-density area of the country in the Western Highlands centred on Kakamega. In the past, the Luhya were skilled metal workers, forging knives and tools that were traded with other groups, but today most Luhya are agriculturists, farming groundnuts, sesame and maize. Smallholders also grow cash crops, such as cotton and sugar cane. Many Luhya are superstitious and still have a strong belief in witchcraft. Traditional costumes and rituals are becoming less common with each passing year.

Luo

13% of population

The tribe of former US President Barack Obama’s father, the Luo live on the shores of Lake Victoria and are Kenya’s third-largest tribal group with 13% of the population. Though originally a cattle-herding people like the Maasai, their herds suffered terribly from the rinderpest outbreak in the 1890s so they switched to fishing and subsistence agriculture. During the struggle for independence, many of the country’s leading politicians and trade unionists were Luo. Socially, the Luo are unusual among Kenya’s tribes in that they don’t practise circumcision for either sex. The family unit is part of a larger grouping of dhoot (families), several of which in turn make up an ogandi (group of geographically related people), each led by a ruoth (chief). The Luo have two major recreational passions, soccer and music, and there are many distinctive Luo instruments made from gourds and gut or wire strings.

Gusii (also Kisii)

6% of population

The Gusii (6% of the population) occupy the Western Highlands, east of Lake Victoria, forming a small Bantu-speaking island in a mainly Nilotic-speaking area. Primarily cattle-herders and crop-cultivators, they farm Kenya’s cash crops – tea, coffee and pyrethrum – as well as market vegetables. They are also well known for their basketry and distinctive, rounded soapstone carvings. Like many other tribal groups, Gusii society is clan based, with everyone organised into age-sets. Medicine men (abanyamorigo), in particular, hold a highly respected and privileged position, performing the role of doctor and social worker. One of their more peculiar practices is trepanning: the removal of sections of the skull or spine to aid maladies such as backache or concussion.

Southern Kenya

Akamba (also Kamba)

11% of population

The region east of Nairobi towards Tsavo National Park is the traditional homeland of the Bantu-speaking Akamba who make up 11% of the population. Great traders in ivory, beer, honey, iron weapons and ornaments, they traditionally plied their trade between Lake Victoria and the coast, and north to Lake Turkana. In particular, they traded with the Maasai and Kikuyu for food stocks. Highly regarded by the British for their fighting ability, they were drafted in large numbers into the British army. After WWI the British tried to limit their cattle stocks and settled more Europeans in their tribal territories. In response, the Akamba marched en masse to Nairobi to squat peacefully at Kariokor Market in protest, forcing the administration to relent. Nowadays, they are more famous for their elegant makonde-style (ebony) carving. Akamba society is clan based with all adolescents going through initiation rites at about the age of 12.

Maasai

2% of population

Despite representing only a small proportion of the total population (2%), the Maasai are, for many, the definitive symbol of Kenya. With a reputation as fierce warriors, the tribe has largely managed to stay outside the mainstream of development in Kenya and still maintains large cattle herds along the Tanzanian border. The British gazetted the Masai Mara National Reserve in the early 1960s, displacing the Maasai, and they slowly continued to annexe more and more Maasai land. Resettlement programs have met with limited success as the Maasai traditionally scorn agriculture and land ownership. The Maasai still have a distinctive style and traditional age-grade social structure, and circumcision is still widely practised for both men and women. Women typically wear large plate-like bead necklaces, while the men typically wear a red-checked shuka (blanket) and carry a distinctive ball-ended club. Blood and meat are the mainstays of the Maasai diet, supplemented by a drink called mursik, made from milk fermented with charcoal, which has been shown to lower cholesterol.

Taita

0.1% of population

The Taita people, making up 0.1% of the population, came originally from what is now Tanzania, and first settled in the region around Voi and Taveta in Kenya’s far southeast around 10 centuries ago. The Taita language belongs to the Bantu group of languages and is similar to Swahili, although such is their interaction with other tribes that their language has imported many words from neighbouring tribes, including the Kikuyu. Taita social life was traditionally dispersed and strongly territorial, with each clan inhabiting a discrete area of the Taita Hills, south of what is now Tsavo West National Park. It was only after colonialism that a collective sense of Taita identity developed in earnest, a process accelerated by the intrusion of the railway through Taita lands; Mwangeka, a Taita hero, was lauded for his resistance to colonial rule. Taita religion was largely animist in nature, with sacred meeting places and elaborate burial rituals the defining features, although few Taita now live according to traditional ways.

Northern Kenya

Borana

less than 0.1% of population

The Borana are one of the cattle-herding Oromo peoples, indigenous to Ethiopia, who migrated south into northern Kenya and make up less than 0.1% of the population. They are now concentrated around Marsabit and Isiolo. The Borana observe strict role segregation between men and women – men being responsible for care of the herds while women are in charge of children and day-to-day life. Borana groups may pack up camp and move up to four times a year, depending on weather conditions and available grazing land. As a nomadic group their reliance on oral history is strong, with many traditions passed on through song.

Turkana

1.5% of population

Originally from Karamojong in northeastern Uganda, the Turkana live in the virtual desert country of Kenya’s northwest and make up 1.5% of Kenya's population. Like the Samburu and the Maasai (with whom they are linguistically linked), the Turkana are primarily cattle herders, although fishing on the waters of Lake Turkana and small-scale farming is on the increase. Traditional costume and practices are still commonplace, although the Turkana are one of the few tribes to have voluntarily given up the practice of circumcision. Men typically cover part of their hair with mud, which is then painted blue and decorated with ostrich and other feathers, and, despite the intense heat, their main garment is a woollen blanket. A woman’s attire is dictated by her marital and maternal status; the marriage ritual itself is quite unusual and involves kidnapping the bride. Tattooing is also common. Men were traditionally tattooed on the shoulders for killing an enemy – the right shoulder for killing a man, the left for a woman. Witch doctors and prophets are held in high regard, and scars on someone’s lower stomach are usually a sign of a witch doctor’s attempt to cast out an undesirable spirit using incisions.

El-Molo

less than 0.1% of population

This tiny tribal group (less than 0.1% of the population) has strong links with the Rendille, their close neighbours. The El-Molo rely on Lake Turkana for their existence, living on a diet mainly of fish and occasionally crocodiles, turtles and other wildlife. Hippos are hunted from doum-palm rafts, and great social status is given to a warrior who kills a hippo. Intermarriage with other tribes and abandonment of the nomadic lifestyle have helped to raise their numbers to about 4000, now living on the mainland near Loyangalani.

Gabbra

less than 0.1% of population

This small pastoral tribe (less than 0.1% of the population) lives in the far north of Kenya, from the eastern shore of Lake Turkana up into Ethiopia. Many Gabbra converted to Islam during the time of slavery. Traditional beliefs include the appointment of an abba-olla (father of the village), who oversees the moral and physical well-being of the tribe. Fathers and sons form strong relationships, and marriage provides a lasting bond between clans. Polygamy is still practised by the Gabbra, although it is becoming less common. Gabbra men usually wear turbans and white cotton robes, while women wear kangas, thin pieces of brightly coloured cotton. The Gabbra are famous for their bravery, hunting lions, rhino and elephants.

Rendille

less than 0.1% of population

The Rendille are pastoralists who live in small nomadic communities in the rocky Kaisut Desert in Kenya’s northeast and make up less than 0.1% of the population. They have strong economic and kinship links with the Samburu and rely heavily on camels for many of their daily needs, including food, milk, clothing, trade and transport. Camels are bled by opening a vein in the neck with a blunt arrow or knife. The blood is then drunk on its own or mixed with milk. Rendille society is strongly bound by family ties centred on monogamous couples. Mothers have high status and the eldest son inherits the family wealth. It is dishonourable for a Rendille to refuse to grant a loan, so even the poorest Rendille often has claims to at least a few camels and goats. Rendille warriors often sport a distinctive visor-like hairstyle, dyed with red ochre, while women may wear several kilos of beads.

Coastal Kenya

Swahili

0.6% of population

Although the people of the coast do not have a common heritage, they do have a linguistic link: Kiswahili (commonly referred to as Swahili), a Bantu-based language that evolved as a means of communication between Africans and the Arabs, Persians and Portuguese who colonised the East African coast; the word swahili is a derivative of the Arabic word for coast – sawahil. The cultural origins of the Swahili, who make up 0.6% of the population, come from intermarriage between the Arabs and Persians with African slaves from the 7th century onwards. In fact, many anthropologists consider the Swahili a cultural tribe brought together by trade routes rather than a tribe of distinct biological lineage. A largely urban tribe, they occupy coastal cities like Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Stone Town (Zanzibar); and given the historical Arab influence, the Swahili largely practise Islam.

Feature: The Maasai & their Cattle

The Maasai tell the following story. One of the Maasai gods, Naiteru-Kop, was wandering the earth at the beginning of time and there he found a Dorobo man – ‘Dorobo’ is a derogatory Maasai word used to describe hunter-gatherer groups – who lived with a snake, a cow and an elephant. The man killed the snake and the elephant, but the elephant's calf escaped and came upon Le-eyo, a Maasai man to whom he told the story of the Dorobo.

The elephant calf took Le-eyo to the Dorobo man’s compound, where Le-eyo heard Naiteru-Kop, the Maasai god, calling out to the Dorobo man and telling him to come out the next morning. Having heard this, it was Le-eyo who emerged first the following morning and asked Naiteru-Kop what to do next. Following the god’s instructions, Le-eyo built a large enclosure, with a little hut of branches and grasses on one side. He then slaughtered a thin calf, but did not eat it, instead laying out the calf’s hide, and piling the meat high on top. He then built a large fire, and threw the meat upon it.

A great storm swept over the land. With the storm clouds overhead, a leather cord dropped from the sky into Le-eyo’s compound, and down the cord came cattle until Le-eyo’s compound was full of these animals. One of the cattle stuck its hoof through the hut’s wall, and Le-eyo called out, frightened. Upon Le-eyo’s cry, the cattle stopped falling from the sky. Naiteru-Kop called out to Le-eyo: ‘These are all the cattle you will receive, because your cry stopped them coming. But they are yours to look after, and you will live with them.’

Since that day, the Dorobo have been hunters and the Maasai have herded their cattle, convinced that all the cattle in the world belong to them.

Sidebar: The Kikuyu

The Kikuyu are renowned for their entrepreneurial skills and for popping up everywhere in Kenya (the Kikuyu name Kamau is as common as Smith is in Britain).

Sidebar: Meru & Miraa

The Meru are active in the cultivation of miraa, the stems of which contain a stimulant similar to amphetamines, which are exported to Somalia and Yemen.

Sidebar: Turkana Markings

A surprising number of Turkana men still wear markings on their shoulders to indicate they have killed another man.

Sidebar: Heritage Library of African Peoples

The Rosen Publishing Group (www.rosenpublishing.com) publishes the Heritage Library of African Peoples, aimed at late-primary and early-secondary school students. Although the entire East Africa set is available, individual titles (such as Luo, Kikuyu, Maasai and Samburu) are also easy to track down.

Sidebar: Maasai Autobiography

The Worlds of a Maasai Warrior: An Autobiography (1988), by Tepilit Ole Saitoti, presents an intriguing perspective on the juxtaposition of traditional and modern in East Africa.

Sidebar: Kenya's Presidents

Of Kenya's four postindependence presidents, three have been Kikuyu (Jomo and Uhuru Kenyatta, and Mwai Kibaki) and one a Kalenjin (Daniel arap Moi).

Sidebar: International Crisis Group

For a detailed and respected analysis of the role of ethnicity in Kenyan politics, read the reports on Kenya's 2017 elections by the International Crisis Group (ICG; www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/kenya).

Daily Life

It can be hard work being Kenyan. While most are proud to be Kenyan, national identity is only one way among many in which Kenyans understand their world. Unlike in neighbouring Tanzania, where being Tanzanian is placed above all else, in Kenya family ties, tribal affiliations, the pull of religion and gender roles are all prominent issues and each plays a significant role in the daily lives of ordinary people. The result is a fascinating, if complicated, mosaic.

Traditional Cultures, Modern Country

Traditional cultures are what hold Kenya together. Respect for one’s elders, firmly held religious beliefs, traditional gender roles and the tradition of ujamaa (familyhood) create a well-defined social structure with stiff moral mores at its core.

Extended family provides a further layer of support, which is increasingly important as parents migrate to cities for lucrative work, leaving their children to be cared for by grandparents, aunts and uncles. This fluid system has also enabled many to deal with the devastation wrought by the HIV/AIDS epidemic – Kenya has the 12th-highest HIV prevalence rate among adults (5.4%) in the world.

Historically the majority of Kenyans were either farmers or cattle herders with family clans based in small interconnected villages. Even today, as traditional rural life gives way to a frenetic urban pace, this strong sense of community remains.

Grafted onto these traditional foundations of culture, family and community, education is also critical to understanding modern Kenya. Kenya sends more students to the US to study than any other African country, and adult literacy stood at an impressive 78% in 2015. The generation of educated Kenyans who came of age in the 1980s is now making itself heard: Kenyans abroad have started to invest seriously in the country, Nairobi’s business landscape is changing rapidly and a new middle class is demanding new apartment blocks and cars.

One Country, Many Tribes

Kenya is home to more than 40 tribal groups. Although most have coexisted quite peacefully since independence, the ethnocentric bias of government and civil-service appointments has led to escalating unrest and disaffection. During the hotly contested elections of 1992, 1997 and 2007, clashes between two major tribes, the Kikuyu and Luo, bolstered by allegiances with other smaller tribes like the Kalenjin, resulted in deaths and mass displacement.

One positive step came with the adoption of the 2010 constitution, which recognises the rights of ethnic minorities and even calls for the cabinet to 'reflect the regional and ethnic diversity of the people of Kenya'.

Some analysts point out that election violence and ethnic tensions have more to do with economic inequality than with tribalism – they insist that there are only two tribes in Kenya: the rich and the poor.

Christian Interior, Muslim Coast

As a result of intense missionary activity, the majority of Kenyans outside the coastal and eastern provinces are Christians (including some home-grown African Christian groups that do not owe any allegiance to the major Western groups). Hard-core evangelism has made some significant inroads and many groups from the US have a strong following.

In the country’s east, the majority of Kenyans are Sunni Muslims. They make up about 11% of the population.

Women in Kenya

During Kenya’s struggle for independence, many women fought alongside the men, but their sacrifice was largely forgotten when independence came. At the Lancaster House conference in the early 1960s, where Kenya’s independence constitution was negotiated, just one out of around 70 Kenyan delegates was a woman and the resulting constitution made no mention of women’s rights.

Under the 2010 constitution things improved, at least on paper: women are described as a disadvantaged group, and the bill guarantees equal treatment for men and women, protects against discrimination on the basis of gender, calls on the state to undertake affirmative-action policies and sets aside 47 special seats for women in parliament – as a result, 19% of MPs in 2014 were women, compared with 1% in 1990.

Even so, major discrepancies remain in the ways in which women and men have access to essential services and resources, such as land and credit, while traditional gender roles still largely prevail.

Kenyan women are increasingly able to access educational opportunities and, particularly in the cities, are slowly coming to play a more prominent role in public life. In rural areas traditional gender roles are observed, although women are accorded status and respect as mothers, wives, healers and teachers.

Feature: The Indian Influence

Kenya’s first permanent settlers from the Indian subcontinent were indentured workers, brought here from Gujarat and the Punjab by the British to build the Uganda Railway. After the railway was finished, the British allowed many workers to stay and start up businesses, and hundreds of dukas (small shops) were set up across the country.

After WWII the Indian community came to control large sectors of the East African economy, and still does to some degree. However, few gave their active support to the black nationalist movements in the run-up to independence, despite being urged to do so by India’s prime minister, and many were hesitant to accept local citizenship after independence. This earned the widespread distrust of the African community. Thankfully, however, Kenya escaped the anti-Asian pogroms that plagued Uganda.

Feature: Female Genital Mutilation

Female genital mutilation (FGM), often termed ‘female circumcision’, is still widespread across Africa, including throughout Kenya. In some parts of tribal Kenya more than 90% of women and girls are subjected to FGM.

The term FGM covers a wide range of procedures, from a small, mainly symbolic cut to the total removal of the clitoris and external genitalia (known as infibulation). The effects of FGM can be fatal. Other side effects, including chronic infections, the spread of HIV, infertility, severe bleeding and lifelong pain during sex, are not uncommon.

FGM is now banned in Kenya for girls aged under 17, but the ritual still has widespread support in some communities; attempts to stamp out FGM are widely perceived as part of a Western conspiracy to undermine African cultural identity. Many local women’s groups, such as the community project Ntanira na Mugambo (Circumcision Through Words), are working towards preserving the rite-of-passage aspect of FGM without any surgery.

Sidebar: Petals of Blood

In Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood (1977), Wanja the barmaid sums up the situation for women in newly independent Kenya: ‘…with us girls the future seemed vague…as if we knew that no matter what efforts we put into our studies, our road led to the kitchen or the bedroom’.

Sidebar: Women's Lives

I Laugh So I Won’t Cry: Kenya’s Women Tell the Stories of Their Lives (2005), edited by Helena Halperin, offers fascinating glimpses into the lives of Kenyan women.

Sidebar: Human Development Index

In the 2016 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Human Development Index, which is based on a number of economic and quality-of-life indicators, Kenya ranked 146th out of 188 countries.

Sidebar: Kenya's Asians

A History of the Asians in East Africa, 1886 to 1945 (Jagjit Singh Mangat; 2012) is a highly informative but fascinating insight into the long history and deep roots of Kenya's Indian population. Settled Strangers: Asian Business Elites in East Africa 1800-2000 (Gijsbert Oonk; 2013) is more accessible.

Sidebar: Kenya Stats

  • Urban population: 25.6%
  • Life expectancy: 64 years
  • Female/male literacy: 74.9/78%
  • Annual deaths from HIV/AIDS: 36,000
  • People living with HIV/AIDS: 1.6 million

Sidebar: HIV on the Rise

A 2016 report suggested that Kenya had one of the highest rates of new HIV infections in Africa, despite its HIV prevalence rate having fallen from 6.1% to 5.4% in the three years to 2016.

The Arts

Kenya is arguably the leading cultural powerhouse of East Africa, with Nairobi in particular one of the most dynamic spaces for the arts. Often these arts provide not only a powerful medium for expressing African culture but also a means for expressing the dreams and frustrations of the poor and disenfranchised, and that's where Kenyan artists and performers really find their voice. Kenyan musicians and writers are particularly worth watching out for.

Music

With its diversity of indigenous languages and cultures, Kenya has a rich and exciting music scene. Influences, most notably from the nearby Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, have helped to diversify the sounds. More recently reggae and hip-hop have permeated the pop scene.

The live music scene in Nairobi is excellent and a variety of clubs cater for traditional and contemporary musical tastes. A good reference is the Daily Nation, which publishes weekly Top 10 African, international and gospel charts and countrywide gig listings on Saturday. Beyond Nairobi, take what you can get.

Outside Influences

The Congolese styles of rumba and soukous, known collectively as lingala, were first introduced into Kenya by artists such as Samba Mapangala (who is still playing) in the 1960s and have come to dominate most of East Africa. This upbeat party music is characterised by clean guitar licks and a driving cavacha drum rhythm.

Music from Tanzania was influential in the early 1970s, when the band Simba Wanyika helped create Swahili rumba, which was taken up by bands like the Maroon Commandos and Les Wanyika.

Popular bands today are heavily influenced by benga, soukous and also Western music, with lyrics generally in Kiswahili. These include bands such as Them Mushrooms (now reinvented as Uyoya) and Safari Sound. For upbeat dance tunes, Ogopa DJs, Nameless, Redsan and Deux Vultures are popular acts.

Home-Grown Styles

Kenyan bands were also active during the 1960s, producing some of the most popular songs in Africa, including Fadhili William’s famous Malaika (Angel), and Jambo Bwana, Kenya’s unofficial anthem, written and recorded by the hugely influential Them Mushrooms.

Benga is the contemporary dance music of Kenya. It refers to the dominant style of Luo pop music, which originated in western Kenya and spread throughout the country in the 1960s, being taken up by Akamba and Kikuyu musicians. The music is characterised by clear electric guitar riffs and a bounding bass rhythm. Some well-known exponents of benga include DO Misiani (a Luo) and his group Shirati Jazz, which has been around since the 1960s and is still churning out the hits. You should also look out for Globestyle, Victoria Kings and Ambira Boys.

Contemporary Kikuyu music often borrows from benga. Stars include Sam Chege, Francis Rugwiti and Daniel ‘Councillor’ Kamau, who was popular in the 1970s and is still going strong.

Taarab, the music of the East African coast, originally only played at Swahili weddings and other special occasions, has been given a new lease of life by coastal pop singer Malika.

Rap, Hip-Hop & Other Styles

American-influenced gangster rap and hip-hop are also on the rise, including such acts as Necessary Noize, Poxi Presha and Hardstone. The slums of Nairobi have proved to be particularly fertile for local rap music. In 2004 Dutch producer Nynke Nauta gathered rappers from the Eastlands slums of Nairobi and formed a collective, Nairobi Yetu. The resultant album, Kilio Cha Haki (A Cry for Justice), featuring raps in Sheng (a mix of KiSwahili, English and ethnic languages), has been internationally recognised as a poignant fusion of ghetto angst and the joy of making music.

Kenya pioneered the African version of the reggaeton style (a blend of reggae, hip-hop and traditional music), which is now popular in the US and UK. Dancehall is also huge here.

Other names to keep an eye or ear out for include Prezzo (Kenya’s king of bling), Nonini (a controversial women-and-booze rapper), Nazizi (female MC from Necessary Noize) and Mercy Myra (Kenya’s biggest female R&B artist).

Feature: A Kenyan Playlist

  • Virunga Volcano (Orchestre Virunga; 1984) Samba, sublime guitar licks, a bubbling bass and rich vocals.
  • Nairobi Beat: Kenyan Pop Music Today (1989) Regional sounds including Luo, Kikuyu, Akamba, Luhya, Swahili and Congolese.
  • Guitar Paradise of East Africa (1990) Ranges through Kenya’s musical styles including the classic hit ‘Shauri Yako’.
  • Journey (Jabali Afrika; 1996) Stirring acoustic sounds complete with drums, congas, shakers and bells.
  • Amigo (Les Wanyika; 1998) Classic Swahili rumba from one of Kenya’s most influential bands.
  • Nuting but de Stone (1999) Phenomenally popular compilation combining African lyrics with American urban sounds and Caribbean ragga.
  • Kenyan: The First Chapter (2000) Kenya’s home-grown blend of African lyrics with R&B, house, reggae and dancehall genres.
  • Necessary Noize (Necessary Noize 2; 2000) Hip-hop, reggae and R&B that produced numerous hits.
  • Nairobbery (K-South; 2002) The landmark hip-hop album that launched the careers of this popular band.
  • Yahweh (Esther Wahome; 2003) The hit 'Kuna Dawa' from this album improbably crossed over from gospel song to nightclub hit.
  • Kilio Cha Haki – A Cry for Justice (2004) Groundbreaking rap in Sheng (a mix of Kiswahili, English and ethnic languages).
  • Mama Africa (Suzanna Owiyo; 2009) Acoustic Afropop from the Tracy Chapman of Kenya.
  • 82 (Just a Band; 2009) Experimental Afro-fusion that Kenya fell in love with.
  • Magic in the Air (Mayonde; 2015) Debut pop album from a talent to watch.
  • Tusk at Hand (Parking Lot Grass; 2015) Hard-rock protest songs sung in Swahili.

Literature

There are plenty of novels, plays and biographies by contemporary Kenyan authors, but they can be hard to find outside the country. The backlist of the Heinemann African Writers Series offers an accessible collection of such works.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938–) is uncompromisingly radical, and his harrowing criticism of the neocolonialist politics of the Kenyan establishment landed him in jail for a year (described in his Detained: A Writer's Prison Diary; 1982), lost him his job at Nairobi University and forced him into exile. In 2004 he returned to Kenya but he and his wife were injured in a home invasion in Nairobi and he returned to the US where he now lives.

His works include Petals of Blood (1977), Matigari (1987), The River Between (1965), A Grain of Wheat (1967), Devil on the Cross (1980) and Wizard of the Crow (2006), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. As a statement about the importance of reviving African languages as cultural media, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o wrote Wizard of the Crow in Gikuyu and then translated it himself into English. His latest works are memoirs: Dreams in a Time of War (2010), In the House of the Interpreter (2012) and Birth of a Dream Weaver: A Memoir of a Writer's Awakening (2016). All his works, whether fiction or nonfiction, offer insightful portraits of Kenyan life.

Meja Mwangi

Meja Mwangi (1948–) writes both for adults and children with a focus on social issues and urban dislocation. He has a mischievous sense of humour that threads its way right through his books. Notable titles include The Return of Shaka (1989), Weapon of Hunger (1989), The Cockroach Dance (1979), The Last Plague (2000) and The Big Chiefs (2007). His Mzungu Boy (2006), winner of the Children’s Africana Book Award in 2006, depicts the friendship of white and black Kenyan boys at the time of the Mau Mau uprising.

Binyavanga Wainaina

One of Kenya’s rising stars on the literary front is Binyavanga Wainaina (1971–), who won the Caine Prize for African Writing in July 2002. The award-winning piece was the short story 'Discovering Home', about a young Kenyan working in Cape Town who returns to his parents’ village in Kenya for a year. His One Day I Will Write about This Place: A Memoir (2011) is a fascinating portrait of a middle-class Kenyan upbringing.

In the aftermath of the 2008 postelection crisis, Wainaina helped form the Concerned Kenyan Writers (CKW) group. CKW aims to inspire and unite Kenyans and show them that there is a pay-off in peace and nationhood; it also seeks to counter the ‘Dark Continent’ reporting by the international media in the wake of the violence. In 2014 Time named him one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World.

Contemporary Women Writers

The first female Kenyan writer of note in the modern era was Grace Ogot (1930–2015), the first woman to have her work published by the East African Publishing House. Her work includes Land Without Thunder (1968), The Strange Bride (1989), The Graduate (1980) and The Island of Tears (1980). Born in Nyanza Province, she set many of her stories against the scenic background of Lake Victoria, offering an insight into Luo culture in precolonial Kenya.

Another interesting writer is Margaret Atieno Ogola (1958–2011), the author of the celebrated novel The River and the Source (1994) and its sequel, I Swear by Apollo (2002), which follow the lives of four generations of Kenyan women in a rapidly evolving country.

Other books of note:

  • Marjorie Magoye’s The Present Moment (1987), which follows the life of a group of elderly women in a Christian refuge.
  • The Man from Pretoria (1975) by Kenyan conservationist and journalist Hilary Ngweno.
  • Moraa Gitaa's Crucible for Silver and Furnace for Gold (2008) follows the relationship between an HIV-positive African woman and an Italian tourist; her Shifting Sands (2012) is also worth tracking down.

Cinema

Kenya’s underfunded film industry has struggled to establish itself, but the Zanzibar International Film Festival (ZIFF) in neighbouring Tanzania, one of the region’s premier cultural events, has helped to bring East African filmmakers to the fore. One such auteur is Kibaara Kaugi, whose Enough is Enough (2004), a brave exploration of the Mau Mau uprising, garnered critical praise.

In 2005 the government established the Kenya Film Commission (KFC; www.kenyafilmcommission.com), which aims to support and promote the Kenyan film industry. One notable success since its inception is Kibera Kid (2006), a short film set in the Kibera slum, written and directed by Nathan Collett. It tells the story of 12-year-old Otieno, an orphan living with a gang of thieves, who must make a choice between gang life and redemption. Featuring a cast of children, all of whom live in Kibera, the film played at film festivals worldwide.

Painting

Kenya has a diverse artistic heritage, and there's a wealth of artistic talent in the country, practising both traditional painting and all manner of sculpture, printing, mixed media and graffiti. Nairobi has a number of excellent galleries; for an overview of the local scene, visit the Go-Down Arts Centre in Nairobi.

Textiles & Jewellery

Women throughout East Africa wear brightly coloured lengths of printed cotton cloth, typically with Swahili sayings printed along the edge, known as kanga. Many of the sayings are social commentary or messages, often indirectly worded, or containing puns and double meanings. Others are local forms of advertising, such as the logos of political parties.

In coastal areas, you’ll also see the kikoi, which is made of a more thickly textured cotton, usually featuring striped or plaid patterns, and traditionally worn by men. Also common are batik-print cottons depicting everyday scenes, animal motifs or geometrical patterns.

Jewellery, especially beaded jewellery, is particularly beautiful among the Maasai and the Turkana. It is used in ceremonies as well as in everyday life, and often indicates the wearer’s wealth and marital status.

Woodcarving & Sculpture

Woodcarving was only introduced into Kenya in the early 20th century. Mutisya Munge, an Akamba man, is considered the father of Kenyan woodcarving, having brought the tradition from Tanzania’s Makonde people to Kenya following WWI. Kenya’s woodcarving industry has grown exponentially in the century since, although recent shortages of increasingly endangered hardwoods have presented major challenges to the industry. While woodcarvings from Kenya may lack the sophistication and cultural resonance of those from Central and West Africa, the carvings’ subjects range from representations of the spirit and animal worlds to stylised human figures.

Carvings rendered in soapstone from the village of Tabaka, close to Kisii in the Western Highlands, are among the most attractive of Kenyan handicrafts. These sculptures take on numerous forms, but the abstract figures of embracing couples are the genre’s undoubted highpoint.

Sidebar: Filmed in Kenya

  • Born Free (1966)
  • Out of Africa (1985)
  • I Dreamed of Africa (2000)
  • Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)
  • The Constant Gardener (2005)

Sidebar: Facing the Lion

Facing the Lion (2003) is Joseph Lekuton’s simple but beautifully crafted memoir of how he grew up as a poor Maasai boy, who, through a series of incredible twists and turns, ends up in the US studying for an MBA.

Sidebar: Art Matters

A fabulous resource covering many aspects of the art scene throughout Kenya and the rest of Africa is www.artmatters.info.

Sidebar: Kwani

To follow the work of contemporary writers, look out for Kwani? (kwani.org), Kenya’s first literary journal, established by Binyavanga Wainaina in 2003. Nairobi-based, it facilitates the production and distribution of Kenyan literature and hosts an annual literary festival that attracts a growing number of pan-African names.

Sidebar: Music Resources

  • African Music Encyclopedia (www.africanmusic.org)
  • AfricMusic (www.africmusic.com)
  • Sterns Music (www.sternsmusic.com)
  • African Hip Hop (www.africanhiphop.com)

Sidebar: Nairobi Art Galleries

  • Circle Art Gallery
  • Go-Down Arts Centre
  • Tazama Art Gallery
  • Kuona Trust Centre for the Visual Arts

Environment

Kenya's natural environment is at once inspiring and troubled. The country is home to some of East Africa's most beautiful landscapes, from its signature savannah to palm-fringed coast with sky-high mountains, parched deserts and dense forests in between. But Kenya faces a slew of environmental issues that challenge the very sustainability of its future, with impacts upon everything from food security to the viability of protected areas. Like so many things Kenyan, it's a complicated, fascinating story.

National Parks & Reserves

Kenya’s national parks and reserves rate among the best in Africa. Around 10% of the country’s land area is protected by law – that means, at least in theory, no human habitation, no grazing and no hunting within park boundaries. The parks range from the 15.5-sq-km Saiwa Swamp National Park to the massive, almost 21,000-sq-km Tsavo East and West national parks. Together they embrace a wide range of habitats and ecosystems and contain an extraordinary repository of Africa’s wildlife.

History

The idea of setting aside protected areas began during colonial times, and in many cases this meant authorities forcibly evicting the local peoples from their traditional lands. Local anger was fuelled by the fact that many parks were set aside as hunting reserves for white hunters with anything but conservation on their minds. In 1946 Nairobi National Park became the first park in British East Africa. Now, there are 22 national parks, plus numerous marine parks and national reserves – the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) administers 33 protected areas in total.

Many of the parks came under siege in the 1970s and 1980s when poaching became endemic. In response, President Moi grabbed international headlines when, in 1989, he set fire to a stockpile of 12 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park and appointed Richard Leakey to the head of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD), which became the KWS a year later. Leakey is largely credited with saving Kenya’s wildlife, but his methods were hugely controversial: he declared war on poachers by forming elite and well-armed anti-poaching units with orders to shoot on sight.

Things are much quieter these days in the national parks, although poaching remains a problem.

Visiting National Parks & Reserves

Going on safari is an integral part of the Kenyan experience, and the wildlife and scenery can be extraordinary. Even in more popular parks such as Masai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park, which can become massively overcrowded in high season (July to October and January to February, although KWS maintains high-season prices into March), this natural splendour is likely to be your most enduring memory.

National Parks versus Reserves

If you go onto the website of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS; www.kws.org) looking for information on the Masai Mara National Reserve or Samburu National Reserve, you’ll be disappointed. That’s because Kenya’s parks and reserves are divided into those that are administered by the national government (this includes all national parks and some national reserves, such as Kakamega Forest National Reserve) and those administered by local communities (such as the Masai Mara and Lake Bogoria National Reserves).

The difference is significant from a local perspective, less so in terms of your experience on safari. It all comes down to revenues. The entry fees for parks administered by the KWS go directly into the coffers of the national government, with a proportion, in theory at least, returned to the local communities. In the case of the locally administered reserves, revenues go to the local county council, which forwards some revenue on to the national government and, again in theory, uses the money for the benefit of local communities.

The whole issue came to national and international attention in 2005 when President Kibaki announced plans to de-gazette Amboseli National Park and turn it into a reserve administered by the Maasai-dominated Kajiado County Council. His motives remained unclear, although cynics suggested it may have been a ploy to win over the Maasai vote in advance of a crucial national referendum on constitutional reform. Conservationists cried foul and the move was declared illegal by Kenya’s High Court in 2011.

Major National Parks & Reserves

Aberdare National Park

Habitats

dramatic highlands, waterfalls, rainforest

Wildlife

elephants, black rhinos, bongo antelope, black leopards, black servals

Activities

trekking, fishing, gliding

Best time to visit

year-round

Amboseli National Park

Habitats

dry plains, scrub forest

Wildlife

elephants, buffaloes, lions, antelope, birds

Activities

wildlife drives

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve

Habitats

coastal forest

Wildlife

Sokoke scops owls, Clarke’s weavers, birds, elephant shrews, elephants

Activities

bird tours, walking, cycling

Best time to visit

year-round

Hell’s Gate National Park

Habitats

dramatic rocky outcrops, gorges

Wildlife

elands, giraffes, lions, birds of prey

Activities

cycling, walking

Best time to visit

year-round

Kakamega Forest Reserve

Habitats

virgin tropical rainforest

Wildlife

de Brazza’s monkeys, red-tailed monkeys, flying squirrels, 330 bird species

Activities

walking, birdwatching

Best time to visit

year-round

Lake Bogoria National Reserve

Habitats

scenic soda lake

Wildlife

greater kudus, leopards

Activities

birdwatching, walking, hot springs

Best time to visit

year-round

Lake Nakuru National Park

Habitats

hilly grassland, alkaline lakeland

Wildlife

flamingos, black & white rhinos, lions, leopards, over 400 bird species

Activities

wildlife drives

Best time to visit

year-round

Masai Mara National Reserve

Habitats

savannah, grassland

Wildlife

Big Five, antelope, cheetahs, hyenas, wildebeest migration

Activities

wildlife drives, ballooning

Best time to visit

Jul-Oct

Meru National Park

Habitats

rainforest, swamplands, grasslands

Wildlife

rhinos, elephants, lions, cheetahs, lesser kudus

Activities

wildlife drives, fishing

Best time to visit

year-round

Mt Elgon National Park

Habitats

extinct volcano, rainforest

Wildlife

elephants, black-and-white-colobus monkeys, de Brazza’s monkeys, over 240 bird species

Activities

walking, trekking, fishing

Best time to visit

Dec-Feb

Mt Kenya National Park

Habitats

rainforest, moorland, glacial mountain

Wildlife

elephants, buffaloes, mountain flora

Activities

trekking, climbing

Best time to visit

Jan & Feb, Aug & Sep

Nairobi National Park

Habitats

open plains with urban backdrop

Wildlife

black rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, giraffes, over 400 bird species

Activities

wildlife drives

Best time to visit

year-round

Saiwa Swamp National Park

Habitats

swamplands, riverine forest

Wildlife

sitatunga antelope, otters, black-and-white colobus monkeys, over 370 bird species

Activities

walking, birdwatching

Best time to visit

year-round

Samburu, Buffalo Springs & Shaba National Reserves

Habitats

semi-arid open savannah

Wildlife

elephants, leopards, gerenuks, crocodiles, Grevy’s zebras

Activities

wildlife drives

Best time to visit

year-round

Shimba Hills National Reserve

Habitats

densely forested hills

Wildlife

elephants, sable antelope, leopards

Activities

walking, forest tours

Best time to visit

year-round

Tsavo West & East National Parks

Habitats

sweeping plains, ancient volcanic cones

Wildlife

Big Five, cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, around 500 bird species

Activities

rock climbing, wildlife drives

Best time to visit

year-round

Park & Reserve Entry

All KWS entry fees must now be paid by credit card or via the M-Pesa phone app. The rationale behind the move to prohibit the use of cash to pay park entry fees was to eliminate corruption by KWS staff.

Entry Fees

The KWS has a number of categories for parks and reserves. Rates for Kenyan citizens and residents are available from the KWS website.

Further costs in the land-based parks and reserves include KSh300 for vehicles with fewer than six seats and KSh1030 for vehicles seating six to 12.

It’s important to remember that the entry fees for parks and reserves only entitle you to stay for a 24-hour period, and you pay an additional fee of the same amount for each day you are inside the park, even if you don’t leave the park during that period. Not all parks allow you to leave the park and re-enter under the same ticket, so always check the situation and be sure of your plans before you pay for a multiday ticket.

National Parks & Reserves Fees

Park/Reserve

Masai Mara

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

80/45

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Premium

Park/Reserve

Amboseli, Lake Nakuru

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

60/35

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

30/25

Wilderness

Park/Reserve

Meru, Tsavo East, Tsavo West

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

52/35

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Aberdare National Park

Park/Reserve

Aberdare

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

52/26

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Urban Safari

Park/Reserve

Nairobi National Park

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

43/22

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Mountain Climbing (Day Trip)

Park/Reserve

Mt Kenya

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

52/26

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Mountain Climbing (4-Day Package)

Park/Reserve

Mt Kenya

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

208/104

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Scenic & Special Interest A

Park/Reserve

Hell’s Gate, Mt Elgon, Ol Donyo Sabuk, Mt Longonot

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

26/17

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Scenic & Special Interest B

Park/Reserve

Chyulu, Marsabit, Arabuko Sokoke, Kakamega, Shimba Hills, all other KWS parks

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

22/13

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

20/15

Marine Parks

Park/Reserve

Kisite, Malindi, Watamu, Mombasa, Kiunga

Nonresident adult/child (US$)

17/13

Camping nonresident adult/child (US$)

n/a

Private Conservancies

The widespread conversion of private cattle ranches or community lands into wildlife or community conservancies adds a whole new dimension to your safari experience in Kenya.

In the case of private conservancies, many are open only to those who pay to stay at one of the (usually exclusive) lodges or tented camps within the conservancy's boundaries. Such restrictions sometimes, but don't always, apply to the community conservancies. Most also charge a conservation fee – often around US$100 per person per day – whose proceeds go directly to wildlife conservation or community development projects.

One exception is Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is open to the public (adult/child US$85/42) – it's the closest conservancy experience to visiting a national park, but with fun activities thrown in.

In all cases, these conservancies are free to set their own rules, and these are invariably far less restrictive than those imposed by the KWS. The two most obvious examples are that both walking safaris (usually accompanied by an armed guide or ranger) and night game drives are permitted on the conservancies. Other activities – including, in some cases, horse riding – are also possible.

Major Conservancies
Habitats

hills, light woodland, savannah

Wildlife

rhinos, African wild dogs, lions

Activities

walking, birdwatching

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

light woodland, hills

Wildlife

rhinos

Activities

walking, cultural visits

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

semi-arid savannah, woodland

Wildlife

Grevy's zebras, reticulated giraffes, elephants

Activities

walking, night drives

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

light woodland, mountain foothills

Wildlife

big cats, plains wildlife

Activities

walking, night drives

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

indigenous forest, open savannah

Wildlife

elephants, big cats

Activities

walking, birdwatching

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, riverine woodland

Wildlife

black & white rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, Grevy's zebras, Somali ostriches

Activities

walking, community visits, horse riding, quad biking, flying

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah

Wildlife

plains wildlife

Activities

Maasai cultural encounters

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah

Wildlife

big cats, plains wildlife

Activities

walking, night drives, cultural encounters

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, Chyulu Hills

Wildlife

elephants, big cats, giraffes

Activities

walking, running, horse riding

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, acacia woodlands

Wildlife

big cats, elephants, plains wildlife

Activities

walking, cultural encounters

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, light woodland

Wildlife

Big Five, black rhinos

Activities

walking, night drives, lion-tracking, birdwatching

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, acacia woodlands

Wildlife

big cats, plains wildlife

Activities

walking, cultural encounters, night drives

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, acacia woodlands

Wildlife

big cats

Activities

walking, night drives

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

savannah, river valleys

Wildlife

big cats, Grevy's zebras, elephants, Patas monkeys, elephants

Activities

walking, flying, night driving

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

semi-arid savannah

Wildlife

lions, elephants, giraffes

Activities

walking, night drives, Maasai cultural encounters

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

forests, swamps, grasslands

Wildlife

big cats, elephants

Activities

walking, cultural encounters

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

Habitats

semi-arid acacia woodland, riverine woodland

Wildlife

Grevy's zebras, big cats, African wild dogs

Activities

walking, night drives, Samburu cultural encounters

Best time to visit

Jun-Feb

The Land

Kenya, as the cliché goes, is Africa in microcosm, and in the case of its landscapes, the cliché happens to be true. Within Kenya’s borders you’ll find astonishing variety, from deserts to tropical coast and snowcapped mountains, from sweeping savannah grasslands to dense forests. And running through the heart of it all is the Great Rift Valley.

Great Rift Valley

The Great Rift Valley is one of Africa’s defining landforms and this great gouge in the planet cuts a swathe through the heart of Kenya. It was formed some eight million years ago, when Mother Earth tried to rip Africa in two. Africa bent, Africa buckled, but Africa never gave in.

The Rift Valley is part of the Afro-Arabian rift system that stretches 5500km from the salty shores of the Dead Sea to the palm trees of Mozambique, passing through the Red Sea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi en route. A western branch forms a string of lakes (Albert, Edward, Kivu and Tanganyika) in the centre of the continent, joining the main system at the tip of Lake Malawi. The East African section of the rift ‘failed’ and now only the Red Sea rift continues, slowly separating Africa from the Middle East. The Rift’s path through Kenya can be traced through Lake Turkana, the Cherangani Hills and Lakes Baringo, Bogoria, Nakuru, Elmenteita, Naivasha and Magadi.

The Rift created Africa’s highest mountains – including Mt Kenya, Mt Elgon, Mt Kilimanjaro (across the border in Tanzania) and the Virunga Range (in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; DRC, formerly Zaïre) – most of which began as volcanoes. Most of the volcanoes that line the valley are now extinct, but no fewer than 30 remain active and, according to local legend, Mt Longonot erupted as recently as the 1860s. This continuing activity supports a considerable number of hot springs and provides ideal conditions for geothermal power plants (in Hell’s Gate National Park and the Menengai Crater, for example), which are increasingly important for Kenya’s energy supply, if controversial from an environmental perspective.

The Savannah

The African savannah is a quintessentially African landform, so much so that it covers an estimated two-thirds of the African land mass. In Kenya, the most famous sweeps of savannah are found in the country’s west (particularly in the Masai Mara National Reserve) and south.

The East African savannah was formed during the Rift's great upheavals, when volcanic lava and ash rained down upon the lands surrounding the Rift's volcanoes, covering the landscape in fertile but shallow soils. Grasses, that most successful of plant forms, flourished as they needed little depth for their roots to grow. The perfectly adapted acacia aside, however, no other plants were able to colonise the savannah: their roots were starved of space and nourishment.

The result is sweeping plains that are home to some of the richest concentrations of wildlife on earth. The term itself refers to a grasslands ecosystem sustained by an annual cycle of wet and dry seasons. While trees may be (and usually are) present in savannah ecosystems, such trees do not, under the strict definition of the term, form a closed canopy.

The Coast

Along the coast of East Africa, warm currents in the Indian Ocean provide perfect conditions for coral growth, resulting in beautiful underwater coral reefs.

Coral reefs are the most biologically diverse marine ecosystems on earth, rivalled only by tropical rainforests on land. Corals grow over geologic time – ie over millennia rather than the decades that mammals live – and have been in existence for about 200 million years. The delicately balanced marine environment of the coral reef relies on the interaction of hard and soft corals, sponges, fish, turtles, dolphins and other marine life forms.

Coral reefs also rely on mangroves, the salt-tolerant trees with submerged roots that form a nursery and breeding ground for birds and most of the marine life that migrates to the reef. Mangroves trap and produce nutrients for food and habitat, stabilise the shoreline and filter pollutants from the land base. Both coral reefs and the mangrove colonies that support them are under threat from factors such as oil exploration and extraction, coastal degradation, deforestation and global warming.

Forests

Kenya’s forests border the great rainforest systems of central Africa, and western Kenya once formed part of the mighty Guineo-Congolian forest ecosystem. Few vestiges remain and just 6.2% of Kenyan territory is now covered by forest. The process of clearing these forests began with Kenya’s colonial rulers, who saw in the land’s fertility great potential for the vast tea plantations that now provide critical export revenue to Kenya. The clearing of the land has continued apace ever since as Kenya’s population soars and the need for land for agriculture has increased. The Kakamega Forest has been protected just in time and shows what most of western Kenya must have once looked like. Other important forest areas include those covering 2000 sq km of the slopes of Mt Kenya, the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve (the largest surviving tract of coastal forest in East Africa), Mt Elgon National Park and Aberdare National Park.

Deserts

Much of northern Kenya is extremely arid, with rainfall of less than 100mm a year. A number of contiguous deserts occupy the territory between Lake Turkana’s eastern shore and the Ethiopian and Somali borders. The largest and best known of these is the Chalbi Desert, centred on North Horr and Kalacha, and formed by an ancient lake bed. Other deserts of northern Kenya include the Kaisut Desert (between Marsabit and South Horr) and the Dida Galgalu Desert (close to the Ethiopian border, near Moyale).

Parts of southern Kenya are also considered arid or semiarid, thanks largely to the looming hulk of Mt Kilimanjaro, which diverts rain elsewhere. One of these is the Nyiri Desert, which lies roughly between Lake Magadi and Amboseli National Park.

Lakes & Wetlands

Lake Victoria, which is shared between Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, is Africa’s largest freshwater lake (and the second largest by area in the world after the USA’s Lake Superior). Its surface covers an area of over 68,000 sq km, with only 20% of the lake lying within Kenyan territory. Water levels fluctuate widely, depending largely on the rains, with depths never more than 80m and more often lower than 10m.

Most of Kenya’s section of Lake Victoria is taken over by the Winam Gulf, a 100km-long, 50km-wide arm of the lake with a shoreline of almost 550km and an average depth of 6m. A fast-growing population around the gulf’s shoreline has caused massive environmental problems, such as siltation, sedimentation and toxic pollution (primarily pesticides and untreated sewage), although the major issue has been the invasion of water hyacinth since the late 1980s. The millions of dollars ploughed into solving the problem largely rid the gulf of hyacinth by 2005, but the gulf remains highly susceptible to the the plant's clutches.

Aside from Lake Victoria in the west, Kenya has numerous small volcanic lakes, as well as a sea of jade, otherwise known by the more boring name of Lake Turkana, which straddles the Ethiopian border in the north. The main alkaline lakes in the Rift Valley include Bogoria, Nakuru, Elmenteita, Magadi and Oloiden. These shallow soda lakes, formed by the valley’s lack of decent drainage, experience high evaporation rates, which further concentrates the alkalinity. The strangely soapy and smelly waters are, however, the perfect environment for the growth of microscopic blue-green algae, which in turn feed lesser flamingos, tiny crustaceans (food for greater flamingos) and insect larvae (food for soda-resistant fish).

Not all of the Rift Valley’s lakes are alkaline; freshwater lakes include Baringo and Naivasha.

In 2011 the global significance of Kenya’s Rift Valley lake system (primarily Lakes Nakuru, Elmenteita and Bogoria) was recognised when it was inscribed on Unesco’s list of World Heritage Sites. Five of the Rift Valley’s lakes – Baringo, Bogoria, Elmenteita, Naivasha and Nakuru – have also been listed on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance, and represent important habitats for wintering waterbirds from the north.

Rivers

One of Kenya’s most important rivers is the Athi/Galana River system. The Athi River passes east of Nairobi, joins the Tsavo River (which passes through the Tsavo West National Park), and the two then feed into the Galana River, which cuts Tsavo East National Park in two. The Athi/Galana River then empties into the Indian Ocean close to Malindi. The Tana River is the country’s other major river, rising northeast of Nairobi and emptying into the Indian Ocean between Malindi and Lamu.

Environmental Issues

Kenya faces a daunting slew of environmental issues, among them deforestation, desertification, threats to endangered species and the impacts of tourism. In response, Kenya's private conservation community has taken matters into its own hands with, in many cases, exceptional results.

Deforestation

More than half of Africa’s forests have been destroyed over the last century, and forest destruction continues on a large scale in parts of Kenya – today, less than 3% of the country’s original forest cover remains. Land grabbing, charcoal burning, agricultural encroachment, the spiralling use of firewood and illegal logging have all taken their toll over the years. However, millions of Kenyans (and the majority of hotels, lodges and restaurants) still rely on wood and charcoal for cooking fuel, so travellers to the country will almost certainly contribute to this deforestation, whether they like it or not.

Native hardwood, such as ebony and mahogany, is often used to make the popular carved wooden statue souvenirs sold in Kenya. Although this industry supports thousands of local families who may otherwise be without an income, it also consumes an estimated 80,000 trees annually. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Unesco campaigned to promote the use of common, faster-growing trees, and many handicraft cooperatives now use wood taken from forests managed by the Forest Stewardship Council. If you buy a carving, ask if the wood is sourced from managed forests.

Desertification

Northern and eastern Kenya are home to some of the most marginal lands in East Africa. Pastoralists have eked out a similarly marginal existence here for centuries, but recurring droughts have seriously degraded the land, making it increasingly susceptible to creeping desertification and erosion. As a consequence, the UN estimates that the livelihoods of around 3.5 million herders may be under medium- to long-term threat.

And desertification, at least in its early stages, may even begin to encroach upon the most unlikely places. The fertile lands of Kenya’s Central Highlands rank among Africa’s most agriculturally productive, but therein lies their peril: here, around three-quarters of Kenya’s population crowds into just 12% of the land, with the result that soils are being rapidly depleted through overexploitation – one of the early warning signs of desertification.

Endangered Species

Many of Kenya’s major predators and herbivores have become endangered over the past few decades, because of poisoning, the ongoing destruction of their natural habitat and merciless poaching for ivory, skins, horn and bushmeat.

Elephants

Elephants are numerous in many areas of Kenya, but this hasn’t always been so and their survival is one of world conservation’s most enduring success stories.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the numbers of African elephants on the continent plummeted from an estimated 1.3 million to around 500,000 due to widespread poaching. In Kenya, elephant numbers fell from 45,000 in 1976 to just 5400 in 1988. The slaughter ended only in 1989 when the trade in ivory was banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). When the ban was established, world raw-ivory prices plummeted by 90% and the market for poaching and smuggling was radically reduced. The same year, Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi dramatically burned 12 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park as a symbol of Kenya’s resolve in the battle against poachers.

Yet poaching still hasn't been stamped out entirely and attacks continue to happen. The Great Elephant Census of 2016 (www.greatelephantcensus.com) estimated that there were around 26,000 elephants in Kenya today, and the country is one of the few places in Africa where elephant numbers are growing, although admittedly very slowly.

Rhinoceros

These inoffensive vegetarians are armed with impressive horns that have made them the target of both hunters and poachers – rhino numbers plummeted to the brink of extinction during the 20th century and the illegal trade in rhino horns is still driven by their use in traditional medicines in Asian countries.

There are two species of rhino – black and white – both of which are predominantly found in savannah regions. The black rhino is probably Kenya’s most endangered large mammal. It is also often described as Kenya's indigenous rhino – historically, the white rhino was not found in Kenya. Pursued by heavily armed gangs, the black rhino’s numbers fell from an estimated 20,000 in the 1970s to barely 300 a decade later. Numbers are slowly recovering (rhinos are notoriously slow breeders), with an estimated 600 to 700 black rhinos surviving in the wild in Kenya, which represents around one-sixth of Africa’s total (or close to 90% of the world population for the eastern subspecies of black rhino). Despite some poaching incidents, Kenya's black rhino population almost doubled in the decade to 2016.

Although numbers are quite small in Kenya, the survival of the white rhino is an environmental conservation success story, having been brought back from the brink of extinction in South Africa through captive breeding. The KWS estimates that Kenya is home to 350 to 375 white rhinos in the wild. At Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia you can see the last three remaining northern white rhinos (a subspecies of the white rhino) left in the world.

Rhino Ark is one organisation that raises funds to create rhino sanctuaries, or to build fences around national parks, as it has done in Aberdare National Park. Donations are always appreciated.

Lions

Lions may be the easiest of Kenya’s big cats to spot – leopards are notoriously secretive and largely keep to the undergrowth, while cheetahs live in similarly low-density populations and can also prove elusive. But don’t let appearances fool you: the lion may be the most imperilled of Africa’s three big cats.

Fewer than 30,000 lions are thought to remain in Africa (there is a tiny, highly inbred population of Asian lions in the Gir Forest in Gujarat state in India), although most conservationists agree that the number is most likely considerably below that figure. In Kenya, fewer than 2000 are thought to survive, although this, too, is feared to be an overestimate. Although there are small, scattered prides around the country, in Lake Nakuru National Park and northern Kenya, the only viable lion populations in the long term are those in Laikipia (estimated at around 270 lions), Maasailand and the two Tsavo parks (around 700 lions in the entire Tsavo ecosystem).

And numbers are falling alarmingly, possibly by as many as 100 lions per year, thanks primarily to human encroachment, habitat loss and the resulting human–wildlife conflict. The poisoning of lions (as well as scavengers and other predators), either in retaliation for lions killing livestock or encroaching onto farming lands, has also reached dangerous levels, to the extent that some lion conservationists predict that the lion could become extinct in Kenya within 20 years.

Grevy’s Zebra

Kenya (along with neighbouring Ethiopia) is home to the last surviving wild populations of Grevy’s zebra. Grevy's zebras are distinguished from other zebra species by having narrow stripes everywhere but with bellies free from stripes. In the 1970s, approximately 15,000 Grevy’s zebras were thought to survive in the wild. Just 2500 are estimated to remain and less than 1% of the Grevy zebra’s historical range lies within protected areas.

Giraffe

One of the most worrying developments in recent years has been the downgrading of the giraffe by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN; www.iucnredlist.org) from Least Concern in 2010 to Vulnerable in 2016. The world's tallest land mammal remains widespread across eastern and southern Africa, but a precipitous 40% decline (from an estimated 151,702 to 163,452 individuals in 1985 to 97,562 in 2015) has brought the species' fate into sharp focus.

The main threats to the giraffe are illegal hunting, habitat loss, increasing human–wildlife conflict, civil conflict and encroaching human settlements.

Rothschild’s Giraffe

The most endangered of the nine giraffe subspecies, the Rothschild’s giraffe has recently been hauled back from the brink of extinction. At the forefront of the fight to save Rothschild’s giraffe (which, unlike other subspecies, has distinctive white ‘stockings’ with no orange-and-black markings below the knee) has been the Giraffe Centre in Nairobi – visiting here is a fascinating experience, and helps further the attempts to save the giraffes and facilitate their return to the wild.

Cheetahs

The fastest land animal on earth (it can reach speeds of 75km/h in the first two seconds of its pursuit and at full speed may reach 115km/h), the cheetah in full flight is one of the most thrilling sights in the African wild. Cheetahs inhabit mostly open country, from the savannah to the desert, and they're most easily spotted in the major national parks of Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia. A small number of cheetahs are also believed to survive in the Sahara of Algeria and Niger.

At the end of 2016, a scientific study confirmed what many conservationists in the field had long feared – the cheetah is in trouble. The latest estimates suggest that just 7100 cheetahs remain in the wild, all of which live in Africa save for an isolated population of around 50 in the deserts and mountains of central Iran.

Of the estimated 6600 adult cheetahs that remain, the IUCN argued that there were just under 2000 cheetahs left in East Africa; between one-half and two-thirds are in southern Africa. More specifically, the IUCN estimated a population of 710 for the Serengeti–Mara–Amboseli–Tsavo regions, plus a further 450 spread across Samburu and the Laikipia Plateau.

The major causes of the cheetah's decline are shrinking habitats and human encroachment, which results in increasing conflict between cheetahs and farmers; more than three-quarters of Africa's wild cheetahs live outside protected areas. Other problems include the smuggling of cheetah cubs out of the continent for sale as pets – baby cheetahs sell for as much as US$10,000 on the black market – with more than 1200 trafficked off the continent over the past decade, 85% of whom died in transit.

Organisations such as the Mara Cheetah Project (www.maracheetahs.org) and the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF; www.cheetah.org) are at the forefront of efforts to mitigate this conflict and are worth contacting to find out more.

Private versus Public Conservation

Kenya Wildlife Service

Conservation in Kenya has, for over two decades, been in the hands of the government-run Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS; www.kws.org) and few would dispute that it has done a pretty impressive job. In the dark years of the 1970s and '80s when poaching was rampant, a staggering number of Kenya’s rhinos and elephants were slaughtered and many KWS officers were in league with poachers. It all changed after the famous palaeontologist Dr Richard Leakey cleaned up the organisation in the 1980s and '90s. A core part of his policy was arming KWS rangers with modern weapons and high-speed vehicles, and allowing them to shoot poachers on sight. Even so, with poaching again on the rise, KWS rangers continue to lose their lives every year in battles with poachers.

Despite their excellent work in fighting poaching and maintaining Kenya's protected areas, the KWS is limited in what it can achieve. For a start, in times of shrinking government revenues, funding remains a major issue in how well the KWS can fulfil its mandate.

Just as importantly, much of Kenya's wildlife lives beyond national park and other publicly protected boundaries. In such an environment, the KWS has shown itself to be at times intransigent in handling incidents of human–wildlife conflict in the communities that surround national park areas. As a result, there is a widespread perception among some communities that the KWS is more interested in looking after wildlife than it is in protecting local people. In response, the KWS has in recent years been working hard to improve its community relations, particularly in and around Amboseli National Park.

Private Conservation

For all the success of KWS, there seems to be little doubt that the future of conservation in Kenya lies in private hands.

Much of it began up on the Laikipia Plateau and surrounding areas, on large cattle ranches which had, in many cases, been owned by the same family of white settlers since colonial times. One of the first to turn its attention to conservation was Lewa Downs, now the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which in 1983 set aside part of its land as a rhino sanctuary. Lewa remains a standard bearer for the conservancy model and there are now more than 40 such conservancies scattered across Laikipia and northern regions, with more around the Masai Mara.

While wildlife conservation is a primary focus of nearly all conservancies – these places often have the resources to work more intensively on specific conservation issues than national parks and reserves can – community engagement and development are considered equally important. Most often this consists of funding local schools, health centres and other development projects. By giving local communities a stake in the protection of wildlife, so the argument goes, they are more likely to protect the wildlife in their midst.

Another important element of the conservancy model includes making tourism pay its way. In almost all of the conservancies, access to conservancy land is restricted to those staying at the exclusive and often extremely expensive lodges and tented camps. Most also charge a conservancy fee (usually around US$100 per day), which goes directly to local community projects and wildlife programs. All of this means a far more intimate safari experience as well as a much-reduced impact upon the land when compared with mass tourism.

Yet another advantage of visiting a private conservancy is that the range of activities on offer far exceeds what is possible in national parks. At the most basic level, this means off-road driving (to get you really close to the wildlife), night drives and walking safaris. Horseback safaris and visits to local communities are among the other possibilities, although you'll usually pay extra for these.

One exception to the overall rule, and it's a significant one, is Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Although similar in terms of wildlife protection programs and community engagement, it has opened its doors to the public and receives tens of thousands of visitors every year. The experience of visiting Ol Pejeta is akin to visiting a national park but with a whole lot of really cool activities thrown in.

The private conservancies of the Laikipia Plateau in particular have produced some startling results – without a single national park or reserve in the area, Laikipia has become a major safari destination, and is proving to be a particularly important area for viable populations of endangered black rhinos, Grevy’s zebras, African wild dogs and lions. In fact, the black rhino may well have disappeared forever from Kenya were it not for the Laikipia conservancies.

Community-run Conservancies

Similar in focus to private ranches, community conservancies are an extension of the private conservancy model. Rather than being owned by wealthy owners or families, community conservancies are communally owned by entire communities and administered by community representatives. These communities treat wildlife as a natural resource and take serious action to protect the animals’ well-being, whether by combating poaching with increased security or by modifying their herding activities to minimise human–animal conflict and environmental damage.

With financial and logistical support from many sources, including Lewa Wildlife Conservancy (LWC), Laikipia Wildlife Forum (LWF) and the Northern Ranchlands Trust (NRT), these communities have in many cases built ecolodges whose income now provides much-needed funds for their education, health and humanitarian projects.

Northern Kenya appears to provide particularly fertile ground for the community conservancy model – fine examples include the Maasai of Il Ngwesi, Laikipia Maasai of Lekurruki and the Samburu within the Matthews Range – but there are also some excellent examples on the Maasai Group Ranches around Amboseli National Park and in the Masai Mara region.

Renewable Energy

The use of renewable energy has been slow to catch on in Kenya. Many top-end lodges attempt to pursue sound environmental practices – the use of solar energy is increasingly widespread – but these remain very much in the minority. And many of these top-end lodges suggest that you travel to them by air, which surely cancels out any gains of having solar-powered hot water in your shower. Expect fossil fuels to continue to drive Kenya’s economy.

Feature: Rift Lakes Rising

Whether alkaline or freshwater, Kenya's lakes have experienced an as-yet-unexplained rise in water levels. For some lakes, these rises have been by metres, engulfing shorelines and beyond, forcing some businesses to close, maps to be redrawn and reducing the salinity of the lakes in some cases; the latter problem has caused the flamingos to go elsewhere. Hardest hit have been Baringo, Bogoria, Elmenteita and Nakuru, with Lake Naivasha also experiencing rising water levels.

The most likely explanation is that tectonic plates well below the surface have shifted, causing changes in water flows, although nobody knows for how long these new watery boundaries will remain as they are.

Feature: Wangari Maathai, Nobel Laureate

On Earth Day in 1977 Professor Wangari Maathai planted seven trees in her backyard, setting in motion the grassroots environmental campaign that later came to be known as the Green Belt Movement. Since then more than 40 million trees have been planted throughout Kenya and the movement has expanded to more than 30 other African countries. The core aim of this campaign is to educate women – who make up some 70% of farmers in Africa – about the link between soil erosion, undernourishment and poor health, and to encourage individuals to protect their immediate environment and guard against soil erosion by planting ‘green belts’ of trees and establishing tree nurseries.

For decades, Maathai’s activism came at a cost. The Moi regime consistently vilified her as a ‘threat to the order and security of the country’, due to her demands for free and fair multiparty elections – throughout the years her public demonstrations were met with acts of violence and she spoke of receiving death threats. She also won few friends in powerful circles for working extensively with various international organisations to exert leverage on the Kenyan government.

In addition, she was also heavily involved in women’s rights (her first husband divorced her because she was ‘too strong-minded for a woman’; the judge in the divorce case agreed and then had her imprisoned for speaking out against him!). President Moi himself once famously suggested that Maathai should be more of a proper woman in the ‘African tradition’.

Later, however, Maathai served as assistant minister for the environment between 2003 and 2005, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 (the first African woman to receive one) for her tireless campaigning on environmental issues. In 2006 she was one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, which aims to bring justice, peace and equality to women.

Maathai died of cancer in a Nairobi Hospital in 2011 at the age of 71, but the Green Belt Movement (greenbeltmovement.org) she founded is still one of the most significant environmental organisations in Kenya. Maathai’s book Unbowed: One Woman’s Story was published in 2006.

Feature: Ecotourism Kenya

Established in 1996, Eco Tourism Kenya (ecotourismkenya.org) is a private organisation set up to oversee the country's tourism industry and encourage sustainable practices. Part of that involves a helpful eco-rating certification scheme for Kenya's hotels, safari camps and other accommodation options.

Under the scheme, a bronze rating is awarded to businesses that 'demonstrate awareness of and commitment to environmental conservation, responsible resource use and socio-economic investment'.

The silver standard goes to those businesses who 'demonstrate innovation – progress towards achieving excellence in environmental conservation, responsible resource use and socio-economic investment'.

To attain the much-coveted gold rating, tourism concerns must 'demonstrate outstanding best practices, ie they have achieved superior and replicable levels of excellence in responsible resource use, environmental conservation and socio-economic investment'.

As of late 2017, just 13 places had received the gold certification, 54 had silver status and 30 were bronze rated. To find out which properties made the cut, click on 'Eco-rated Facilities' under 'Directory Listings' on Eco Tourism Kenya's home page.

Feature: Cattle-free National Parks?

Nothing seems to disappoint visitors to Kenya’s national parks more than the sight of herders shepherding their livestock to water sources within park boundaries. In the words of former Kenya Wildlife Service head Dr Richard Leakey: ‘People don’t pay a lot of money to see cattle’. The issue is, however, a complicated one.

On the one hand, what you are seeing is far from a natural African environment. For thousands of years people, and their herds of cattle, lived happily (and sustainably) alongside the wildlife, and their actions helped to shape the landscapes of East Africa. But with the advent of conservation and national parks, many of Kenya’s tribal peoples, particularly pastoralists such as the Maasai and Samburu, found themselves and their cattle excluded from their ancestral lands or water holes of last resort, often with little or no compensation or alternative incomes provided (although, of course, some do now make a living through tourism and conservation).

Having been pushed onto marginal lands and with limited access to alternative water sources in times of drought, many have been forced to forgo their traditional livelihoods and have taken to leading sedentary lifestyles. Those that continue as herders have little choice but to overgraze their lands. Such policies of exclusion tend to reinforce the perception among local peoples that wildlife belongs to the government and brings few benefits to local communities. This position is passionately argued in the excellent (if slightly dated) book No Man’s Land: An Investigative Journey Through Kenya & Tanzania (2003) by George Monbiot.

At the same time, tourism is a major (and much-needed) source of revenue for Kenya and most visitors to Kenya want to experience a natural wilderness – on the surface at least, the national parks and reserves appear to provide this Eden-esque slice of Africa. It also remains questionable whether allowing herders and their livestock to graze within park boundaries would alleviate the pressures on overexploited land and traditional cultures, or would instead simply lead to the degradation of Kenya’s last remaining areas of relatively pristine wilderness.

Things get even more complicated when talking about private and community conservancies. Many Laikipia and Mara conservancies – Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Segera Ranch are two prominent examples – consider livestock to be an important part of habitat management, arguing that well-maintained livestock herds can help reduce tick infestations for wildlife. Carefully controlled grazing can also, they argue, actually assist in the regeneration of grassland ecosystems.

Feature: Poaching's Return

A recent upsurge in the poaching of both elephants (for their tusks) and rhinos (for their horns) has conservationists worried we may soon be facing a return to the dark days of the 1980s.

Talk to many in the conservation community and they'll tell you that it was in 2009 that the crisis again began to take hold. It was in the following year that Lewa Wildlife Conservancy lost its first rhinos to poaching in almost three decades and Africa has lost more than 30,000 elephants a year since 2010. In 2014, for the first time in decades, a critical threshold was crossed when more elephants were being killed on the continent than were being born.

While numbers of poached animals in Kenya remain relatively low, all of the major rhino sanctuaries – Nairobi National Park, Lake Nakuru National Park, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Solio Game Reserve, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West National Park – have lost rhinos to poachers in recent years. Most worrying of all is that each of these have extremely high security and sophisticated anti-poaching programs.

For elephants, poaching hotspots include the northern half of Tsavo East National Park (which is off-limits for travellers), the community lands just outside the southern boundary of Tsavo West National Park, and the lands surrounding Samburu National Reserve.

The Kenya Wildlife Service, while denying that poaching has reached crisis levels in Kenya, remains on the frontline in the war against poaching, but other organisations are also active.

Feature: The Battle for Lake Turkana

A number of the world's leading oil companies have been conducting exploratory drilling in the area between Lake Turkana and the Ethiopian border. In 2012 Britain's Tullow Oil struck it lucky, prompting much celebration in the Kenyan media that Kenya could soon be a major oil-producing country-in-waiting. Although the oil is still to begin flowing – commercial production is due to commence in 2020 – Lake Turkana is widely considered by industry experts to be one of the more promising onshore oil exploration areas in East Africa.

At the same time, plans are well developed for the Lake Turkana Wind Power project (www.ltwp.co.ke), which finally became operational in 2017. When completed, the project will use 365 wind turbines across 16,000 hectares around 50km north of South Horr to provide the equivalent of 20% of Kenya’s current power needs. It is one of Kenya's largest-ever private investment projects.

Feature: Invasive Plant Species

There are many well-known threats to the ecosystem of Kenya’s iconic Masai Mara National Reserve – poaching, overdevelopment and growing human populations. But one of the most dangerous threats comes in the form of a simple plant: a foreign weed called parthenium (Parthenium hysterophorus). The toxic weed, which is not native to Kenya, first appeared around Nairobi, the Athi River, Naivasha and Busia, but its rapid growth in the Mara has led to it being designated a noxious weed by Kenya’s government. Known to grow along the banks of the Mara River and some tracks through the reserve, parthenium (which is unpalatable to the Mara’s herbivores) is spreading at an alarming rate, and in some areas is even replacing the fabled grasslands of the Mara. A single parthenium plant can produce up to 25,000 seeds and its chemical composition is such that it inhibits the growth of other plants, prompting concerns that the weed could pose a long-term threat to the Mara.

Feature: White Giraffe

In mid-2017 a herder was walking through the bush in the Ishaqbini Hirola Conservancy, in Garissa County in northeastern Kenya, when he came across a ghostly apparition in the bush: a completely white giraffe. It was far from Kenya's well-worn tourist trails – which probably explains why it has only just been discovered – but conservationists rushed to the site to shoot what is believed to be the world's first video footage of a completely white giraffe. With the adult white giraffe was a calf that, too, was almost completely white.

The giraffes, which belong to the reticulated giraffe subspecies, are thought to not be albinos (which produce no melanin in their bodies and have red eyes) but demonstrate the genetic condition known as leucism, which suppresses pigmentation in skin cells.

Reports of white giraffes are rare but are not unheard of. Most recently, a sighting was reported in April 2016 from elsewhere in Garissa County and in January of the same year in Tanzania's Tarangire National Park.

Feature: Which Field Guide?

Having trouble telling a dik-dik from a klipspringer? A serval from a caracal? Field guides, apart from being damned interesting to read, can be invaluable tools for identifying animals while on safari. Our favourites:

  • A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter; 2011) Wonderfully illustrated and filled with fascinating detail.
  • The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (Jonathan Kingdon; 2nd ed, 2015) The latest edition of the classic field guide covering over 1150 species. There's also the travel-friendly Kingdon Pocket Guide to African Mammals (2016).
  • The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Richard Despard Estes; 1991) Classic study of the behaviour of mammal species. Estes' follow-up The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals (1993) is an excellent, slightly more accessible alternative.
  • Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania (Dale A Zimmerman, David J Pearson and Donald A Turner; 2005) The birding field guide of choice for East Africa.
  • Jonathan Scott's Safari Guide to East African Animals and Jonathan Scott's Safari Guide to East African Birds, both published first in 1998 but updated since, are wonderful safari companions with fine photos by Angela Scott.

In the UK, an excellent source for wildlife and nature titles is Subbuteo Natural History Books Ltd (www.wildlifebooks.com), while in Australia, check out Andrew Isles Natural History Books (www.andrewisles.com); both accept international mail orders.

Feature: Banning Plastic Bags

At the end of August 2017, Kenya introduced one of the world's strictest laws against the use of plastic carrier bags. The law, which survived a High Court challenge and warnings of 80,000 job losses in the plastic-bag-production industry, allows for those who break the law to be sentenced to four years in prison or face a US$38,000 fine. In practice, in the first months of the law's implementation, police were instructed to warn those who violate the laws and confiscate the offending bags.

No-one who has travelled in Kenya could doubt the need for such a law, with plastic bags filling the countryside and vacant plots of land, especially in Kenyan cities. In addition to being an eyesore, plastic bags have the potential to impact upon public health: for example, grazing cattle feed on the bags, with up to 20 polythene bags pulled from the stomach of just one cow in one Nairobi abattoir The government estimates that before the ban Kenyans used 24 million plastic bags every month. And travellers are certainly not exempt – if you're arriving by air with duty-free plastic shopping bags, the bags will be taken from you before you leave the airport.

Later in 2017, the government announced a further ban, this time on taking plastic water bottles into Nairobi National Park and the nearby Karura Forest. It seems likely that the ban will be extended to cover all national parks in the not-too-distant future.

Feature: Good Wildlife Reads

  • The Tree Where Man Was Born (Peter Matthiessen; 1972) Classic, lyrical account of wildlife and traditional peoples in East Africa.
  • A Primate's Memoir: Love, Death and Baboons in East Africa (Robert M Sapolsky; 2002) Wonderfully told memoir of working among the baboons of East Africa.
  • Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: Animals, adventure and discovery in the wild places of Africa (Alan Root; 2012) Picaresque tale of the life of the late Alan Root, one of the pioneers in wildlife documentary film-making.
  • The Big Cat Man: An Autobiography (Jonathon Scott; 2016) Jonathon Scott has been the companion to a generation of safari goers and armchair travellers. His autobiography is typically warm-hearted.
  • Don't Run, Whatever You Do: My Adventures as a Safari Guide (Peter Allison; 2007) Light-hearted romp through adventures and misadventures of a safari guide. Set in Botswana but could easily be Kenya.

Feature: Wildlife Watching – The Basics

  • Most animals are naturally wary of people, so to minimise their distress (or aggression) keep as quiet as possible, avoid sudden movements and wear subdued colours when in the field.
  • Avoid direct eye contact, particularly with primates, as this is seen as a challenge and may provoke aggressive behaviour.
  • Good binoculars are an invaluable aid to observing wildlife at a distance and are essential for birdwatching.
  • When on foot, stay downwind of animals wherever possible – they'll smell you long before they see or hear you.
  • Never get out of your vehicle unless it's safe to do so.
  • Always obey park regulations, including traffic speed limits; thousands of animals are needlessly killed on African roads every year.
  • Follow your guide's instructions at all times – it may mean the difference between life and death on a walking safari.
  • Never get between a mother and her young.
  • Exercise care when boating or swimming, and be particularly aware of the dangers posed by crocodiles and hippos.
  • Never feed wild animals – it encourages scavenging, may adversely affect their health, and can cause animals to become aggressive towards each other and humans.

Feature: The Hunting Debate

Hunting has been banned in Kenya since 1977, and it appears unlikely that this will change in the foreseeable future. But commercial or trophy hunting is a major industry in a number of African countries – Tanzania, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have active hunting industries – and contributes significant revenues to government coffers. Some conservation groups in Kenya even argue that lifting the ban on commercial hunting in Kenya could help to reverse the decline in Kenya's wildlife population numbers.

While abhorrent to many, controlled hunting can, many conservation groups recognise, play an important role in preserving species. According to this argument, tourism revenues (whether national park fees or lodge revenues) have too often failed to reach local communities, reinforcing a perception that wildlife belongs to the government, with little benefit for ordinary people forced to live with wildlife that can kill their livestock or trample their crops. Hunting on private concessions, however, generally attracts massive fees (lion licences in Southern Africa can sell for US$20,000), of which, the theory goes, a significant proportion is fed back into local community projects, thereby giving wildlife a tangible economic value for local people.

Hunting, the argument continues, also makes productive use of land that is considered unsuitable for photographic tourism, either because of its remoteness or lack of tourism infrastructure. If controlled strictly – through the use of quotas and killing only a limited number of solitary male lions who are past their prime, for example – hunting can, according to its proponents, play a part in saving species from extinction.

Opponents of hunting argue that the whole debate is premised on the failure of governments and private operators to fairly redistribute their revenues from non-lethal forms of tourism – why, they ask, should we expect that hunting be any different? They also argue that the solution lies in a fairer distribution of tourism revenues and greater community involvement in conservation rather than in killing the very animals upon which tourism depends. And finally, some critics point to the double standards of arresting and imprisoning locals who hunt wildlife (whether for commercial or subsistence reasons), while permitting rich (and usually white) hunters to shoot animals during short visits to the continent.

For more on hunting's pros and cons, and the fascinating case of Tanzania, read Craig Packer's excellent Lions in the Balance (2015).

The debate continues.

Feature: Concrete & Sand

Driving around Kenya, especially along the southern and eastern outskirts of Nairobi, it can feel as if every second factory is a cement factory. This highly competitive industry is a major player in Kenya's rapidly developing economy, but the industry's demand for sand – especially with so many major infrastructure projects under way, such as the expansion of the national railway – is causing concerns among conservationists. In particular, the dredging from sand has already begun to impact upon the beaches of Tiwi and the sea turtles that nest in the area, while a number of rivers have been seriously degraded as well. The Kilome Ikolya River in Makueni County in southeastern Kenya has been particularly affected with massive erosion, dying trees, disappearing water and violence – in 2011 a police officer who tried to confront illegal sand harvesters was killed.

Feature: Trouble in Laikipia

Laikipia has long been held up as a shining example of a partnership between conservation and local communities, balancing the needs of local livestock herders with wildlife protection. But this reputation has been shaken recently. In March 2017, founder of Offbeat Safaris and respected guide and conservationist Tristan Voorspuy was killed while inspecting his Sosian Lodge in Laikipia after an arson attack. The following month, renowned author, conservationist and Laikipia resident Kuki Gallmann, who wrote I Dreamed of Africa among other books, was shot and critically injured while patrolling her Ol Ari Nyiro ranch, also in Laikipia.

While no tourists have been caught up in the violence, the developments are deeply concerning for other ranches and conservancies in the region. The violence has been largely blamed on a crippling drought that has prompted armed cattle rustlers and ordinary herders to drive up to 200,000 head of livestock onto the Laikipia Plateau in search of grazing. Although it can be difficult to disentangle the various parties involved, it has been widely reported that the violence has been led more by armed gangs from beyond Laikipia than by local communities.

Worryingly, the violence in Laikipia became a political football during the August 2017 presidential campaign. In June of that year, leading opposition candidate Raila Odinga struck fear into the hearts of ranch owners in the area when he told the London Times newspaper, 'These ranches are too big and the people don't even live there; they live in Europe and only come once in a while…There's a need for rationalisation to ensure there's more productive use of that land.'

Sidebar: Wildlife Wars

Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya’s Elephants (2001) is Dr Richard Leakey’s fascinating account of his years at the forefront of the fight against ivory poaching in Kenya.

Sidebar: Mangroves

  • Wasini Island
  • Funzi Island
  • Gazi Island
  • Mida Creek

Sidebar: Rhino Hot Spots

  • Ol Pejeta Conservancy
  • Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
  • Meru National Park
  • Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary
  • Nairobi National Park
  • Solio Game Reserve
  • Aberdare National Park
  • Lake Nakuru National Park

Sidebar: Marine Parks

  • Kisite Marine National Park (Wasini Island)
  • Kiunga Marine National Reserve (Kiwayu Island)
  • Malindi Marine National Park (near Malindia)
  • Mombasa Marine National Park & Reserve (Bamburi Beach)
  • Watamu Marine National Park (Watamu)

Sidebar: Tree Where Man Was Born

For an evocative and beautifully written picture of Kenya’s physical, environmental and cultural make-up, track down Peter Matthiessen’s classic, The Tree Where Man was Born (1972), an account of the author’s epic journey through East Africa in the 1960s.

Sidebar: Where to See Rothschild's Giraffes

  • Giraffe Centre (Nairobi)
  • Lake Nakuru National Park
  • Mwea National Reserve
  • Ruma National Park

Sidebar: Unesco World Heritage Sites

Six sites in Kenya are included on the Unesco World Heritage list: Mt Kenya, the Lake Turkana national parks, Lamu’s Old Town, Fort Jesus in Mombasa, the Mijikenda kayas (sacred forests) and the lake system in the Great Rift Valley.

Sidebar: Game Changer

Game Changer: Animal Rights & the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife (2012), by Glen Martin, is a provocative look at wildlife conservation, covering Kenya, Tanzania and Namibia.

Sidebar: White Rhinos

White rhinos aren’t white at all – the name comes from the Dutch word wijd, which means wide and refers to the white rhino’s wide lip (the black rhino has a pointed lip).

Sidebar: Conservation Organisations

  • Panthera (www.panthera.org)
  • Lion Guardians (www.lionguardians.org)
  • Big Life (www.biglife.org)
  • Ewaso Lions (www.ewasolions.org)
  • Save the Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org)
  • Amboseli Trust for Elephants (www.elephanttrust.org)
  • Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust (www.maasaiwilderness.org)

Sidebar: East African Wildlife Society

The East African Wildlife Society (www.eawildlife.org), based in Nairobi, is the most prominent conservation body in the region and a good source of information. It also publishes SWARA magazine, a stalwart of the conservation scene and much of which is available online for members.

Sidebar: A Natural History of Kenya

Kenya: A Natural History (2012), by Stephen Spawls and Glenn Matthews, covers everything from wildlife to geology and just about everything in between. It's a terrific resource, if a little eclectic in parts.

Sidebar: Where to See Grevy's Zebra

  • Lewa Wildlife Conservancy
  • Ol Pejeta Conservancy
  • Segera Ranch
  • Meru National Park
  • Samburu National Reserve

Sidebar: Burning Ivory

In 2016, 27 years after then-President Daniel arap Moi dramatically burned 12 tonnes of ivory in Nairobi National Park and with poaching again on the rise, President Jomo Kenyatta burned 100 tonnes of ivory at the same site. The bonfire amounted to tusks from 6000 elephants or 5% of global ivory stocks.

Sidebar: The 'Big Five'

Seeing the 'Big Five' has become a mantra for African wildlife watchers, but few know it was coined by white hunters for the five species deemed most dangerous to hunt: elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo.