Parks and Reserves in Kenya

About Kenya’s National Parks & Reserves

Parks and Reserves in Kenya

Discover Parks & Reserves in Kenya: Part III

In all, there are 60 National Parks and Reserves in Kenya, and the traveller may be assured that whether one is exploring the shimmering savanna in the heart of Nairobi, driving through the semi-desert steppe of Northern Kenya or merely admiring the alpine flora and lush greenery in the mountains of Central Kenya, he will enjoy many opportunities for exploration and interesting driving, and as fine game viewing as can be sighted anywhere in Africa. The interest in official protection of Kenya’s wilder places and its prolific wildlife was commensurate with the emergence of the British imperial rule in the 1890s. Needless, perhaps, to point out, is that the native communities in the 1800s and in recent history used wildlife for food, with hardly any evidence of monetary benefits, favouring the coexistence between early humans and wildlife. Big game hunting safaris, however high-sounding the pursuit, and the subjugation of wildlife to poaching and ivory hunting influenced trading in wildlife resources, nudging forward the importance to safeguard Kenya’s great interests, and inlay laws and regulations.

In 1945, the Government passed the National Parks Ordinance which paved the way for launching more protected areas. This was followed by the establishment of Nairobi Royal Park in 1945. By 1956, there were two bodies responsible for fauna conservation in Kenya – the Game Department and the Trustees of the National Parks – a game or national reserve proclaimed to protect an area of particular faunal interest”. Forest Reserves were under the control of the Forest Department. The Wildlife Management Act of 1976 sought to bring all these institutions, other than those under Forest Department, under one authority. The difference between a National Park and National Reserve is historical and somewhat irrelevant today, with these differences in mind: A National Park is fenced off and no other form of land use is permitted in such areas while in a National Reserve the land is used by the public and is unfenced, where limited grazing is usually permitted. Also, a National Park is managed by the National Government, while a National Reserve is managed by the County Governments.

Narok County

46. Masai Mara National Reserve

Masai Mara National Park - Sekenani Gate

Next to claiming the bragging rights for the concept of ‘safari’, the Masai Mara National Reserve is Kenya’s biggest trump-card. The crown-jewel of her faunal sanctuaries. And for all the difficulties of getting to the Mara by road, especially on the 67 kms rough patch from Narok Town – a dusty, jerky ride, with a lot of bumping on the windows, which lasts 2 hours, assuming it does not rain – the journey is well rewarded with memorable sights that most people carry for the rest of their lives. Paradoxically, this state is a means of rationing access to the fragile ecosystem, and is synonymous with all National Reserves. Assuredly, the Government has no plans to tarmac the road sections to the reserves. Of its five gates – Ololoolo, Musiara, Talek, Ololomutiek and Sekenani – most visitors to the Mara access it through the Sekenani Gate. The Mara also has three airstrips at Keekorok, Olkiombo and Musiara – served by daily flights from Nairobi City. 

In many respects the Masai Mara National Reserve is perhaps the most popular National Reserves in Kenya and between June and September hotels record 100 per cent booking. “It is a reserve not a national park meaning it is unfenced and run by the Local County and not the National Government”. There’s something for everyone at the Mara, from crawl-in tents to first-rate resort. More than any other reserve and park in Kenya, the Masai Mara is dotted by numerous luxury lodges, tented camps, and campsites. It has around 42 resorts and safari camps, mainly set up in the conservancies abutting with Mara. As far as luxury safaris go, few places top the Mara. These conservancies are found chiefly around the Masai Mara N. Reserve and serve as dispersal and migratory corridors. Some of the largest conservancies are Pardamat, Mara North, Mara Naboisho and Siana.

Narok County

47. Aberdare National Park

Aberdare National Park. Image Courtesy of JT Safaris

To a great degree, Game Parks in Kenya are prospered by the big-five species – lion, leopard, elephant, rhinocero and Cape buffalo. The pre-eminence on this cosset group of highly charismatic species originated in the days of big game hunting, when these were considered especially dangerous. You’ll find all these and more here. The Aberdare National Park often romanticized as ‘the valley of beauty’ has unique floral interest, bearing many unique varieties. A drive across the Park takes one through moorlands, bamboo forests and several clear trout streams – west via Naivasha and east from Nyeri. What the 766 km2 Aderdare National Park lacks in size is made up for by its easily accessible sites and good parkways. The Park contains the famous Treetops and the Ark Lodges. Its huge vistas have also enjoyed a share of Hollywood Fame. Gura Waterfall, the most precipitous in Kenya, and Karuru Falls, the tallest, were portrayed in the Oscar-winning film Out of Africa. It was also the set for filming of Gorillas in the Mist and White Mischief. Its links to the Royal Family and the Mau Mau Uprising have had a multiplier effect. The park’s HQ is located 15 Kms from Nyeri, along the Nyeri to Nyahururu Road. It can be reached from Naro Moru and Naivasha.

Samburu County

48. Samburu National Reserve

Samburu National Reserve in Samburu County

Unofficially given the title of big game country, the 165 km2 Samburu National Reserve is aggrandized for hosting one of the largest grouping of elephants in Northern Kenya, in addition to, the respectable numbers of the other members of Africa’s high-minded big-five – lions, leopards, rhinos and buffalos. Unique perhaps to Samburu National Reserve is that it also hosts all the members of the uncelebrated special five– Beisa oryx, reticulated giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Somali’s ostrich and Gerenuk antelope – which are an unusual and select band of exotic game endemic to the northern region of Kenya. In spite of the drastic reduction in the number of elephants and other big mammals due to poaching in the 1970’s, Samburu National Reserve has turned around this calamity and it is now teemed with a spectacular variety of wildlife, that are the stuff of dreams.

Samburu National Reserve lies north of the River Ewaso Nyiro, which separates it from Shaba and Buffalo Springs National Reserves. It is this river that offers the major attraction to holiday-makers in all these three reserves and especially during the dry season – December to March – when it adopts a shallow change in character and its wooded fringes of tall doum palms forms canopies of deep shade affording much welcome relief to man and beast. Here, one comes across, day-to-day, giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, baboon, impala, serval and warthog. Also widespread and sighted frequently are zebra, grant’s gazelle, hyena and eland. The Samburu Game Lodge, built along the banks of River Ewaso Nyiro, is the anchor lodge at Samburu National Reserve. Other options include Saasab Game LodgeSamburu Intrepids Tented CampSentrim Samburu Lodge, The Serena Lodge and Samburu Sopa Lodge. Samburu Lodge is 20 kms from Archer’s Post.

49. Maralal Game Reserve

Maralal Safari Lodge. Image Courtesy of Trip Advisor

The defunct Maralal National Reserve which was wound down in 2014 by the Samburu Government following the eradication of wildlife by poaching has since been absorbed by Maralal Town. The area which was once the Maralal Game Reserve is still a prepossessing landscape and the Maralal Safari Lodge, located 3 kms east of Maralal Town, and fully renovated in 2015, continues to thrive.  Some noteworthy areas of interest found nearby are Kenyatta House Museum 1 kms from Maralal, and the Malaso Viewpoint 100 kms from Maralal.

Siaya County

50. Lake Kanyaboli National Reserve

Lake Kanyaboli National Reserve in Siaya County

The recent history of the plight of the satellite lakes in Yala Swamp has brought to the forefront the urgent need to safeguard this biospheres and rethink how their resources are harnessed. The fisheries of the lake that once drew hundreds of fish species now rely primarily on the native pelagic minnow locally known as “Omena” and the introduced Nile perch and tilapia. Further, the cannibalistic Nile perch is threatening not only to destroy itself but the entire lake ecosystem. A management strategy designed to improve and preserve the pleasing 15 km2 Lake Kanyaboli and its sister lakes is underway. Encircled by papyrus round its rim and framed as a living museum for its abundance of the cichlid – a rare and variegated fish species – Lake Kanyaboli is notable as the second largest oxbow lake in Africa.  It is best-known as a bird-lovers paradise that can be combined with sightseeing around its ring-road that loops around the lake, spectacular at dawn and dusk. There are large rock outcrops at the waters edge that are easy hiking sites with exceptional vantage points at the summit. Also of interest for callers to Lake Kanyaboli is sighting the Sitatunga and exploring Kombo Beach.  A trip to the lake is easily combined with a look-see of the near Dominion Farm.

Tana River County

51. Kora National Park

Kora National Park

Surrounded and linked to Mwingi National Reserve (west), Meru National Park (northwest), Bisanadi National Reserve (north) and Rahole National Reserve (east) at the northernmost corner of Tana River County, the remote 1,700 km2 Kora National Park, marked by dense dry bushland with sweeps of grassland, once held great numbers of elephant and rhino. However they were victims of the poaching wave which raged during the 1970’s, thereafter rendering it to a massive grazing rangeland. Kora’s claim to fame is that is was the base for the last of Kenya’s great eccentric – George Adamson. It is here that he lived out his twilight years releasing lions back to the wild. “Africa has strange tales to tell, but no greater paradox than that enacted by Adamson, for he lives in a cage and the lions lived outside it! While what he does is doubtful value for conservation, it is nonetheless something that will survive for centuries as an illustration of the unusual.” After Adamson’s death in 1989, Kora National Park deteriorated fast, with little game on show only for those prepared to search for it on foot. Of a recent development, efforts are underway to spruce up Kora’s infrastructure. For now, and much the same as Rahole and Mwingi National Reserves on either side, it is without accommodation. Highlights include: Adamsons Falls Bridge and Kora Rapids, Tana River, Adamson’s Camp or Kampi ya Simba (the former home for George and Joy Adamson) and pretty inselbergs. The park has good parkways. The most popular activity at Kora National Park is hiking up the epic and conspicuous Kora Rock. The easiest way to get to Kora National Park is via Meru National Park. It can also be accessed via Kaningo Gate through Mwingi.

52. Tana Primate National Reserve

Tana Primate National Reserve

Located 202 kms from Garissa and 60 kms south of Bura, the 170 km2 Tana Primate National Reserve, of a semi-arid savanna with a 13 km2 fragment of riverine and forest fragment, is home to a good mix of intriguing wildlife most notably of the Tana magabey, after which the park is named.  The forest patch in Tana Primate Reserve support more than 57 mammal species, 261 avifauna species and 175 claases of flora. It was established to protect both the riverine forest and the rare mangabey and red colobus monkeys.  The highlight at the Tana Primate is spotting the abounding Tana magabeys, which are one of the world’s most endangered primates and endemic to this forest fragment found along the 61 kms stretch of the lower Tana River. The budget-friendly Mchelelo Bandas are the most convenient accommodation for explorers to Tana Primate.

Taita Taveta County

53. Tsavo West National Park

Tsavo West National Park. Image courtesy of Trip Advisor

Originally established in 1949 as part of the Tsavo Conservation Area and later reestablished in 1964 as Tsavo West National Park, the 9,065 km2 park became the second National Park to be gazetted in Kenya – after Nairobi National Park. Tsavo Conservation Area was split for administrative purpose, with three main headquarters – Voi (for Tsavo East), Kamboyo (for Tsavo West) and Kithasyu (for Chyulu Hills). It borders both Makueni and Kajiado Counties. Although it is the less popular of the two Tsavo Parks, it receives no less than 90,000 holiday-makers each year, many of whom are attracted by its high diversity of big-game. Tsavo West National Park is widely-popular for its expansive open grasslands interspersed with ancient ash cones. Exploring through the magnificent Tsavo West National Park one gets a proposition of what this area might have looked like over a century ago. And for wildlife, Tsavo West’s abounding herds of “red elephants” are so well-known as to warrant no introduction here.  Interestingly, it is the activity of these elephants that did away with much of its woodland, rendering it to a treeless domain. Tsavo West National Park is a haunt of many species of wild animals, as widely cited in numerous travel books, to include its legendary ill-tempered rhinos, giraffes, buffaloes and its legions of reptiles. The Park has tremendous attractions. About 32 kms from the Mtito Andei Gate sits the highly acclaimed Kilaguni Game Lodge, so often whooped up as the pioneer safari lodge in East Africa. Only 10 kms from the lodge is Mzima Springs, one of Tsavo’s greatest spectacle. It is also home to Ngulia Lodge raised on the edge of Ndawe Escarpment where game of all kinds call in on to drink at the waterholes near the lodge. It also faces the scenically-spectacular Mount Kilimanjaro. The main gates are Chyulu Gate from Amboseli and Mtito Andei Gate from Nairobi.

54. Tsavo East National Park

Tsavo East National Park. Image Courtesy of Frate Tours

Tsavo East, separated from Tsavo West by A109 Nairobi-Mombasa Road, is the larger of the two parks (at 14,000 km2) and the largest protected area in Kenya. Famous for its size and as the dais for big-game, Tsavo East National Park also christened as “Theatre of the Wild” has larger elephant herds and its landscape wilder than in Tsavo West. This wondrous park, where the endless bushland is only transmuted by ancient hillocks, spans four counties – Kitui, Taita Taveta, Tana River, and a small portion in Makueni. It is patrolled by over 60 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and a miscellany of flora.  Tsavo West is also guarded by the kooky imperial lava marches of the 300 kms long Yatta Plateau. Approximately 6,369 km2 of Tsavo East National Park sits in Kitui. In spite of such a big coverage of Kitui County, there are no direct benefits; just thousands of square kilometres of bushland. In a bid to open up the dull and untravelled northern area of Tsavo East, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service established Ithumba Elephant Nursery, Ithumba Camp and Ithumba Hill Camp. The Ithumba Conservation Area is located about 93 kms from the junction to Kibwezi Town. The two popular entry-points for game-viewing-safaris at Tsavo East are through Mtito-Andei Gate and Voi Gate.

Tharaka Nithi County

55. Mutejwa National Reserve

First established in 1959 as the Mutejwa Forest Reserve in Tharaka Sub-county south and west of Meru National Park, the 13.76 km2 reserve aligning with the Nithi River, best-known for its variety of wildlife, was reestablished as Mutejwa National Reserve in 1895. It was created to protect wildlife in the dispersal area of Meru National Park. The focal point at Mutejwa is the low-lying Mutejwa Hill encircled by a navigable network of trails which for day-trippers offer an out of the ordinary safari adventure to spot wildlife including gazelles, monkeys, and ostriches. Also of interest are walking tours along Nithi River, cave exploration, birding and hiking up the Mutejwa Hills; which is the largest hillock in Tharaka Sub-county. It is not a difficult drive to get to Mutejwa National Reserve and for the traveller who has done the sought game parks it makes an interesting new trip. The C92 Kathwana-Marimanti-Ura Road passes just outside its flanks, 50 kms northeast from Kathwana Town. There’s no accommodation at the reserve.

Trans Nzoia County

55. Mount Elgon National Park

Mount Elgon National Park.  Image Courtesy of Safari 254

Mount Elgon National Park (169 km2) lying close to the Kenya-Uganda border comprises all the forests and the mountain area above 2440 metres contour; on the Kenyan side. Mount Elgon, the major geological feature of the park, rises to 4313 metres at its highest area known as Koitoboss Peak. This is Kenya’s second highest mountain.  The forest glades within Mount Elgon National Park contain plenty of wildlife, and elephants in particular, but the park is essentially more revered as a scenic park. It is particularly much-liked as a walking park and the relatively gentle slopes allow for easy expeditions, mostly aiming for the series of caves, some that are famous as elephant caves. There are 4 campsites within Mount Elgon National Park, as well as, Kapturo Cottages run by Kenya Wildlife Service. Chorlim Gate (the main gate) is located 33 kms west from Kitale Town.

56. Saiwa Swamp National Park

Saiwa Swamp National Park. Image Courtesy of Trip Advisor

Established in 1974, the small 3 km2 Saiwa Swamp National Park is indubitably Kenya’s smallest National Park, created principally to protect the Sitatunga; a rare aquatic antelope. Saiwa Park encompasses a swamp which contains some of the last remaining rare Sitatunga in Kenya. “Seats have been fixed up in trees surrounding the swamp so that visitors can sit and observe these long-hooved, aquatic bushbuck”. The swamp itself, fed by the Saiwa River, features a lovely blend of forest that can be explored by means of a raised wooden boardwalk. KWS operates Saiwa Swamp picnic site, Sitatunga campsite, and the Tree Top Hut (a self-catering tree house). There is also the privately-run Sirikwa Tented Camp which is located just 6 kms from the turnoff into the park. Saiwa Swamp National Park is worth visiting on any trip that plans to take in Mount Elgon National Park. It lies 24 kms northeast of Kitale via A1 Kitale-Kapenguria Road.

Turkana County

57. Central Island National Park

Central Island National Park in Turkana County. Image courtesy of Steepes Travel

Central Island National Park, the second largest of the triad of islands in Lake Turkana, is aggrandized for its three separate crater lake tubes which hold three beguiling lakes filled with emerald-green water. Each of these lakes – Flamingo Lake, Tilapia Lake and Crocodile Lake – are named after the native inhabitants; with the latter providing breeding grounds for the world’s largest concentration of Nile crocodiles. Central Island is within reach of many sites of interest about Turkana County and easily accessed on a short boat ride from various bays like Ferguson Gulf and Eliye Springs. It’s located 5 kms coastal from Ferguson Gulf.

58. South Turkana National Reserve

South Turkana National Reserve. Image Courtesy of Incentive Travel Limited

Leaving Lokichar en-route Kainuk 65 kms southerly one finally arrives at South Turkana National Reserve nearby Katilu. This little oasis, teeming with a variety of fauna and flora, defies the odds of this austere, seared and arid inhospitable Turkana County.  Some of the notable wildlife are gazelles, dik-diks, lions and cheetahs, zebras and hyenas. South Turkana National Park is also home to large basks of crocodiles, over 80 species of birds, sweeping landscapes, hiking trails and camps.  There is a ring-road that runs across the park from near Lokoro in the east, to Katilu in the west. It remains fairly underdeveloped and unexplored.

West Pokot County

59. Nasalot National Reserve

Nasalot National Reserve

As you cross the peripheral region between Marich Pass and Kainuk Town, the bulk of the Cherangani Hills form fine views fading away to the west as the road gradually deeps towards the vast semi-arid lowlands. Past the exit to the Sekerr Range, the drive to Nasolot Reserve and Kainuk is fascinating as the mountains suddenly give way to unvarying shrubland. At Kainuk-Turkwel Junction, just 15 kms from Marich Pass Center, the road to the left leads to Nasolot and the other proceeds to Kainuk. On the short 10 kms stretch from Kainuk-Turkwel Junction to Nasolot National Reserve the road runs parallel to the Turkwel River. The 92 km2 Nasolot National Reserve is typified by sweeping bush and shrubland with only the high-reaches of the Nasolot Hill spotting a wooded floral profile. From Nasolot Hill one can catch fine views of Sekerr Range, to the south. Gazetted in 1979, near the Turkwel Gorge, Nasolot National Reserve is famed for its prolific but shy wildlife. It harbours a big elephant population estimated at 510 in 2010.