Samburu is a county in the former Rift Valley Province of Kenya. It covers an area of over 21,000 km2 and is mainly inhabited by the Samburu people. Samburu’s heart is the Ewaso Ng’iro River which meanders throughout the county. The water of this river forms an oasis of lush vegetation on its banks that draws animals in huge numbers.
The Samburu National Reserve is located 350 km from Nairobi along the Ewaso Ng’iro River just to the north of Mount Kenya. The reserve is county run and not overseen by Kenya Wildlife Service, as the national parks are in Kenya. Covering an area of 165 km², it boasts some of the most diverse wildlife in the country. Known for its high leopard numbers and the rare dryland fauna of northern Kenya – the ‘Samburu Five’ are made up of Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, gerenuk, beisa oryx, and Somali ostrich. There are also over fifty species of large mammals in the reserve including lion, cheetah, elephant, warthog, impala, and kudu. Samburu also boasts an abundance of birdlife with over 450 species recorded including the grey heron, African darter, great egret, white-headed vulture, martial eagle, and yellow-billed oxpecker.
Beyond the Samburu National Reserve, the county also hosts a number of other conservancies and reserves which protect the flora and fauna of this unique region. These include the Shaba National Reserve, Maralal National Sanctuary, Buffalo Springs National Reserve, and Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy. For further details check out this guide to Samburu County.
Average rating: 4.3 (very good)
Average cost: the entrance fee to Samburu National Reserve is around $70. Accommodation can range from camping – $30 per person per night (self-catered) – to luxury lodges which can be up to $700 per night (all-inclusive).
Best time to visit: the best time is the dry season which starts in late May and runs up to early October. During this time large concentrations of wildlife are found in the reserve due to the availability of lush vegetation along the Ewaso Ng’iro River, the main source of water to the reserve and nearby communities.
How to get there: driving from Nairobi takes around 5 hours along a scenic route taking in views of Mount Kenya (weather permitting!) on good roads. It’s possible to self-drive or to arrange a driven safari through an operator. There are five gates to enter Samburu National Reserve. Archer’s Gate is the main gate near Archer’s Post, just a few kilometres off the Marsabit highway. West Gate is at the western border of the Reserve with West Gate Community Conservancy. Kalama Gate is in the north at the border with Kalama Community Conservancy. And Waso Bridge Gate which is used when crossing the Ewaso Ng’iro bridge coming from Buffalo Springs National Reserve. When arriving by air, you can find gate services at the central airstrip. The airstrip is served daily to Nairobi by Air Kenya and Safarilink or private charter flights.
Typical activities: 4×4 safari, animal watching, guided walking safari
Number of reports: 3
Last update: 2021
WILDLIFE IN Samburu
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the top ten most popular species that can be seen here are:
#1 Leopard – 33% OF wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
While we didn’t see any leopards when we visited Samburu, it’s actually recognised as one of the best places in Kenya to see these beautiful cats. The arid woodland dotted with rocky outcrops and the thick riverine bush is perfect leopard habitat. That said, spotting them is still difficult (as we discovered). To boost your chances it’s best to go with a local guide as their daily routines are reasonably predictable. Reports on TripAdvisor suggest that Saruni Samburu is an excellent place to stay if you want to see leopards. With an individual named Ugali living nearby, who is often seen and heard near the camp.
#2 Cheetah – 33% OF wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
According to a 2004 – 2007 National Cheetah Survey, Samburu was estimated to have the highest abundance of cheetah tracks and sightings in the country. However, by comparison to other areas, relatively little is known about the cheetah population in Samburu. Action for Cheetahs in Kenya started working in the area in 2009 and estimate a population of between 20 and 50 depending on the time of year and the weather. For the best chances of seeing a cheetah, go with one of the experienced local guides. They will know roughly where they are based on previous sightings. They are also able to exchange information with other guides.
#3 lion – 67% OF wildside users (2/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Samburu has a significant lion population that can be seen year-round. Interestingly, the lions in Samburu are often solitary rather than forming prides. This is due to scarcer food sources in the dry deserts of Samburu, and the patchwork of community lands and protected areas making it difficult for a pride to maintain a defined territory. Lions like to avoid the heat of the day so you’re chances of spotting one are highest in the early morning or on sunset and night game drives. If you’re staying in one of the reserves you may get to hear lions grunting and roaring through the night! You can find out more about Samburu’s lions here. Or if you’re feeling adventurous you can even book an AirBnB experience tracking lions on foot with local guides!
#4 African elephant – 100% OF wildside users (3/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
The Samburu National Reserve is one of the best places in Kenya to see African elephants. Whether you’re on a guided tour or a self-drive safari, your chances of encountering an elephant are high! Surveys of the population show an increase of around 11% from 2012 to 2017. It’s good to see elephant populations recovering after the Kenyan poaching crisis from 2010 to 2012 killed an estimated 100,000 elephants. The success is due in part to the work of Save the Elephants and the local Samburu tribe who have been working together to protect these incredible animals.
#5 grey heron – 33% of wildside users (1/3) reported sightings
Grey herons are large, unmistakeably graceful birds with long slender necks and legs. They are wetland birds and are commonly found in the watercourses in and around Samburu. Herons are most often seen stood as still as statues in the shallower edges of lakes or ponds. Here they patiently wait for their next meal to swim by. The main periods of hunting are around dawn and dusk, but they are also active at other times of the day. At night they roost in trees or on cliffs.
#6 Impala – 33% of WildSide users (1/3) reported sightings
Samburu supports a good population of impala and they are relatively easy to spot. They are slender antelopes with reddish-brown coats and large curling horns. Their prefered habitats are short grasslands that border open woodlands and are close to water sources. During the wet season (October to May), they gather in herds of hundreds as the rains bring an abundance of grasses, shoots, herbs, bushes and shrubs for grazing.
#7 Kudu – 33% OF wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Samburu County is home to both greater and lesser kudu. They are unmistakable antelopes thanks to their long corkscrew-shaped horns. During the day, kudus are typically less active and seek cover in woodland to avoid the heat. They tend to feed and drink in the early morning and late afternoon, getting their water from waterholes or roots and bulbs that have a high water content. They are fairly easy to spot in Samburu, and some visitors to the tented camps report kudus wandering through the campgrounds!
#8 ostrich – 33% OF wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
One of the unique species that Samburu provides a home to is the Somali – or blue-necked – ostrich. The largest living bird on Earth, the Somali ostrich is a large flightless bird native to Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. They were identified as their own species in 2014, before this being thought to be a subspecies of the common ostrich. While similar to the common ostrich, the Somali species have blue rather than pink necks and legs. They are particularly easy to spot during the mating season when the males become bright blue to attract a female! They also differ to common ostriches in their feeding habits, preferring to browse in areas with taller, denser vegetation rather than grazing in the open.
#9 Warthog – 33% OF wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Warthogs can be seen throughout the area year-round. They are conspicuous and easy to spot with their upright tails, erect manes, and regal bearings. Warthogs are herbivores that spend most of the day foraging for food. Their keen sense of smell allows them to uncover roots, plants, and bulbs. Between 2007 and 2014 the warthog population in Kenya experienced a steady increase up to 16,000, before nose-diving to 13,500 following a prolonged dry spell.
#10 Zebra – 33% OF wildside users (1/3) REPORTED SIGHTINGS
Samburu supports both plains zebras and the endangered Grevy’s zebra. Sightings of zebra are common in the park although Grevy’s can be harder to spot. You can distinguish them by their large ears, narrow stripes, and ‘mohwak’ style manes. Since the 1970s, Kenya’s Grevy’s zebra population has declined from around 14,000 to 2,400 individuals. The Samburu Reserve has been actively working to protect this species through habitat restoration, grazing managing, and population monitoring. Surveys by the Kenya Wildlife Service have found that the area is home to more than 95% of the total Kenya population – and that populations are on the rise.
Photo credit: alexstrachan under a Creative Commons license from Pixabay