The results are in…

Each year, students have an opportunity to review the Kenya field course and let us know what worked well and what didn’t. Although the compliments and constructive criticism are always helpful, they tend to be focused on issues related to teaching and traveling; it is hard to get a sense of how the students felt about Kenya itself, and which memories will stick with them longest. To address this, I drafted a short survey and passed it around when we had our poster presentation session. It gave the students something to do while they waited for the instructors to come over and evaluate their posters, plus it gave the instructors a valuable new perspective on the trip. Win-win. I’ve summarized the students’ responses below.

(Bull elephant. Photo by John Abernethy.)

What was your favorite species seen during the trip?

Unsurprisingly, this question generated a rather long list; nearly every person picked something different. I was actually quite impressed by the diversity, since you might expect that most people would choose one of the obvious “Big 5.” Indeed, elephants were chosen most frequently (5 votes), but the next most popular species was the often-maligned hyena (3 votes). Spring hare, serval, topi, and warthog (my favorite mammal!) all had 2 votes apiece, and from then on the list varied widely. A number of birds were mentioned, which makes sense given how many birders we had in our group; among others, the Jackson’s widowbird, African blue-flycatcher, Verreaux’s eagle-owl, and rosy-breasted longclaw all made the list.

As you might imagine, lions were also a favorite–though only for one person. Other mammals included baboons (despite the thug male we encountered at Lake Nakuru), tree hyraxes, hedgehogs, and hippos (another one that I was surprised not to see listed more often).

For the first time since I became involved with the trip, we also had students who were overtly interested in invertebrates and–gasp!–plants. This was reflected in the survey responses by the inclusion of both fireflies and acacia trees.

(Ostriches at dawn. Photo by John Abernethy.)

Which of our destinations was your favorite?

Even though the Masai Mara was a bit “calm” this year in terms of wildlife, it was still selected as our top destination (10 votes). Right on its heels were Lake Nakuru (6 votes) and the Mara North Conservancy (5 votes); obviously, our students liked the savanna, and places where they could go on game drives. Mount Kenya, Hell’s Gate, and Crater Lake came in at the bottom of the list. There was also a single vote for “the dance floor,” though I’m not sure whether that refers to the dance floor at one of the bars we visited, or perhaps the area next to the bonfire at the Masai Mara, where the students danced with our Masai hosts.

(Spelling “Kenya” at the Equator stop. Photo by Tristan Pett)

What was your favorite activity?

I was surprised–but pleased–by the lack of overlap between favorite place and favorite activity; if students listed two separate things for these categories, then that must mean they were happy at least twice as long (or, at least, I’d like to think so). The answers to this question clearly indicated that students enjoyed themselves most when they were able to get out of the vehicles and wander around in nature; the list was topped by the hike up Mount Kenya (9 votes), followed by the gorge walk at Hell’s Gate (8 votes), the Hell’s Gate visit in general (4 votes), and the boat trip on Lake Naivasha (3 votes). Amazingly, 3 people said that their favorite activity was performing distance sampling during our drive through the Mara; I always thought the students hated that part of the trip. Game drives were also popular, and a couple of people specifically mentioned the night drive that took place at the Mara Conservancy. Only one student listed the Masai village visit as his/her favorite activity; that trip can be a bit awkward, so I was impressed to see this one listed even once (that said, we had several huge fans of the trip a couple years ago, when I think it would have been mentioned by many different people–attitudes always change from one trip to another!). There was also a single vote for “dancing with a guy in a monkey suit”–a reference to the “traditional” (and interactive) dancing display we are treated to during our stay at Mount Kenya.

(The intrepid climbers who hiked up through Mount Kenya’s vertical bog–and beyond. Photo by Tristan Pett)

What most surprised you during the trip?

I’m not sure what sort of information I expected to collect by asking this question, but I was definitely surprised (appropriately, I suppose) by the answers I received. The students all gave quite thoughtful responses that predominantly reflected their interest in conservation. Several mentioned how shocked they were at the degree of commercialization in and of wildlife parks; others brought up the disturbing lack of rules, regulations, and (most especially) enforcements associated with wildlife viewing. Two expressed their dismay at the state of rhino conservation and the situation at Solio Game Reserve, while another pair indicated how impressed they were at the dedication, pragmatism, and passion of the local wildlife activists.

Many of the students remarked on the Kenyan ecology. One (like me) was surprised at how green the country was during our visit, while another was shocked at the amount of dust we encountered. Several people were impressed by the density of wildlife we encountered, as well as by how close we approached certain animals. Two were amazed at how few mosquitoes there were (as was I–it was a welcome change from last year!), and one person (quite rightly) brought up the spectacle of lion mating.

Three people said they were most surprised by the quality of the facilities, but there was no indication of whether they expected better or worse than what they found. It is true that we encounter some incredibly basic setups (most notably in our campsite at the Mara North Conservancy), but I’ve always thought we had pretty good facilities relative to what the average Kenyan experiences in those same locations. So, I’m just going to pretend that our pre-trip descriptions gave the students very low expectations, which were then exceeded by the reality that they found during our travels around the country.

(Cinnamon-chested bee-eater in the rain. Photo by John Abernethy)

Do you have any other comments/thoughts to share?

I included this section so that the students would have a place to share any other stories, emotions, and/or attitudes that could not quite fit in one of the previous categories; I got quite a wide variety of responses. I was very pleased to see multiple compliments for our local guides/experts; Martin and Enoch, in particular, were named individually and praised very highly by several students. The students were also quite complimentary of all our guest speakers who discussed their experiences doing conservation in Kenya.

One person mentioned his/her dismay at how the bus drivers tended to chase animals and pull up very close to them. This is an issue that we deal with every year, so I was not surprised that it came up this time around; I am pleased to say, however, that conditions were much better this year than they have been in years past–we have made a real effort to request only those drivers who show restraint around the wildlife.

Someone praised the great variety of destinations that we visited, while another said that, in general, it was an “awesome trip.” One of the most positive remarks–and the best one to end on here–was that “the whole trip was a great way to start the year.”

(Mother elephant and calf. Photo by Tristan Pett)

All content by Dr. Caitlin Kight.

Guide to Kenyan species: Giraffes

Giraffes are one of Africa’s most iconic animals, instantly recognizable to people of all ages and backgrounds from around the world. Many people don’t realize that there are actually nine different subspecies of giraffe, three of which are found in Kenya: the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata; also known as the Somali giraffe), Rothschild’s giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi), and the Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi; also known as the Kilimanjaro giraffe).

(Distribution of giraffes in Africa. Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Reticulated giraffes are found predominantly in the northern portion of Kenya, but they are also quite common in zoos and wild animal parks; we ticked this subspecies off our list during our visit to the KWS headquarters in Nairobi. Rothschild’s giraffes are highly endangered because they frequently hybridize with other subspecies; only a few hundred “pure” individuals are thought to exist in the wild. One of the few locations where they can be observed is Lake Nakuru National Park, where small herds of them can often be found foraging together. By far the most common during our travels was the Masai giraffe, which can be seen in parks, on reserves, along roadsides, and on pastureland.

(Reticulated giraffe having a drink at the KWS headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya)

(Rothschild’s giraffe eating acacia leaves at Lake Nakuru National Park. Photo by John Abernethy.)

(Masai giraffes foraging at Crater Lake)

At first glance, these subspecies may seem too similar to tell apart, but in reality it’s actually not a difficult task. The reticulated giraffe has much whiter lines between the brownish (or sometimes even reddish) patches on its pelt, and the patches are bordered by very smooth lines. The Rothschild’s and Masai giraffes have much creamier lines in between their patches, and the patches have more jagged edges. The key to telling these two subspecies apart is the legs: Masai giraffes’ legs are decorated with brown spots all the way down to their feet, but Rothschild’s giraffes appear to be wearing cream-colored socks.

Seeing a giraffe for the first time can be pretty spectacular because they are so gigantic; indeed, they are the tallest extant terrestrial animals and also, unsurprisingly, the largest ruminant. We see so many that it is easy to begin overlooking them; this is especially true because they tend to be very serene (a less generous person might say “boring”). Anyone who watched the recent footage of fighting reticulated giraffes on David Attenborough’s Africa, however, knows that these guys can be as exciting as any other species on the savanna.

Giraffes are also known for having horns–or, more accurately, ossicones, which are horn-like growths of ossified cartilage (not bone tissue) that are permanently covered in skin and fur (rather than a velvet that can be rubbed off). Some people will tell you that giraffes are the only animals that are born with horns, but technically this isn’t true–and now you know enough to call their bluff!

(Masai giraffes in the Masai Mara)

Adult giraffes are so large that they usually don’t have to worry about the large predators that share their habitat. Young, sick, and old giraffes, however, may be targeted by lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs. Giraffes, in turn, target acacia trees, from which they feed with the aid of their incredibly long tongues. All bits of the giraffes’ mouths are quite tough, since they have to withstand exposure to the sharp thorns of acacia trees. This tolerance allows an individual giraffe to make its way through over 30 kg of foliage each day.

Thanks to their long necks, giraffes are able to eat from parts of the acacia tree that are not accessible to other herbivores in the area. Amazingly, giraffes’ long necks are not achieved by the addition of extra vertebrae (relative to similar species), but, rather, lengthening of individual cervical vertebrae. The animals’ closest living relative (and the only other member of the family Giraffidae) is the okapi; these ungulates have approximately 33% of their vertebral length in their cervical region, whereas this value is approximately 50% for giraffes. While this is advantageous for feeding, it makes drinking a bit awkward; giraffes must splay out their legs in order to achieve a position that allows them to lap up and swallow water.

(Masai giraffes at Crater Lake. Photo by Tristan Pett.)

Giraffe necks are good for one other purpose: necking. This is a fighting behavior characterized by the use of necks as weapons to batter other giraffes; as you might expect, it is seen among males seeking to establish dominance and maintain territories (not to mention access to females). Fights can last over 30 minutes and may be followed by a ritual mounting.

Happily, giraffes are of least conservation concern, though they currently inhabit a much smaller region than their ancestors did. As mentioned above, some subspecies are more threatened than others. There are, for example, fewer than 400 of the peralta subspecies, and fewer than 700 of the rothschildi; in fact, these two species are rarer than pandas, mountain gorillas, blue whales, tigers, and bonobos combined.* However, because giraffes are rarely involved in human-wildlife conflicts, they stand a fighting chance of maintaining or even improving their population numbers. This is especially true given the number of protected areas in which they occur–including many destinations of our field course, such as Hell’s Gate, Lake Nakuru, Crater Lake, and the Masai Mara.

(Masai giraffes in the Masai Mara)

*For more info on this issue, visit the Giraffe Conservation Foundation website.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos and content by Dr. Caitlin Kight.

Where were we?

If you’ve been reading the Kenya posts and wondering where on earth all these events took place, ponder no longer. Each time we arrived in a new location, I used my trusty iPhone to take GPS coordinates of our position. Using Google Earth, I was then able to plot all of our stops and create maps showing how much ground we covered in two weeks.

Here you can see how far we traveled in the nearly nine-hour plane journey from the UK to Kenya. The journey over the Mediterranean is usually pretty calm, but things can get a bit turbulent once we reach the Sahara. As you can see, we are over the desert for quite a long time, which gives us plenty of opportunity to encounter rough spots in the air. I’m not sure what the flight was like this year, since I was asleep during both legs of the journey!

This map gives a bit more perspective on where Kenya, and our destinations within the country, are located within Africa. Considering how hot and dry much of northeastern Africa is, Kenya is bordered by an impressive amount of water–Lake Turkana to the north, Lake Victoria to the southwest, the Mara River to the south, and the Indian Ocean to the east. Its neighboring countries are Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania. Over the past few years, we’ve concentrated our activities in the southwest, away from the political unrest in the eastern and northern parts of Kenya. Next year, though, we may change our itinerary, and stay more in the center of the country.

Before I made this map, I’d never actually looked at the distance between our campsite at Mount Kenya and our lodgings in the Mara. Now that I see how far apart they are, I can understand why it takes us a full day to get from one to the other. It’s amazing that the quickest route is through Nairobi, but that’s where the best roads are. The roads are also to blame for making the drive between Top Camp and the chameleon farm almost as long as the one between Top Camp and Lake Nakuru–despite the fact that the farm is much closer as the crow flies.

Finally, here is a close-up of all our lake destinations. Because these sites all cluster around Top Camp, I tend to think of them in terms of their relationship to our lodgings–whether they are reached by turning right or left out of the Top Camp driveway. It is interesting to see them on a map relative to the campsite and to each other. I had no idea that Lake Nakuru was to the north of Lake Naivasha; I always had the sense that we were driving east/west between these sites. Also, even though I knew that Crater Lake was near Naivasha (we could drive between the two in less than a half hour), I didn’t realize that you could potentially see the shoreline of Lake Naivasha if you stood on the rim of the crater and looked eastward.

I wish I’d thought to create and study these maps before our trip, thereby gaining a better sense of orientation while we were in Kenya. Better late than never, though–at least I will be prepared for next year’s trip!

Content by Dr. Caitlin Kight

Birds of Kenya

If you’ve read any of my descriptions of our adventures in Kenya, then you have probably already realized that I get more excited about avifauna than I do about anything else. It seems almost counterintuitive that someone could go to Kenya and not really care about the charismatic megafauna–including the “big five”–for which the country is so famous, but the truth is that you rarely observe those animals doing anything very exciting. Lions, for example, are generally just lounging around napping, while rhinos are either sleeping or munching on grass. There have, of course, been a few exceptions to this general rule; we once saw a cheetah chase a gazelle, for example, and then there were multiple instances of lion sex this year.

(Male rufous sparrow at Hell’s Gate National Park)

However, even when I see the big animals wandering around doing something interesting, I can’t help but feel as though I’ve already encountered this before–in zoos, wild animal parks, and breeding facilities, or on televised documentaries. It should feel different seeing these animals au naturale, but the view from inside a car is strangely similar to the view through a television. Wandering amongst these species on foot might make me feel a bit different–indeed, I quite enjoy our trips to Crater Lake and Hell’s Gate precisely because we are able to commune with nature a bit better–but even then we tend not to see anything very interesting going on amongst the mammals.

(Lesser flamingo at Crater Lake)

For the, the real excitement is in birding. Birds engage in all sorts of activities, they often appear and disappear very quickly, and we see hundreds of different species (many of which can look quite similar to one another). Because of all these things, birds are a challenge–and challenges are interesting. I also appreciate bird aesthetics; elephants may be huge and leopards may be sleek, but it’s hard to think of anything more spectacular than an iridescent sunbird flashing its colors in the sunlight. That said, my favorite group of birds–in Africa and on any other continent–is the vultures, since I have a soft spot for the underappreciated organisms of the world. It’s hard to pick a favorite individual species, but I am rather fond of hamerkops and African dusky flycatchers. This year I was also thrilled to see an African blue-flycatcher, which I’ve longingly eyed in my bird guide, never thinking that I’d actually see one in person.

(Malachite kingfisher on Lake Naivasha)

My strength as a birder is auditory rather than visual, which makes Kenyan birding very challenging for me. We do not own any audio guides to the birds of Kenya (yet!), and we only visit for two weeks each year, so it is difficult to learn the vocalizations of the birds we encounter. This is frustrating because we hear many more birds than we ever see, which means that there are probably dozens of species that are erroneously left off my bird list. I am trying to add more species to my ID repertoire each year, so maybe I will have decent identification skills one day…maybe around the time I retire!

(Grey-crowned cranes at Solio Ranch)

Without further ado, here is my 2013 bird list, alongside the lists from previous years. It only includes the species that I personally saw or heard, and contains only birds that I was 100%–none of the trickier cisticolas and larks, for instance, which I just didn’t get to look at in enough detail for a solid ID. As pleased as I am to have extended the list quite a bit this year relative to what I’ve seen in the past (thanks to the long rainy season!), I should note that my list pales in comparison to those compiled by the even more serious birders in our group; they managed to rack up tallies exceeding 300 different species. To put that into perspective, Kenya is inhabited or visited by nearly 1,100 types of bird. That means that some of our students managed to see over a quarter of the country’s avian diversity in just two weeks–an impressive achievement.

(Sacred ibises taking flight at Lake Nakuru)

Content by Dr. Caitlin Kight

What to Pack

What to Pack

One of my travel mottos is that you really only need to remember your passport and credit card; the former will get you out of the country and the latter will buy you anything you left behind. That said, it’s preferable to pack wisely so that you don’t have to spend money unnecessarily; also, you might find yourself in a place where it is not easy to find either a store or the specific item(s) that you are looking for.

Packing for a two-week excursion to Kenya is actually quite a difficult task. Packing for any two-week excursion is challenging given that you can only take a finite amount of luggage but might want as many as 14 different outfits, plus extra specialty items for particularly warm or cool conditions, plus whatever other random equipment (walking poles? sports kit? photography gear?) you may require. Kenya is especially challenging because we drive around in minibuses and don’t have space for lots of luggage; although some people bring regular suitcases, we recommend a duffel or large camping/hiking backpack that can easily be transported between vehicles and tents/lodges.


In a warm place like Kenya, it doesn’t take long before your clothes become…fragrant, but when you’re on safari you don’t always have access to laundry facilities—or even sufficient water for washing your wardrobe.  People vary widely in how they respond to this conundrum. Some don’t mind smelling; others pack travel-friendly items that fold down into microscopic proportions. My solution is to bring fresh shirts for each day but then recycle my trousers every few days.

Although it could be argued that I pack an excessive amount of clothing, the bulk of my duffel contains other equipment needed for the trip. My sleeping bag and pillow take up quite a lot of room, then there’s my towel, my hiking sticks, and—for the first time this year—a tripod for group shots and night photography. I’ve also got a first aid kid and a bag of various medications that might come in handy, plus another little bag full of camera batteries and other electronic “necessities.” Because I’m always hungry and am a fussy eater, I also pack my own supply of snacks; this includes granola bars, dried fruit and nut mixes, a can of pears, and canned tuna. While those last two items may sound a bit ridiculous, they’ve previously come in handy when we’ve found ourselves in places where produce is suspect or unavailable, or when I’m dying for a bit of non-goat protein.

The items mentioned above are only the bare essentials; there are many other things we recommend to make the trip more comfortable and educational, or to have on hand in case of emergencies. Our suggestions are based on knowledge acquired over the instructors’ many cumulative years in the field—in Kenya and beyond. Below is the kit we recommend for our students:

  • Passport and visa, plus a photocopy of the passport
  • Immunization card
  • Money/credit cards
  • Warm-weather and cool-weather clothing
  • Stout but comfortable walking shoes/boots
  • Light raincoat
  • Thick socks
  • Hat/bandana
  • Sunglasses
  • Snacks
  • Water bottle
  • Sleeping bag and pillow
  • Sleeping mat/bed roll
  • Day rucksack/backpack
  • Personal toiletries
  • Hand sanitizer/disinfectant
  • Personal medication, including antimalarial tablets
  • Toilet roll and other sanitary items
  • Towel
  • Sunscreen/sunburn lotion
  • Insect repellent, mosquito net
  • Sewing kit
  • Torch/headlamp (to light the way at night and also to use for spotlighting nocturnal animals)
  • Camera, film, memory card, charger
  • Binoculars
  • Field guides

We’ve been taking students to Kenya for nearly a decade, over which period many good memories have been made. Unfortunately, there have also been a few bad experiences, which is why we’ve amended the checklist to include the following warnings:

  • Please be aware that your clothes are going to get dirty! Evenings and high-altitude areas will become quite chilly, so please bring a warm jacket and long trousers. Make sure you have at least one long-sleeved shirt and lightweight long trousers to keep off mosquitoes and other nasty biting things. Shorts and light shirts or T-shirts will be needed for the hot places.
  • Sandals/flip-flops are inappropriate. Previous students have been injured by acacia thorns which can penetrate both flip-flops and feet; scorpion stings are also a possibility. If you wear flip-flops, you will not be permitted to participate in field activities. High-ankled boots are useful not just for extra stability when hiking, but also in protecting against snakes.
  • You will be highly unlikely to gain access to electricity. There may be the potential for in-car charging but, for safety reasons, staff have priority so they can charge their mobile phones. Thus, where possible, have a backup power source for cameras and phones—solar chargers may be particularly useful given that Kenya is generally quite sunny. If your electronics run on batteries, remember to bring plenty of spares!

Of course, what works for us may not work for everyone, but hopefully this information will give any fellow Kenya tourists a good head start on their packing!

Content by Dr. Caitlin Kight

Kenya’s protected areas

What is a protected area?

  • A protected area is any portion of land or water that has been outlined as officially controlled in the name of wildlife; may be controlled privately or by the state.
  • The literature is unclear as to the exact number of protected areas; there may be as few as 50 or as many as 300.
  • Approximately 11% of Kenya is set aside as a protected area. This has not changed since the establishment of the first protected areas (the North and South Game Reserves) in 1896.

(Mount Kenya, one of Kenya’s biodiversity hotspots; this peak and its surroundings are a part of Mount Kenya National Park. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

History of Kenya’s protected areas

  • 1896: Creation of the North and South Game Reserves. These are the first protected areas in Kenya, established to ensure that the British could continue hunting and recreational activities in the then-British East Africa Protectorate–of which they protected nearly 11%.
  • 1946: Creation of Nairobi Royal Park, the first protected park in Kenya.
  • 1963: Kenya gains independence and is keen to establish national parks and reserves, as well as to promote wildlife safaris and recreation.
  • 1976: Wildlife Conservation Act places the state as the sole regulator of all matters related to wildlife.
  • 1977: Ban on wildlife hunting passed.
  • Kenya Wildlife Service formed, allowing private individuals to participate in wildlife conservation and ecotourism.
  • Kenya earns a record $802 million (US) from 1.1 million tourists.
  • 2011: A record number of tourists visit Kenya in the first six months of the year.
  • 2012: Wildlife Policy and Wildlife Bill 2012 welcomes mining into Kenya–with the state in control of investment and regulation.
  • Ongoing: Controversial Wildlife Bill 2011, which has still not yet passed. There are fears that it may lead to the killing of more wildlife in retaliation for their negative impact on livestock, crops, and humans; some also worry that giving the KWS power over protected lands is not a good precedent to set (especially since the government’s participation in mining appears to be a conflict of interest). Establishment of new government wildlife bodies could lead to an erosion of the KWS’ power.

(A Masai, or Kilimanjaro, giraffe–one of Kenya’s many iconic species. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Endemic Animals

  • Kenya has 94 endemic animal species, of which 21 have IUCN status
  • Three of Kenya’s endemics are critically endangered: Du Toit’s torrent frog (Arthroleptides dutoiti), Hunter’s hartebeest (Beatragus hunteri), and Sagalla Caecilian (Boulengerula niedeni)
  • Eight more species are endangered, nine are vulnerable, and one is near threatened

Three Key Themes

  • Hunting and recreation were the motivations for the establishment of the very first protected areas, and are still a key motivator in the usage of protected areas in Kenya today
  • Protected areas can be viewed as structures of authority. The British used them to punctuate their rule of East Africa by declaring control over areas where the role of Kenyans and their usage of the land was restricted.
  • Kenyans used an increase in their stake in the management and responsibility of protected areas to help pave their way to independence.
  • From the moment the British took control of Kenyan land, there has been a move for the ownership, management, and responsibility of Kenyan wildlife and land to be transferred back to the people. Both international communities and local peoples have played a role in this ongoing journey.

Importance of Conservation

  • Conservation has been a rising force in the dialogue around Kenya’s protected areas.
  • The socially constructed morality of conservation by the ruling, developed powers in the West had an increasing weight on the perceived purpose of Kenya’s protected areas.
  • By far the most direct and tangible response to this weight was the establishment in 1990 of the Kenya Wildlife Service. This ensured international concerns around conservation needs in Kenya were placated. Perhaps more importantly, the KWS promoted the participation of private individuals in wildlife conservation and ecotourism–thereby aiding the journey of land control movement from the state to the people.

The Future?

  • Wildlife Policy and Wildlife Bill 2012 established the Kenyan government as both investor and regulator of the rollout of mining across the country. This bodes severe challenges for unbiased protection of any areas of land.
  • Wildlife Bill 2011 has been stalled, in the context of the recently passed Wildlife Policy and Wildlife Bill 2012. It gives reason for concern as it sets the precedent for authorities to seize protected areas (should it be deemed necessary) and for potential erosion of the powers of the KWS by establishment of new government-run authorities with overlapping responsibilities.

(Lake Nakuru–a protected area that is threatened by urbanization and pollution, among other things. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)


Content by: Matthew Bjerregaard, Jodie Denton, Luke Meadows, Laura O’Sullivan, Ben Toulson, Sophie Walker (MSc students)

References and further reading:

Matheka, R.M., (2008) Decolonisation and Wildlife Conservation in Kenya, 1958-68. Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 36, 615-639.

Chongwa, M.B. (2012) The History and Evolution of National Parks in Kenya. In The George Wright Forum Journal of Parks, Protected Areas & Cultural Sites. The Kenya Wildlife Service in the 21st Century: Protecting Globally Significant Areas and Resources. (Waithaka, J. ed.) 29, 39-42.

Bayoumy, Y. (2011) Tourists head back to Kenya in record numbers – accessed 23/11/2012

Living National Treasures’ – accessed 23/11/2012

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species’ – accessed 23/11/2012

Kahumbu, P. (2011) Rushed wildlife bill portends trouble for vital Kenya resource. In Africa (8/9/11) – accessed 21/11/2012

Anon. (2012) Cabinet pass wildlife and minerals bills to boost sectors. Conservations say poaching of wildlife including elephants, lions and rhinos are back, is threatening many years of conservation efforts. In (12-18/10/2012) – accessed 21/11/2012

Anon. (2012) Kenya: Maasai community want wildlife bill passed. In Somaliland (27/07/2012) – accessed 21/11/2012

Mwadime, R. (2012) Kenya: Wildlife society blames Ministry for Wildlife Bill Delay. In The Star distributed by All (24/08/2012) – accessed 21/11/2012

Anon. (2012) The Masai Mara at a Glance. History of the Masai Mara. In Masai Mara National – accessed 21/11/2012

Kenya’s people, history, economics, and politics

People of Kenya

  • As of mid-2012, Kenya’s population numbered 43 million people.
  • The majority (80%) of Kenyans are Christian; 11% are Muslim and the rest follow traditional religions.
  • The country’s official language is English, but the national language is Swahili.
  • Life expectancy is 63.07 years;  median age is 18.8 years; adult literacy rate is 74%.
  • Three-quarters of the populations engages in agriculture (mostly subsistence).
  • The country contains over 42 ethnic groups that can be categorized into three main groups: (1) the Bantu people, whose tribes include the Kikuyus (22%) and the Lubya (14%); this is the majority ethnic group in Kenya, and its members predominantly live in the country’s fertile western regions, where they farm cash crops such as tea and coffee; Kenya’s current president is Bantu, and Bantus tend to dominate politics; (2) the Nilotes, whose tribes include the Luo (13%); the current prime minister is Nilotes, and these tribes are also heavily involved in politics; (3) Cushites, a minority group that only make up 2% of the total Kenyan population.
  • Conflict is common and mainly occurs over land rights, grazing pasture, water, and politics/religion. In October 2012, for example, 23 people were massacred during a cattle raid.
  • Urbanization has increased interactions between tribes through activities such as marriage, tourism, and trade.
  • Outside of wildlife protected areas, people display negative views of many forms of wildlife–mainly those that create no income for tourism trade and cause damage to communities.
  • The national motto is “Harambee!” or, “Pull together!”

(Masai villagers perform for a group of ecotourists. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Pre-colonial history

  • The Cushites arrived in 2,000 BCE, the Nilotes in 500 BCE, and the Bantu in the first millennium CE. Fossil records of early hominids (Homo habilis, Homo erectus) indicate that the first inhabitants of Kenya lived in the country around 2.5 million to 350,000 years ago.
  • During the 8th century, Arabs and Persians colonized the east coast of Kenya, where  major port city-states were developed to stimulate trade. The invaders exported slaves, ivory, timber, gold, copper, rhino horns, and animal skins.
  • Islam was introduced by the Arabs. This greatly influenced the Bantu Swahili culture and language.
  • During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Portuguese had control over Kenya’s east coast until they were overrun by the Arabs in 1631.
  • From the 17th-19th centuries, the Arab sultan from Oman ruled the entire east African coastline until the establishment of British colonialism.

Colonial and Post-Colonial History

  • 1894: Britain declared protectorate over Kenyan and Ugandan territories. Little attention paid to the needs of local inhabitants, both in terms of politics and rights.
  • 1944: The Kenyan African Union was formed and acted to apply pressure on Colonial authorities for more political representation for native Africans.
  • 1950s: The Mau-Mau uprising, predominantly led by members of the Kikuyu tribe, was the largest and most successful uprising against British rule in Kenyan colonial history; however, it was also incredibly violent and was condemned by Brits and Kikuyus alike. It caused the colonial authorities to provide indigenous Kenyans with more agricultural rights and political presence.
  • 1963: Kenya achieves independence. Unfortunately, the country then suffered under 2 corrupt dictatorships: the Kenyatta regime (1963-1978) and the Moi regime (1978-2002).

(Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya since 2002. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Kenyan politics

  • Power is centralized in the hands of the president, who has control over the judiciary, the parliament, and the electoral commission. The Kenyan system has been described as an “archaic political system that is overly immoral [and] has no regard for merit, ethics, or profession whatsoever but feeds on corruption.”
  • Corruption and violence still play an active role in the political system–during, for example, the 1992 election of Moi and the 2007 election of the current president, Kibaki; during the latter, 600-1,500 people died.
  • During the 2007 election, the two main candidates–President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga–formed a coalition government as the result of a power struggle rather than an interest in curbing extreme widespread violence.
  • The next elections are to be held in 2013, with candidates described as “uneducated,” “violent,” and “corrupt;” this has prompted fears of upcoming election violence.
  • In addition to creating uncertainty with respect to the political system, this turmoil also creates conflict in wildlife conservation and management efforts.

Kenya economics

  • The Kenyan currency is a shilling (KES); as of late 2012, 86 KES = $1 (US), and 139 KES = 1 British pound sterling.
  • GDP is $35 billion; 60% of this comes from tourism, and 24% comes from agriculture
  • Main industries include: (1) agriculture and fishing; ~50% of output is subsistence production; this accounts for 75% of the country’s work force, and 50% of export revenue; cash crops for export include tea and coffee, which, together, are worth ~$1.1 billion annually; local produce includes food (corn, wheat, rice), fish (e.g., from Lake Victoria), and other items such as sisal and pyrethrum; (2) industry: consumer goods, petrochemicals, mining (titanium, coal); (3) service industry; Kenya is the regional trade and finance hub in east Africa; tourism is the country’s largest foreign exchange and in 2006 generated $800 million; tourism development did not reduce poverty or contribute to the socio-empowerment of local people. It is greatly affected by political unrest; a 50% drop was seen after the Nairobi bombings in 1998.
  • Kenya’s main markets are Africa, Europe (agricultural produce), and the UK (8.8% of export market).
  • Low infrastructure investment threatens Kenya’s position as the largest east African economy.
  • Prices have remained low in agriculture produce.

(Agriculture is even underway in Kenya’s iconic Great Rift Valley, where torrential downpours give crops much-needed water. Image courtesy of Caitlin Kight.)

Content by: Fraser Bell, Emily Dawson, Piotr Marszalek, Amy McLeman, Dominic Tilley, Ariana Tsiattalos (MSc students)

References and further reading:

Akama, J. S., & Kieti, D. (2007). Tourism and socio-economic development in developing countries: A case study of Mombasa Resort in Kenya. Journal of sustainable tourism, 15(6), 735-748.

Ashforth, A. (2009). Ethnic Violence and the Prospects for Democracy in the Aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan Elections. Public culture, 21(1), 9-19.

Collier, P., & Lal, D. (1984). Why poor people get rich: Kenya 1960–1979.World Development, 12(10), 1007-1018.

Ehret, C. (2002). The Civilizations of Africa: a History to 1800,University Press of Virginia. pp. 17-24; 112-113; 216-217; 241-242; 257; 276.

Gatheru, R. M. (2005). Kenya: from colonization to independence, 1888-1970. McFarland & Company. Homewood, K. M., Chenevix Trench, P., & Brockington, D. (2012). Pastoralist livelihoods and wildlife revenues in East Africa: a case for coexistence? Pastoralism: research, policy and practice. 2(19).

Gadd, M. E. (2005). Conservation outside of parks: attitudes of local people in Laikipia, Kenya. Environmental Conservation, 32(1), 50-63.

Kimenyi, M. S., & Ndung’u, N. S. (2005). Why Has Kenya Not Experienced a Full-Blown CivilWar? Understanding civil war: Evidence and analysis, 1, 123-156.

Lovejoy, P.E. (2000). Transformations in Slavery, A History of Slavery in Africa, 2nd Ed., Cambridge University Press, pp. 24-25.

Nanjira, D.D. (2010). African Foreign Policy and Diplomacy: From Antiquity to the 21st century, (ABC-CLIO:2010), pp. 114.

No Author (2007). Country Profile: Kenya, Library of Congress: Federal Research Division. June 2007.

Reid, R. (2005). Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire. The English Historical Review, 120(488).

BBC News (2008) “Kenya rivals agree to share power.” Date accessed [21/11/12].

BBC News (2012) “Kenya Tana Delta massacres raise election violence fear” Date accessed [21/11/12].

CIA world Fact Book (2012). Kenya. Page last updated on [29/11/2012]

Hanson, S (2008) “Understanding Kenya’s Politics” Date accessed [21/11/12].

Library of Congress – Federal Research Division (2007) “Country Profile: Kenya, June 2007” Date accessed [21/11/12].

Norad (2009) “Political Economy Analysis of Kenya – 2009” Date accessed [21/11/12].

State House (2012) “untitled” Date accessed [21/11/12].

Unknown (2012) “A Political Kenya in 2012: Latest Breaking News and Politics.” Date accessed [21/11/12].

Kenya’s geography, climate, and biogeography

Geography of Kenya: the basics

  • Kenya is an equatorial country in East Africa often described as “the cradle of humanity.”
  • It boasts highly varied geographical features, ranging from snow-capped mountains to deserts to savannah grasslands.
  • The country’s coastal region (in the southeast) has long stretches of beach that meet the Indian Ocean.
  • The coastline extends up to the border with Somalia and mainly comprises small communities fishing the coral reefs.
  • To the north, there are semi-arid bush-covered plains where Kenya borders Ethiopia and Sudan. Highland plateaus are only interrupted by low hill assemblies. The most northern areas are true desert, continued up to the shores of Lake Turkana.
  • Uganda is directly west, Tanzania directly south, and Lake Victoria located on the border between the three countries.
  • Lake Victoria basin is situated on a plateau at 1,133 m above sea level, and extends northwards to the Cherangani Hills, up to Mt. Elgon (4,4321 m).
  • The Rift Valley bisects Kenya. The eastern highlands are dominated by Mount Kenya (5,199 m), which is the tallest mountain in Kenya and the second tallest on the continent.

(Map of Kenya. Image courtesy of Vidiani)

Biogeography of Kenya

  • “Biogeography” describes the spatial patterns, both past and present, of biological diversity; this concept is used to explore the physical environment and how it affects species and shapes/shaped their distribution across space. It also facilitates the study of the world’s biomes and taxonomy and has strong ties to biology, ecology, evolution, climatology, and soil science.
  • Kenya has 6,500 plant species (260 endemic), 1,000 bird species, and >360 mammal species.
  • The country is the second richest among all African countries for these animal groups.
  • Kenya has experienced a severe contraction in size and distribution of wildlife populations since the 1970s; for example, 14% of mammals are currently threatened  with extinction.
  • Ten percent of Kenya is covered with protected areas, in and near which wildlife populations fare better; however, since many species spend their time outside protected area borders, these parks and game reserves are not always effective.
  • The main groups of concern are migratory species, which rely heavily on the availability of multiple different habitats.
  • Wildlife densities vary over time and space according to several factors, including water availability, abundance of food in foraging grounds, and competition with humans over land.
  • The greatest concentration of mammals is in the central and western highlands.
  • Animals depend on the availability of water and specific climatic and habitat conditions. The number of mammals decreases in areas of lower elevation and less rainfall.

(Ecoregions of Kenya. Image courtesy of the WWF)

Climate of Kenya

Kenya enjoys a tropical climate with sunshine all year round. It is usually cool at night and in the early morning. Kenya has four distinct weather zones:

  • Western Kenya: Experiences rainfall throughout the year, but heaviest in April (200 mm). An average of 40 mm may be recorded in January alone. Temperatures range from a minimum of 14-18 degrees C to a maximum of 30-36 degrees C.
  • Rift Valley and Central Highlands: Temperate climate with temperatures ranging from 10-28 degrees C. Rainfall varies from a minimum of 20 mm in July to 200 mm in April. Two different seasons of rainfall occur: (1) long rains, which last from March until the beginning of June, and (2) short rains, which last from October until the end of November.
  • Semiarid bushlands: Located at the north and east of Kenya. Temperatures vary from 40 degrees C in the day to 20 degrees C at night. Violent storms occur due to the sparse rainfall. The average rainfall ranges between 250 and 500 mm.
  • Coastal regions: Always humid with average temperatures ranging from 22-30 degrees C and average monthly rainfall ranging from 20 mm in February from 300 mm in May. The rainfall is monsoon-dependent; this blows from the northeast from October-April, and from the southwest for the rest of the year.

(Average annual rainfall in Kenya. Image courtesy of Excellent Education)


Content by: John Abernethy, Christine Davison, Owen Jones, Bethan Littleford-Colquhoun, Rebekah Scott, Lionel Harith Sebastian Daraup (MSc students)

References and further reading: Geographia, About, Kenyalogy, Said et al. 2008, Kenya Atlas, McSweeny et al. 2003, Met Office, Lonely Planet