The Amboseli National Park is renowned for its huge herds of free ranging elephant. Herds of up to 100 strong can easily be seen drinking from the surface springs. Part of the reason why the numbers are so high in this region is because the local Masai people are very protective of the wildlife in the region and they do not tolerate poaching by outsiders. The African elephant is the largest land animals of earth and the Amboseli bull elephants have some of the largest tusks of all elephants on Africa. An elephant’s trunk is actually its nose. It uses it for sucking up water, picking up food, as a signalling device and for digging. African elephants can eat up to 450 kilograms of vegetation per day. Their digestive system is not very efficient though and only 40% of this food is properly digested. The elephant uses its large ears to regulate its body temperature and are also a protective feature to ward off threats. Elephant ears have infrasound capabilities and are capable of communicating over great distances. They make a wide variety of sounds like purrs, bellows, grunts, whistles and the most recognisable sound of all – trumpeting. The African elephant can weigh up to 6048 kilograms and stand between 3 and 4 metres in height. Its preferred habitat is the savanna, forest, river valleys and semi desert areas and its natural home range is 1200 kilometres and migratory patterns are taught from one generation to the next. They are extremely sociable animals and have a complex social structure. They live in groups of up to 15 members with a dominant cow. The African elephant are considered to be an endangered species due to poaching for ivory.
The African buffalo is also known as the Cape buffalo. Part of the Big 5, they were once popular hunting trophies and were known for their unpredictable behaviour when cornered by hunters. They are related to the Asian water buffalo and range in colour from dark brown to black. It has an ox like appearance with heavily built legs and heavily ridged horns that grow straight out from the head and then curve downwards and then up again. These horns are used for protection against predators and males use them to fight each other for dominance. Buffalo are active for most of the day and night and will spend up to 18 hours foraging for food and roaming a range of just over 1000 square kilometres. They live in large herds of up to 500, although males are solitary and form bachelor groups of up to 5 individuals. They can weigh up to 680 kilograms and measure up to 1.7 metres in height. Their natural habitat is woodland, forest and savanna. They are not very good at regulating their body temperatures and spend much of their time in the shade. Buffalo perform an interesting ritual when under threat from predators. They form a circle, facing outwards and lower their heads to show a ring of sharp horns.
Lions are the only species of cat to live in groups. These groups, called prides, consist of up to 5 males and twelve females. Lions are another of Africa’s Big 5. They are carnivore meat eaters which prefer the habitats of dense woodland, grass, savanna and bush in sub Saharan Africa. Their colouring differs from other animals in that they are darker in cooler areas and lighter in warmer regions. Another physical characteristic that differentiates them form other cat species is the male lion’s mane. The females of the pride do most of the hunting and the males take n the role of protector. They are very tactile with each other and enjoy lots of touching and head rubbing. They spend a lot of time sleeping – up to 20 hours a day. They can weigh up to 227 kilograms and live up to fifteen years in the wild. Their only known enemy is human beings who once prized them as hunting trophies.
Cheetah’s have the title of the world’s fastest land animal. They can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour and have been built for speed with slender bodies and muscular legs (males weigh up to 60 kilograms). They are solitary animals and are found mainly in open savanna grasslands. Cheetah are predators and prey on small antelope like impala but they will eat smaller animals and birds. They prefer to hunt during the day and the best time is during the early morning or evening when the temperatures are cooler. Cheetah cubs are highly susceptible to disease and in many arts of Africa they have an infant mortality rate of up to 75%. The females spend a lot of time teaching their cubs how to hunt while the males parenting role is limited to a short while after birth when they play a protective role. Cubs stay with their mothers until they are 20 months old. Cheetah’s association with humans dates back to 3000 BC when they were used as hunting pets by the Sumerians. Fossilised sub species dating back some two million years have been found but they are now unfortunately on the endangered species list and only about 12 000 remain in Africa and Iran.
Hyenas have the unfair reputation of being scavengers, feeding off the leftovers of other predators prey. This is an inaccurate perception as hyenas are in fact very efficient hunters. They hunt at night and are so efficient and fast at devouring their prey that they leave little more than a few traces of blood as evidence. Only 10% of their diet is made up of scavenged meals. Hyenas are a vital part of Kenya’s ecosystem. They are fearless hunters – known to fight off lionesses and leopards from their kills.
The spotted hyena are highly sociable, however the rest of the species tend to be quite solitary. All hyenas live in groups and congregate together at kills. They communicate with each other through a series of calls, signals and postures. The most recognisable of signals is the laughing sound they make when alerting each other to a source of food. This call can be heard from a few kilometres away. Their preferred habitat is in grasslands, woodlands, forest edges and mountains. Hyena’s mark their territory with a strong smelling scent and related individuals will group together to defend themselves from other clans or outsiders. Hyenas can weigh up to 87 kilograms and measure up to 90 centimetres in height. The spotted and striped hyena are found exclusively in East Africa.
There are three different sub species of giraffe in Kenya. The Masaai giraffe (also known as the Kilimanjaro giraffe) is commonly found in the Amboseli National Park. Masaai giraffe are identified by the jagged spots on their bodies as well as the short tassel of hair on its tail. They are diurnal and live in small groups in savanna regions. Giraffe’s feed up to 20 hours per day, consuming large quantities of leaves, fruits and bark and their favourite source of food is the whistling thorn acacia tree. The Masaai giraffe have no defined breeding season and up to 75% of calves are killed by predators within the first three months of life. Mothers protect their offspring by stabbing predators with their sharp hooves. They are the tallest of all animals. They can grow up to 6 metres in height and weigh up to 1800 kilograms. They can reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour and a unique characteristic is their ability to walk by using both legs of the same side of the body simultaneously.
Leopards are solitary animals and have a reputation for being very shrewd. They have large ranges and males are extremely aggressive towards each other. They announce their presence to one another by making a coughing sound. Their adaptable nature has ensured their survival – despite being hunted as pests by farmers. They are excellent stalkers and good climbers, preferring to hunt at night. They hunt about ninety species of animals including monkeys, birds, wild pigs, fish and ungulates. Male leopards need about 4 kilograms of meat and females need 2.5 kilogram to keep healthy. They are extremely strong and can carry prey weighing three times their own weight up a tree. Most leopards live up to twelve years in the wild. They are classified as near threatened and will soon qualify for protected status due to habitat loss.
The Grevy zebra are one of three species of zebra and their habitat is restricted to the plains of East Africa where they feed on grasses and legumes. They live in large herds and have a complex social structure with a group of females led by a stallion. The Grevy has the largest stature of all three zebra species. They can weigh up to 450 kilograms and stand up to 1.6 metres in shoulder height. They are distinguished from other zebras by their large bodies, rounded ears, unmarked bellies and narrow stripes that are situated close together. Their striped protect them from predators by creating a blur when they run – this makes it difficult to distinguish between animals. They are preyed on by predators like lion, hyena, cheetah, wild dg and leopard. Another interesting survival adaption is their offspring’s ability to walk a mere twenty minutes after birth. They are an endangered species, although their numbers have increased in the last four years due to effective conservation management.
Wildebeest are also known as gnu and are the most abundant of game species in East Africa. There are two species of wildebeest – blue and black. The blue wildebeest are the species that embark on the Great Migration between the Mara and the Serengeti. They can weigh up to 270 kilograms and grow to a shoulder height of up to 1.5 metres. The wildebeest have their calves at the same time – following an eight month gestation period. A few weeks after birth, the calves move to a micro crèche within the herd which provides them with protection from predators like hyena, leopard, cheetah, crocodile and lion. They are active during the day and the night and thirty percent of their time is spent grazing on grass. Their heads are designed to be able to feed on shorter grass that other animals are unable to reach.