Tsavo West National Park
Land of lion and lava
The joint mass of Tsavo West and Tsavo East National Parks forms one of the largest national parks in the world and covers a massive 4% of Kenya's total land area. Tsavo East, one of the last great wilderness landscapes on Earth, offers a vast arena of parched scrub and heat-shimmering bush, which is washed by the azure waters of the Galana River, guarded by the Yatta Plateau and patrolled by some of the largest elephant herds in the world. Tsavo West, land of lions and lava, is painted on a sprawling canvas of endless skies, emerald hills, liquid lava flows, palm-fringed rivers, teeming wildlife and sparkling oases, where rafts of hippo wallow, snort and blow in the crystal clear melt waters of Mount Kilimanjaro.
Fact FileAltitude: 150-1,800 metres above sea level.
Area: 9,065 sq. km.
Location: South-west Kenya, inland from the coast.
Distance from Nairobi: 232 km (Mtito Andei Gate).
Vegetation: the Park features over 1000 plant species and a mixed habitat of bush, grasslands and acacia woodlands dotted with baobab, ivory palm, saltbush, doum palm, tamarind and fig trees.
Climate: the Park has a typical savannah climate.
Fauna: includes: lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo, giraffe, rhino, elephant, hippo, baboon, waterbuck, Coke's hartebeest, gerenuk, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, eland, fringe-eared oryx, wildebeest, hyena, warthog, impala, zebra, crocodile, while-tailed mongoose, genet cat, jackal, hyrax, dik dik, porcupine, lesser kudu and oryx.
Birds: the prolific bird life features 600 recorded species.
Roads: the roads are well graded, maintained and signposted.
When to go: the Park is open all year round.
Visitor Centre: a retail centre, wildlife display, visitor information centre and picnic area is situated by the main, Mtito Andei, gate
Tsavo, what's in a name?
The Park acquired the name ‘Tsavo', meaning ‘slaughter' from the Akamba people, who first migrated to the area some five centuries ago.
Kenya's largest national park supports all the members of the ‘Big Five' as well as the
country's largest elephant population. Mzima Springs is home to abundant Nile
crocodiles and hippos and a popular drinking spot for elephants, zebras and gazelles whilst blue and vervet monkeys cavort in the surrounding acacia trees. Other mammals include buffalos, hartebeests, lesser kudus, elands, waterbucks, Grant's gazelles, impalas and giraffes.
Man-eaters and mane-less lion
Tsavo achieved notoriety in the 1900's when ‘the Man-eaters of Tsavo', a pair of rogue
man-eating lions, preyed gruesomely on the builders of the Uganda Railway. Today the
Park is more famous for the numerous prides of mane-less lion that patrol the plains and police the herbivore herds.
Highlights of the birdlife include those of the semi-arid zone, such as ostrich and golden pipit while perhaps the most conspicuous are the white-headed buffalo weaver and the brilliantly plumaged golden-breasted starling. Raucous hornbill are also prevalent as are such hole-nesting birds as parrot, barbet and roller. The Park is also famous for its Palaearctic migratory bird-banding project at Ngulia Lodge.
Glorious game drives
Tsavo offers some of the most magnificent game viewing in the world - vast herds of dust-red elephants, fat pods of hippos, giant crocodiles, teeming herds of plains game, a fantasia of bird life and some magical flora.
The magic of Mzima Springs
The lush, hippo-inhabited pools of Mzima Springs, fed daily by 250 million litres of water gushing from the lava flows of the Chyulu hills, provide an oasis of green, an
under-water hippo-viewing chamber, two nature trails and some unique picnic spots.
Exploring the Shetani caves and lava flows
The volcanic convulsions of Tsavo's landscape are riddled with lava flows, the most spectacular being the Shetani flow, a coalesced tide of tar-like lava that spewed down the Chyulu Hills as they burst out of the plains only a few hundred years ago. Shetani means ‘devil' in Swahili and refers to the time, relatively recently, when the molten lava erupted from the bowels of the earth and engulfed the area. So terrifying was this event to the local people that they believed it to be the devil incarnate and tales are still rife of fire, hails of brimstone and evil spirits. The lava flow is also riddled by a series of caves, many of which can be explored, though caution is recommended.
The Ngulia Hills
30 km from Mzima Springs, along a well-marked track, is the Ngulia escarpment, behind which rear the jagged peaks of the Ngulia Hills, a range of sheer cliffs that rise out of the plains to a height of 1825 m above sea level. Not only do the Ngulia hills offer magnificent vistas over the volcanic shoals of Tsavo but also, every year between late September and November, the adjacent Ngulia Bird-ringing Station plays host to one of the greatest avian spectacles in the world.
The Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary
In the 1960's Tsavo had the largest population of black rhinos in Africa (between 6,000 and 9,000) and they were a common sight within the park. By 1981, however, Tsavo's rhino had been poached to the brink of extinction and only 100 animals remained. Today most of Tsavo's surviving rhino, plus a number of re-located animals, have been moved to the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary where a meter-high electric fence surrounds an area of 70 sq km now designated an official sanctuary for approximately 40 rhinos. The Sanctuary also offers shelter to a broad range of other threatened wildlife to include cheetahs and leopards and the rare frog (Afrixalus pygmaeus septentrionalis), which occurs only in the area between Mtito Andei and Voi. The Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary is open 4pm to 6pm daily, entry free.
The Chaimu Crater offers a spacious parking area and an exciting scramble up this volcanic cinder cone to the crater's rim.
Roaring Rocks offer a parking area and a winding nature trail leading to the top of this lofty outcrop of craggy volcanic rocks where the raptors glide past at eye level. There are two view points offering magnificent vistas to the east and west of the park and two picnic sites equipped with both shade and seating. Not surprisingly Roaring Rocks is a popular wedding venue.
Around and about
The Park is ideally situated for visits to the massive expanses of sister park, Tsavo East whilst the verdant Taita Hills and the volcanic eruptions of the Chyulu Hills are close by. World-renowned Amboseli National Park is also within easy reach.
Wildlife highlights: includes: lion, leopard, cheetah, buffalo, giraffe, rhino, elephant, hippo, baboon, waterbuck, Coke's hartebeest, gerenuk, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, eland, fringe-eared oryx, wildebeest, hyena, warthog, impala, zebra, crocodile, while-tailed mongoose, genet cat, jackal, hyrax, dik-dik, porcupine, lesser kudu and oryx. Birds: 600 recorded species.
The people of Tsavo
The early hunters of Tsavo
Tsavo's plains have been hunted since mankind first evolved, while loads of ivory and rhinoceros horn were first listed as cargo at the ancient port of Mombasa as early as AD 110, by the Greek writer, Diogenes. The methods of the early Tsavo hunters are also described in the following extract from ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea' written by an anonymous Greek, travelling at some point between AD 95 and AD110:
The Elephantophagoi (Elephant-eaters) have a different method of capturing animals. Three men equipped with one bow and plenty of arrows dipped in snake-poison station themselves in a glade where the elephants come out. When an elephant approaches, one of the men holds the bow and the other two draw the bowstring with all their force, releasing the arrow, which is aimed at the middle of the animals flank, so that on striking it will penetrate the inner parts, cutting and wounding as it goes in.
‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea ‘
Edited by G.W.B. Huntingform
The legendary longbow men of the Waliangulu
Between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, Tsavo was inhabited by the ancestors of today's remnant groups of hunter-gatherers, primarily the Waliangulu or Sanye people who were wanderers of forest and bush and distantly related to the ‘click-speaking' Khosian peoples of southern Africa, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari. The Waliangulu, who were famous for their elephant hunting skills, used massive long bows and arrows that had been dipped in a lethal poison, which could kill an elephant in a few hours. The poison and was made by boiling the bark and leaves of the Acokanthera tree (Acokanthera oppositifolia) for seven hours until a sticky tar like substance containing an extremely toxic glycoside known as ‘oubain' was produced.
The name Waliangulu means ‘meat eater' and for thousands of years these primeval hunters roamed the wastes of Tsavo killing elephant and other game for subsistence purposes. As the demand for ivory grew however, so the Waliangulu talent for hunting for survival was corrupted to become heedless slaughter for financial gain as the hunters massacred the elephants of Tsavo using long bows with bow-weights of over one hundred pounds. Finally, with the establishment of the Tsavo National Park, the reign of the legal hunter came to an end and the bulk of the Waliangulu were forced to turn to other means of survival whereupon it is thought that many dispersed along the Tana River and down to the coast where they merged with the Giriama people. As for those who chose to continue to hunt in Tsavo, they were outlawed as poachers.
The Maasai have long remained the ideal mental conceptualisation of the Western European idea of an African ‘noble savage'. Tall, elegant, handsome; walking with a gentle spring of the heel, seemingly proud and indifferent to all but the most necessary external influences.
S. S. Sankan, Maasai Elder
Perhaps the best known of Kenya's tribes, the Nilo-Hamitic Maasai are a nomadic people whose style of life has remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Their daily rhythm of life revolves around the constant quest for water and grazing for their cattle. Thought to have migrated to Kenya from the lower valleys of the Nile, the Maasai are distinguished by their complex character, impeccable manners, impressive presence and almost mystical love of their cattle. The latter is based on the Maasai belief that the sky god, Enkai, was once at one with the earth. When the earth and the sky were separated, however, Enkai was forced to send all the world's cattle into the safekeeping of the Maasai where, as far as the Maasai are concerned, they have remained. Brave and ruthless warriors, the Maasai instilled terror in all who came up against them, most especially the early explorers. ‘Take a thousand men' advised the famous explorer Henry Stanley when speaking of the Maasai, ‘or write your will'.
Today, cattle are still the central pivots of Maasai life and ‘I hope your cattle are well' is the most common form of Maasai greeting. The milk and blood of their cattle also continue to be the preferred diet of the Maasai people, while the hides serve as mattresses, sandals, mats and clothing. Cattle also act as marriage bonds, while a complex system of cattle-fines maintains the social harmony of the group. Visually stunning, the Maasai warrior with his swathe of scarlet ‘Shuka' (blanket), beaded belt, dagger, intricately plaited hair and one-legged stance remains the most enduring icon of Kenyan tourism.