Samburu, Shaba and Buffalo Springs National Reserves‘The Plains of Darkness'
Vast, magnificent and still largely unexplored, these three neighbouring reserves offer an evocative cocktail of uniquely contrasting habitats, veering from stark cliffs and boulder-strewn scarps to lush swamps and muddy sandbanks; and from bone-dry bush to fronded riverine forests. Hot and arid, this area is known by the local nomadic tribe, the Gabbra, as ‘the Plains of Darkness', whose heat-scorched scrublands extend all the way to the jade-green waters of Lake Turkana. Uncompromisingly rugged yet vividly beautiful Samburu, verdant Buffalo Springs, and the wildly volcanic Shaba (once the home of Joy Adamson of ‘Born Free' fame, and famous for its large prides of lion), all offer virtually guaranteed wildlife encounters, while elephant roam in large herds and are best seen crossing the river at dusk. Finally, while these rugged, hot and arid ‘badlands' of north-eastern Kenya constitute more than one third of Kenya's total land area, yet they are home to less than five per cent of her people; most of whom are hardy nomads.
Altitude: 850-1,230 meters above sea level.
Area: Samburu: 104 sq km. Shaba: 239 sq km. Buffalo Springs:131 sq km.
Location: Eastern Province, Isiolo District.
Distance from Nairobi: 340 km north-east of Nairobi.
Gazetted: presently managed by Isiolo County Council, the reserves were established in 1948 as part of the Samburu-Isiolo Game Reserve. The present boundaries were formed in 1985.
Climate: hot, dry and semi-arid.
Vegetation: varies between acacia woodland, bushland, scrubland and riverine woodlands.
Wildlife: includes plentiful elephant, and features such rarities as reticulated giraffe, Grevy's zebra and beisa oryx.
Birds: over 395 species have been recorded.
What's in a name?
Buffalo Springs takes its name from the pools and springs of fresh clear water, which bubble in its midst, and act as a magnet for large congregations of wild life, especially during the dry season (June to October and December to April). A favourite watering hole for the reserve's buffaloes, the springs also act as a draw to literally thousands of sand grouse and doves. The reserves have two seasonal rivers, the Isiolo and the Ngare Mara, both of which flow into the Ewaso Nyiro.
Domain of doum palm and desert rose
The reserve is characterized by large tracts of Commiphora-dominated bushland, open areas of lava rock with scattered grass and shrubs, and alkaline grasslands dotted with springs and swamps. There is also extensive Acacia tortilis woodland, and a narrow band of riverine forest with magnificent Acacia elatior, Tana River Poplar (Populus ilicifolia) and Doum Palm (Hyphaene compressa) along the Ewaso Nyiro River. The uniform khaki of the shrub is also enlivened by the occasional bulbous trunk and brilliant pink bloom of the indigenous succulent known as the ‘Desert Rose' (Adenium obesum) while the Salvadora persica (tooth-brush tree) shrub is a favourite both with browsing elephants, and with the nomadic Samburu people, who break off twigs to use as toothbrushes.
As is the case with most dry country ecosystems, wildlife watching varies greatly as the animal populations move about in search of water and pasture.
Rare and uncommon wildlife
The reserve's wildlife includes a number of rare and localized races and species, such as the increasingly uncommon reticulated giraffe, with its beautiful jigsaw marking. It is also one of the few areas in Kenya to host the Grevy's zebra, which with its rounded ‘Mickey Mouse' ears is notably different from its more common cousin, the Burchell's zebra. Gerenuks (meaning ‘camel head' in Somali) can also often be seen standing on their hind legs and using their long necks to reach the choicest foliage. Other browsers of the thorny shrub include elands, both lesser and greater kudus, impalas, Bright's gazelles (the pale northern species of Grant's gazelle), warthogs and Kirk's and Gunther's dik-diks. Buffalos, leopards, cheetahs and lions are also present.
Large herds of elephant roam the reserve and are best seen crossing the river, or returning to its banks at dusk to bathe.
Denizens of the Ewaso Nyiro River
The lifeblood of this dust-dry desert region, the Ewaso Nyiro River is home to plentiful pods of snorting hippos, while on its raised sandbanks immense Nile crocodiles bask.
A brilliance of birdlife
So abundant is this area's birdlife that it is possible to notch up over 100 species in a day, the most noteworthy being the rare blue-shanked Somali ostrich. Secretary birds are plentiful, as are bands of bustling helmeted and vulturine guinea fowls, while along the river storks feed and sand grouse congregate at dusk. Both red-billed and Von der Decken's hornbills are common. The rugged nature of the reserve also provides an ideal raptor habitat; common sightings include; pygmy falcons, martial eagles and Verreaux's eagle owls.
Wildlife highlights: Lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted and striped hyena, black-backed jackals, common genets, banded and dwarf mongooses bat-eared fox, hunting dogs, elephant, buffalo, hippo, plains and Grevy's zebra, beisa oryx, lesser and greater kudu, gerenuk, Kirk's and Gunther's dik-dik, waterbuck, buffalo, klipspringer, eland, Bright's gazelle, reticulated giraffe, warthog, cape hare, hyrax, vervet monkey, baboon, hippo, Nile crocodile. Birds: 395 recorded species
The people of Samburu
The Nilotic and nomadic Maa-speaking people of the Samburu are closely related to the Maasai, whose language and cultural heritage they share. Unlike their more warlike cousins, however, the Samburu are tolerant of other groups and place a high value on social respect. Living in Maralal and northern Kenya, between Lake Turkana and the Ewaso Nyiro River, they are said to have migrated south from their homelands north of Lake Turkana several centuries ago. Their name is thought to derive from the Maa word samburimbur, which means ‘butterfly', and is a particularly apt description since both men and women dress in bright colours and are passionately fond of ornaments of brass and beadwork. The young warriors, il murran, are renowned for their ornate hairstyles, and their ochre braids are often decorated by red plastic roses. Like the Maasai, the Samburu have a marked age-set system and both men and women are circumcised. Cattle-owning pastoralists, the Samburu live mainly off their herds; milk is their principal food, supplemented with blood tapped from the veins of their living cattle. Living in traditional villages called enkang, these nomadic people move to new pastures with the seasons. Their huts, which are made from mud, dung and saplings, are located within a compound that is surrounded by a dense hedge of thorns, which serves to keep their livestock safe at night.