Africa’s Northern Five

Posted by on October 24th, 2023

I will never forget the first wild animal I ever saw in Africa. Seventeen years ago in Tanzania, we were only about 30 minutes outside of Arusha, our arrival city, when a zebra appeared just off the side of the main road. There was much excitement and pointing and our poor guide had to pull over to let me snap several grainy photos on an old digital camera. We were miles from the national park, but it was my first real wildlife sighting and I was thrilled.

In the years since, I have had the privilege to be out on safari in more and more wild places in Africa. My desire to see the unique and elusive has grown, with creatures like zebra almost becoming run-of-the-mill – or so I thought until this past June, when I ventured up to northern Kenya.

This first foray into the bush north of the equator was not only exciting as I got to experience several reserves and wildlife conservancies that were new to me, but I also knew it would be possible to seek out an incredibly special group of wildlife known as the “Northern 5.”

Only found between certain longitudes north of Nairobi, these five creatures are lesser known than some of Africa’s big game, but they are equally fascinating. Getting to see them all has only fueled my passion for safari and awakened my inner wildlife nerd.

  • Grevy’s Zebra: I am not sure I can ever look at a common plains zebra the same way after spotting this stunning equine! The largest of the zebra species on earth, they have long legs, large ears, white bellies, and intricate narrow stripes that form almost psychedelic patterns. They look like walking works of art, and are mesmerizing to watch. Although they number just over 2,500 left in the wild, we saw plenty across Ol Pejeta, Lewa and Laikipia.

 

  • Somali Ostrich: While a traditional male ostrich (pictured on the left) has a pink neck and legs, which deepen in color as they try to attract a mate, a Somali ostrich (on the right) turns a rich, dark blue that I didn’t believe until I saw it in person. Deemed a separate species from ostrich as recently as 2014, this animal is a thrill to see. Against the muted colors of straw and grass at this time of year, this colorful beast was an exceptional creature to behold.

  • Beisa Oryx: These shy creatures are cousins to other species found from the Kalahari in Southern Africa to the desert landscapes of Oman and the Emirates in the Middle East. Today, this specific subspecies can only be found in Kenya and Ethiopia, although some do venture as far south as the Serengeti in certain seasons. Shy and skittish, they have beautiful coloring and distinct long, straight horns. While the landscapes of Northern Kenya are as varied as its wildlife, seeing small herds of Oryx made me feel like I was in Namibia or the Middle East.

  • Reticulated Giraffe: When I tell you I broke all safari rules and omitted a loud squeal when we saw our first Reticulated Giraffe in Ol Pejeta, I am downplaying just how embarrassing it really was – thank goodness for private guides! I cannot remember a time I was more excited for a sighting. Giraffes are probably my favorite animal of all time, and to see one, so classic, so regal and so long sought after (by yours truly) was a safari moment for the ages. Found only in Somalia, Ethiopia and Northern Kenya, this giraffe has a more rigidly defined pattern than its Southern cousins and one which I think most people associate with them, despite being so rare

  • Gerenuk: The final creature on the list is the Gerenuk, which we saw on the incredible Lewa Conservancy. Our guide deftly navigated the Land Cruiser off-road (the beauty of private conservation areas!) through a rocky valley, where he said we had the best chance to find them. Sitting in silence in the bush, disconnected from everything but totally in the moment, is always my favorite place, so I didn’t mind lying in wait. Finally, our patience paid off as a pair of elegant, long-necked, big-eared Gerenuk gracefully made their way out of some thick bush. They were incredible to watch, and even more fun to try and capture on film.

 

We are at a juncture in wildlife conservation where every little piece of land counts, and the chance to see all five of these amazing animals within just a few days was beyond exciting. For anyone in search of a unique addition to the more famous creatures, Northern Kenya is the place to be. From all the classics to these rare sightings, as well as the healthiest population of rhino anywhere on earth, Northern Kenya truly has it all.

Now if I could only find a pangolin and a honey badger…… perhaps next time!

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