Best Places To See the Big Five Animals in Kenya
Philip is a renowned Africa expert and author of Kenya guides for Bradt, DK Eyewitness and Insight.
Everybody who goes on an Africa safari hopes to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino) in the flesh. And Kenya is undoubtedly one of the very best countries to make this dream come true. Many of its parks support at least four – and in some cases all five – of these eagerly sought creatures. Furthermore, you can greatly increase your chance of seeing all the Big Five by matching two or more safari destinations with complementary strengths.
To help you make the most of your Kenyan safari, we take a look at 10 of the country’s most prominent parks, and provide an overview of which of the Big Five are present there, and how easily they are seen.
What Is the Big Five?
The Big Five is a quintet of large African mammals that tops the wish list of many first-time safari-goers. These are lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. The term was originally coined by big game hunters and referred to the animals they regarded to be the most dangerous to hunt on foot. This is why it does not include other charismatic but relatively unthreatening creatures such as giraffe and cheetah.
1. Masai Mara National Reserve
Kenya’s most popular safari destination is one of the best places anywhere to see the Big Five. A northern extension of the Serengeti, it is most famous for the wildebeest migration that takes up residence on its rolling plains over September and October. At any time of year, however, you can also be confident of seeing lion, leopard, elephant and buffalo in the Masai Mara. A bit more luck is required for black rhino, which are uncommon but most likely to be seen in the westerly sector known as the Mara Triangle.
2. Lake Nakuru National Park
This small but scenic national park is easily visited in conjunction with the Masai Mara, and the two complement each other very well. This is because Lake Nakuru is one of the best places in Kenya to look for rhinos, which are relatively uncommon in the Masai Mara. White rhinos are easily seen on the lake floodplain, but black rhinos are more secretive and prefer dense bush. Lion and leopard are present, but not particularly common. Other wildlife you’re likely to see includes buffalo, Rothschild’s giraffe and seasonal flocks of flamingos.
3. Amboseli National Park
For elephant lovers, there’s no better place than Amboseli to watch these fascinating creatures up close. Buffaloes are also quite common here, but big cats are scarce, and there are no rhinos. The park’s spectacular location at the base of Kilimanjaro more than compensates, especially if you’re also visiting other parks where lion, leopard and rhino remain more common.
4. Tsavo East National Park
Tsavo East, which extends northeast from the Nairobi–Mombasa Highway, is ideal for people wanting to insert a short safari into a longer beach holiday. Home to all the Big Five, it is renowned for its large herds of elephant and buffalo, but lion, leopard and black rhino are less certain.
5. Tsavo West National Park
Together with its eastern namesake, Tsavo West forms part of Kenya’s largest protected area. Elephant and buffalo are common, and it is slightly more reliable than Tsavo East for lions. Tsavo West is quite good for black rhinos, around 80 of which are protected, at a density of roughly one individual per square kilometer, in a fenced drive-through sanctuary at Ngulia.
6. Samburu, Buffalo Springs and Shaba National Reserves
Four of the Big Five (the exception being rhino) inhabit this cluster of reserves strung along the Ewaso Nyiro River as it flows through the arid badlands north of Mount Kenya. The forested riverbank often yields good leopard sightings, and is also reliable for elephant and buffalo. A striking feature of these reserves is a long list of dry-country species, including Grevy’s zebra, Beisa oryx and gerenuk, unlikely to be seen in other national parks.
7. Laikipia Plateau (incorporates Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Solio Ranch)
Laikipia is Kenya’s most progressive Big Five conservation area. It comprises a mosaic of private and community-owned conservancies that collectively forms Kenya’s second-largest protected ecosystem. Laikipia is also a key stronghold for all the Big Five animals in Kenya, especially rhino, while other specialties include Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe and African wild dog. Premier properties include Lewa, Ol Pejeta and Solio Ranch, which offer all-inclusive game packages at small exclusive lodges.
8. Aberdare National Park
Mountainous Aberdare National Park is an atypical safari destination in that most wildlife viewing is done from a pair of hide-like ‘tree hotels’ overlooking floodlit waterholes. Despite this, it is home to all the Big Five, and on a good night the waterhole might well attract buffalo, elephant, black rhino, leopard and (more unusually) lion.
9. Nairobi National Park
Nairobi National Park is easily damned with faint praise. Yes, the city skyscrapers loom above some parts of the park. True, it is the ideal goal for a day safari for those with limited time. But it is also a wilder and more rewarding safari destination than such statements might lead you to believe. Despite how close the park is to Nairobi, its entire southern boundary is unfenced, allowing wildlife to migrate freely from the Athi Plains. And four of the Big Five are commonly seen, the exception being elephant.
10. Meru National Park
Meru is a good choice for those who hope to see the Big Five animals in Kenya whilst spending time in an off-the-beaten-track safari destination. This scenic national park is the sort of place where you can drive for an hour and not see another vehicle. Elephant and buffalo are common (along with the striking reticulated giraffe), while both species of rhino are protected in a fenced drive-through sanctuary. Big cats cannot be guaranteed, but if you do get lucky, you’re likely to have the sighting to yourself.
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