Tsavo East National Park

Tsavo East National Park

Tsavo East National Park is by far the biggest of Kenya’s parks. At more than 13,700km², Tsavo East is nine times bigger than the Maasai Mara National Reserve: indeed you could fit the whole of the Mara reserve into the southern tip of Tsavo East National Park, south of the Voi River. Most famous for its huge herds of dust-red elephants, more than 10,000 of them bulldoze their way around this vast park.

Tsavo East has another big draw: you can set off on a game drive across the seemingly empty wilderness and return to camp three hours later without having seen a single other vehicle. There are very few camps and lodges here and, relatively speaking, almost none, with the majority of them close to Voi in the west, near the Mombasa highway. You often have the park to yourself, watching the wildlife under a huge sky: no matter what you’re looking at, Tsavo East always feels like a big spectacle.

When considering a Tsavo East safari, it's worth knowing that nearly all safaris take place in the south of the park, south of the Galana River. The enormous northern region of Tsavo East was closed to the public for many years and, although it is now open again, distances are vast up here and there is virtually infrastructure. In practice, it's an area for adventurous explorers, not game drives.

Incidentally, although Tsavo East and Tsavo West share a name – and a common border, coinciding with the Mombasa highway – they are two distinct national parks with different eco-systems: the wooded and hilly landscapes, dotted with volcanic cones and dramatic, black lava flows of Tsavo West National Park and the much flatter, more open plains and scattered bush that characterise Tsavo East National Park.

Tsavo East Safaris

The southern part of Tsavo East National Park is a popular destination for short Tsavo East National Park safaris by minibus from the coast. Most of these trips take clients up to Voi, where they stay in one of the Tsavo East lodges, most of which are located only a few minutes drive from the highway. None of Tsavo East’s airstrips are currently used by scheduled flights. While chartering an exclusive flight for your trip (usually from Nairobi) is an option, chartering can be expensive for small parties or couples. We therefore offer high-quality road transfers, in fully equipped 4x4 safari vehicles, for Expert Africa travellers doing Tsavo East safari add-ons in. These include full board stays, with all activities, at two of the park’s best safari camps.

The geography and wildlife of Tsavo East

Tsavo East is mostly a vast flat plain of sandy soil, split by the shallow trough of the Galana River. Nearly all visits take place south of the Galana, where seasonal streams form tributaries that run into the river, their banks lined by small areas of thicker bush. Another watercourse, the seasonal Voi River, runs east through this part of the park, feeding the shallow Aruba dam and then meandering to the coast.

The Galana, which rises in the central highlands and whose upper reaches are known as the Athi, is one of Kenya’s biggest rivers. Its valley – rocky in much of its western course, sandy and doum-palm fringed further east – is one of Tsavo East National Park’s defining physical features.

Tsavo East landmarks

Mudanda Rock is an Ayer’s Rock-like sandstone inselberg whose bare flanks form a natural water catchment area that feeds into a large, seasonal lake, attracting large numbers of animals.

The Yatta Plateau is a 300km ancient lava flow that stretches along the east and north bank of the Athi-Galana. Its geomagnetic qualities are believed to play a role in guiding migratory birds and large numbers of Palearctic migrants can be seen in the area.

Lugard Falls are a series of short falls and steep rapids on the Galana River, where relatively harder rock has created a bottleneck in the valley and impedes the river’s progress. Crocodile Point, where the big reptiles can often be seen basking in the sun, is just downstream from here. At some point on most Tsavo East safaris, you're almost bound to stop here to stretch your legs and takes photos.

Flora and fauna of Tsavo East National Park

The plant communities of Tsavo East are dominated by short grasses, thorn bushes and two major species of tree. The baobab is the iconic tree of Tsavo West National Park, across the Mombasa highway, but you still find significant numbers of these compelling trees, with their enormous trunks and stumpy branches. They form important habitats for many species of birds and insects: you’ll often seen hornbills using holes in baobabs to nest in. The doum palm is a curious tree, a native of North Africa, with edible dates and kernels, whose southernmost territory is the Galana River. When young, the trees are a mass of bushy fronds, but as they mature and the trunks grow, they bifurcate, sometimes two or three times, to create an arresting visual image of forked palm trees.

If wildlife densities are much lower here than in some parks, the numbers and variety can be surprisingly good. On our own recent Tsavo East safaris we’ve usually seen the charactersitically short-maned Tsavo lions; cheetahs appear often; all the plains grazers and bush browsers are much in evidence; and those elephants never let us down: droves of them – many with big tusks – surge across the river, wallow in the waterholes and file over the red earth roads in front of bulging baobab trees. Poaching has been on the increase in recent years, but it hasn’t reached the epidemic levels of the late 1980s and the park is now much better equipped to deal with it.

Despite being in south-east Kenya, Tsavo East is zoologically associated with northern Kenya, meaning you’ll see long-necked gerenuk and Somali ostrich, the male of which has a blue neck and legs, and introduced herds of the handsome, fine-striped, Grevy’s zebra. There is also a breeding population of black rhinos, closely monitored by rangers who track them through the bush, though very few travellers on Tsavo East safaris are lucky enough to see them.

The prehistory of the Tsavo region

What is now Tsavo East National Park was home, in prehistoric times, to scattered communities of hunter-gatherers. Pre-dating the arrival of all the present-day peoples of Kenya, these ancient communities, dating back 50,000 to 100,000 years or more, lived a precarious existence along the banks of the Galana river, where some of their cave shelters have been discovered. They scoured the land for wild fruit, seeds, edible flowers and leaves, nuts and berries, and dug the ground for roots and tubers, while catching any small animals they could grab, from locusts to frogs. With training and practice in adolescence, the men grew up to use the technology of their era – primarily simple bows, spears and clubs of wood and bone – and competed for four-legged meat across Tsavo East with the predators of the region: the lions, leopards, hyenas, crocodiles and related species now extinct, which in turn occasionally hunted them.

The history of Tsavo East

Thousands of years later, the ancestors of the Kamba moved off the slopes of Mount Kenya into the northwestern fringes of the Tsavo district – probably some time between 500AD and 1000AD – and gradually displaced, or culturally absorbed, most of the hunter-gatherers. The Kamba had first arrived in what is now Kenya from central Africa, with their iron-working technology, along with all the other peoples speaking Bantu languages, such as the Kikuyu and the Mijikenda, roughly between 1000BC–200BC.

While still restricted, like the hunter-gatherers, to areas of Tsavo East with water, which effectively meant the valley of the Galana River, the Kamba began to herd their livestock across the savannah and seek out bees' nests in the baobab trees. They subsequently went on to become great bee-keepers, famous across Kenya for their honey. They also refined the ancient art of poison-tipping their arrows, and for centuries, Kamba hunting arrows were at the forefront of hunting technology.

The exploration of Tsavo East

By the time the Maasai arrived in the Tsavo area with their cattle, in the eighteenth century, Swahili traders from the coast had been trekking across the region for centuries, using the Kamba as middlemen to exchange foreign cloth, alcohol, gold and silver coins and gunpowder for animal skins, ivory, rhino horn and slaves from the far interior. It was Swahili and Kamba traders who led the earliest explorers and missionaries on the world’s first 'safaris'. In 1849, they showed the German Bible scholar Johann Krapf the snowy peaks of Kilimanjaro and Kirinyaga (later called Mount Kenya), and in the 1880s they guided the eco-conscious Scottish geologist Joseph Thomson – the world’s first explorer to practice something resembling responsible travel (nobody ever lost their life on a Thomson safari) – on his way through Maasai-land.

The early Victorian colonists from Britain saw Tsavo East as a problem area to be fought against: they couldn’t farm there, but they were going to make sure their trains ran on time on the new railway line. Having dealt with two man-eating lions (the 'Man-Eaters of Tsavo') after losing dozens of labourers to the hungry pair during the railway’s construction, they were determined to avoid staff shortages over wildlife. Tsavo East’s dense population of black rhinos was considered to be a particular scourge, making footpaths and roads unsafe for pedestrians. As late as the years after World War II, the British employed the suitably named JA Hunter to cull the rhinos, and he quickly lived up to his name, killing 1088 rhinos over the course of a year in the area that is now Tsavo East National Park.

Tsavo East becomes a National Park

In 1948, there was a change of mind. The authorities declared that the area of Tsavo East would henceforth be protected as Tsavo East National Park. A decade after independence, the government of Jomo Kenyatta banned all hunting and tourists began to deliver an income to the region. Elephant and rhino poaching remained a serious problem however, spiking in the late 1970s as Middle East oil wealth began to purchase ivory and rhino horn dagger handles, and again in the late 1980s and early 1990s as Somalia’s economy disintegrated and refuges and weapons flooded the area. A third spike seems to be happening now, as China’s economy booms, though the park authorities, with private assistance, are better equipped to deal with poaching than in the past.
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