The smallest national park in Kenya
A dense, vibrantly green realm of swamp, bulrushes, sedges and surrounding riverine forest, Saiwa Swamp - Kenya’s smallest national park, was created specifically to protect the habitat of the rare and endangered semi-aquatic Sitatunga antelope. Rarely visited, well-off the tourist track but charmingly rewarding, this compact Park is unique in that it is the only place in Kenya where vehicles are prohibited and the walker reigns supreme.
Altitude: 1,860-1,880 m.
Area: 3 sq km.
Location: Cherangani Hills of Trans-Nzoiya - Rift Valley Province
Distance from Nairobi: 400 km north-west of Nairobi.
Gazetted: Gazetted as a National Park in 1974.
Climate: Typical African wetland climate, ranging from warm to cool and humid to semi-arid (wet seasons March-June and October-November).
Vegetation: Swamp and riverine forest, tall bullrushes and sedge.
Wildlife: Sitatunga, monkey, spotted-necked otter, giant forest squirrel, leopard, bushbuck, ratel and African civet.
Birds: 372 species including such rarities as Ross' turaco and the blue-headed coucal.
Roads: The Park has no roads, only walking trails.
One of only two parks in Kenya where you can go walkabout
This Park is unique in that it is only accessible by foot. Traversed by some 7 km of well-maintained wooden walkways and trails, it also offers three timbered viewing platforms where you can stake yourself out for a glimpse of the elusive Sitatunga antelope. Well-marked trails skirt the perimeter of the swamp, which can also be traversed via the wooden duckboards that go right across it.
Spot the swamp star, the secretive Sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekei).
Known in Swahili as the ‘Nzohe', the remarkable and rare Sitatunga (pronounced ‘statunga') is a long-legged antelope that has adapted itself to exploit the abundant food resources of the swamp habitat. Its shaggy coat is oily and water repellent while its elongated and splayed hooves allow it to walk on submerged vegetation with impunity. So specialized are these feet that the Sitatunga can easily outrun its predators in the swamp, though on land it has a much clumsier gait. Reddish-brown with a vaguely moth-eaten look, it has very large ears and (on the males) horns. Moving with slow deliberation so as to avoid detection, the Sitatunga enters the water gently and sinks down until nearly all of its body is submerged. It then spends most of the day submerged or resting in reedy shade. A good swimmer, when alarmed the Sitatunga dives deep and remains submerged but for the tip of its nose. Crepuscular and extremely shy it prefers to feed morning and evening and occasionally leaves the swamp after dark to browse. Found in scattered locations throughout western and central Africa (particularly the papyrus swamps of Lake Victoria and in the Kingwal Swamp near Kapsabet), it is only at Saiwa Swamp that these elusive creatures have become habituated to the proximity of humans.
How to see a Sitatunga
Watching and waiting are the tricks of the trade. You might also keep watch along the paths and tunnels that the Sitatunga makes through the reeds and rushes - especially between 6pm and 10am when they are most active.
Other stars in the Saiwa Swamp cast
Very conspicuous are the silken coats of the black and white colobus monkey and the white-bearded faces of the distinctive de Brazza monkey. You will also see plenty of blue and vervet monkey. Spotted-necked otter and giant forest squirrel will prove more difficult. Leopard are around, but it's unlikely you'll see one.
A great draw for ornithologists, the Park boasts over 372 species of birds. Rare birds include crowned hornbill, Ross' turaco and eastern grey plantain eater, while the riverine forests shelter one of Kenya's most spectacular forest birds, the Narina trogon. Most conspicuous around the Park are the grey-crowned cranes, but large numbers of ibis, duck and heron feed conspicuously in the more open patches of water. Cinnamon-chested bee-eaters are plentiful along the trails, as well as paradise flycatchers and black-headed gonoleks. Ludher's bush-shrike is also found here, but is difficult to spot being infinitely shyer. Cisticolas and warblers flit around the base of the observation towers, and long-crested eagles can often be seen perched high on the bare branches of dead trees. Blue-headed coucals can often be caught taking in the sun among the bullrushes while the reeds are home to Hartlaub's marsh widowbird and yellow bishop. When in fruit, the fig trees also offer a potent lure for double-toothed barbets.
The Park offers an interesting mix of forest and swamp vegetation and an extraordinarily diverse plant habitat. Dominated by tall bullrushes and sedges, it is bordered by a mixture of grassland, riverine forests and yellow acacia trees. Epiphytic ferns and orchids also proliferate. The wetter riverine forest is marked by gigantic strangler figs while Syzygium trees, with their dark-purple fruits, are not uncommon along the fringes of the swamp.
The swamp makes an ideal habitat for all manner of gorgeous dragonflies and damselflies while a profusion of jewel-hued butterflies dance along the trails (such as swallowtails and charaxes, and notably the African mocker swallowtail (Papilio dardanus).
Reptiles and amphibians
Home to numerous frogs and toads, and specifically the tree frogs, which are particularly noisy after a rainstorm, the swamp is also a preferred haunt of Bell's hinged tortoise. Snake life includes the forest cobra and the African rock python. As you follow the trails, you might also watch out for a side-striped chameleon.
The Park is entirely surrounded by intensively cultivated subsistence smallholdings (known as ‘shambas'), and so its perimeter fence marks a sharp divide between two very different habitats. Cultivation tends to be small-scale and by means of hand tools but the neighbouring farmers plough as close to the fence as possible, dramatizing the delicate balance that must be maintained between human well-being and the struggle to sustain a healthy bio-diverse habitat. Survival of the Park, therefore, is very much dependent upon close co-operation between the Kenya Wildlife Service and the surrounding community.