Vast, magnificent and still largely unexplored, the three neighbouring reserves - Shaba, Samburu and Buffalo Springs - 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 National Reserve (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.
Altitude: 700 - 1,500 meters above sea level.
Area: 239 sq km.
Location: Eastern Province.
Distance from Nairobi: 320 km north-east of Nairobi.
Gazetted: The reserve was established in 1948 and later gazetted in 1974
Climate: the reserve lies in a hot and dry semi-arid area.
Traditionally the long rains fall March/April and the short rains October/November.
Vegetation: varies between acacia woodland, bushland and scrubland and narrow riverine woodlands.
Wildlife: includes: elephant, cheetah, reticulated giraffe, oryx, gerenuk, vervet monkey, zebra, buffalo, hippo and crocodile.
Birds: over 350 species have been recorded.
Roads: 4WD is recommended for the journey to and within the reserve although 2WD vehicles with good ground clearance can be used outside the rainy seasons.
Shaba was formed in 1974 and has been used for a number of film locations including Born Free, Out of Africa and more recently, Survivor 3. Covering an area of 239 sq km, Shaba's scenery is stark and beautiful, dominated by Shaba Hill in its southern section and surrounded by steep ravines, a favourite haunt for leopard. There are also good views to the sugarloaf mountain of Ol Ololokwe north of Archer's Post. Bisected by the Ewaso Nyiro River, the reserve features tracts of riverine forest with ragged doum palms and grasslands interspersed with lava outcrops, numerous springs and marsh areas leading into the Lorian Swamp.
Shaba is famous as the home of Joy Adamson, author of Born Free. It was here that she was murdered in 1980. A plaque raised on her old campsite honours her memory.
Domain of doum palm and desert rose
Featuring mainly sandy or gravely soils the reserve abounds in large tracts of Acacia tortilis woodland, and along the banks of the Ewaso Ng'iro River and its tributaries there is a narrow band of riverine forest with magnificent Acacia elatior, Tana River Poplar (Populus ilicifolia) and Doum Palm (Hyphaene compressa). 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).
Prey to the harsh dictates of a dry country ecosystem, the reserve is prone to large variations in the animal populations as they move about in search of water and pasture. However, elephant encounters are common as large herds roam the reserve and they are best seen crossing the river, or returning to its banks at dusk to bathe.
Shaba holds healthy numbers of lions, leopards and cheetahs as well as spotted and striped hyenas, bat-eared foxes and common genets. Unlike its sister reserves, Shaba is also one of the few places where can see the endangered wild dog.
Dwellers of the dry shrub
Shaba is one of the few areas in Kenya where one can view the Grevy's zebra, which with its rounded ‘Mickey Mouse' ears is notably different from its more common cousin, the Burchell's zebra, which also populates the reserve. Other browsers of the thorny shrub include the increasingly uncommon reticulated giraffe and the rare Beisa oryx, as well as elands, impalas, Bright's gazelles (the pale northern species of Grant's gazelle) and gerenuks. Elsewhere rooting warthogs and Kirk's and Guenther's dik-diks can be seen, and in small numbers both lesser and greater kudus.
Denizens of the Ewaso Ng'iro River
The lifeblood of this dust-dry desert region, the 32 km Ewaso Ng'iro River meanders in mud-brown loops throughout the reserve and is home to plentiful pods of snorting and chortling hippos. On its raised sandbanks immense Nile crocodiles bask, remaining stock still, utterly camouflaged and menacingly patient. Amid the dense riverside thickets impala, common waterbuck and buffalo lurk.
A brilliance of birdlife
Shaba's birdlife is so abundant that over 100 species can be spotted in a day. Perhaps most noteworthy of the sightings is the rare blue-shanked Somali ostrich; the most memorable, the flash of coral rump that flags the flight of the white-headed buffalo-weaver. Secretary birds are plentiful, as are bands of bustling helmeted and vulturine guinea fowls, saddle-billed stork, and red-billed hornbill. This is also one of the few places where you can see the rare William's lark.
Rugged raptor realm
The Reserve's characteristically rugged cliffs and starkly rising inselbergs provide the ideal habitat for raptors, which range in size from the tiny pygmy falcon to the giant martial eagle. Verreaux's eagle owls also hunt the rivers.