Samburu: The Elephant Experience

Kenya is famous for its wildlife parks -- seeing the big five and the great migration in the Masai Mara, rhinos at Nakuru, flamingos on lake Navaisha. But the intrepid safari-goer who wants a wildlife adventure off the beaten track, should head to Northern Kenya and the Samburu National Reserve.

Samburu, along with the neighboring reserves of Buffalo Springs and Shaba, is located roughly midway between Kenya's capital city of Nairobi and Ethiopia. Unlike most of Kenya's more famous parks, the reserve is made up of desert terrain. It's hot, dry and mountainous.

There are the requisite lions, leopards, and cape buffalo found at nearly all of Kenya's parks, but Samburu has something special.

"The uniqueness is we have rare species of wildlife you only find north of the equator," Simon Leirana, the chief warden of the Samburu National Reserve told ABC News.

The most famous and rare animal tourists come to see is the Grevy Zebra. On the endangered species list, these zebras have finer, closer-set stripes than other zebras, as well as exceptionally large ears. They are the largest of all zebra races, and are closely related to the wild donkey. According to the Africa Wildlife Foundation, because of habitat destruction and poaching for their unique skin, there are less than 2,500 left in the world.

Grevy Zebras can only be found in Northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia, with the largest population living in Samburu. You can spot hundreds of them in just one-day's game drive as they gallop in herds across the vast dusty open fields.

Other animals unique to Northern Kenya include: the Somali Ostrich, the largest living bird at an average of height of eight feet, distinctive from other ostrichs because of its blue grey long neck; the besia oryx; and the reticulated giraffe, originating in Somalia and having large geometric, deep brown spots.

While elephants are by no means unique to Samburu the reserve does have one of the highest populations in Kenya. Oria Douglas-Hamilton runs Elephant Watch, an eco-friendly luxury camp devoted to tracking and watching the 66 elephant families living in around Samburu.

Elephant Watch Wildlife Tourism

Douglas-Hamilton started the camp in 2001 as a support for the work of her husband, Ian Douglas Hamilton, who runs the conservation group Save the Elephants. When donors would come to the park they would have to stay at a lodge that was often not eco-friendly, she says. Now Elephant Watch has become one of the most recommended lodging for wildlife tourists in Kenya.

"We offer visitors an intimate, real, in-depth experience with elephants that you can't get at a lodge," said Douglas-Hamilton.

"We know the elephants individually and the elephants know us. We approach them in a very specific way."

The camp houses 12 individual tents, with thatch roofs and sand floors covered with palm mats. All furniture at the camp is constructed using wood from trees downed by the elephants themselves.

The elephants and other wildlife are so close that at night Samburu "warriors" employed by the camp watch over the occupants to keep them safe from any wildlife entering. The idea, says Douglas-Hamilton, is to make guests feel they are a part of nature instead of simply observing it. The Elephant Watch guides use their training and expertise to get visitors as close as three feet to the elephants.

"These visitors have never been that close to an elephant, they have never been accepted by elephant," says Douglas-Hamilton." Each day the visitor finds it's an amazing honor to be part of the elephant family and be accepted by them. "

The mountainous terrain of Samburu also allows tourists to rock climb and hike as well as going on game drives. Leira says tourists shouldn't let the heat and desert terrain deter them from visiting the reserve.

"The type of tourists that come here are wildlife lovers and adventurous," said Leirana. "Samburu can really be a wonderful holiday"