best place to see elephants in kenya

The Best Place To See Elephants In Kenya

Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve has long been lauded as the best place to see elephants in Kenya, as decades of ground-breaking conservation work by the Douglas-Hamilton family has helped make the elephant here some of the most habituated in Africa. On our Kenya safari, we spent three nights in the Samburu region, and what we saw on our second morning will rank as one of the most memorable elephant sightings of my life and confirmed that this is indeed the best places to see elephants in Kenya.

We’d been driving along the northern banks of the Ewaso Ng’iro – or Ngiro River – in northern Kenya looking for lion, and while our Samburu guides, Joseph and Emmanuelle, had seen tracks the cats remained elusive. To our north, though, we could see a cloud of dust rising from the scrub thickets and a quick scan through binoculars revealed a herd of elephant heading our way. Joseph thought they might be coming down to drink, so we decided to sit tight and wait for them to arrive.

A herd of elephant passes one of Samburu's iconic Doum palms as they head to water
A herd of elephant drifts out of the scrubland, past one of Samburu’s iconic doum palms. © Gary Lotter

An elephant herd is a family comprised of adult females and calves of both genders, led by a matriarch. Adult males tend to hang on the outskirts, mixing with the herd from time to time for as long as the matriarch allows. Occasionally large bulls in musth, grumpy and edgy from the large doses of testosterone flowing through their bodies, trail the herds on the hunt for receptive females.

A matriarch leads her herd toward water
A matriarch leads her herd towards water. © Carl Fourie

The herd filed past no more than 20m from our vehicle, negotiating a gap in the steep riverbank and making its way to the water. We were about to settle in to watch the gentle creatures’ antics as they drank and socialised, but then we noticed there was still dust being kicked up in the distance. As more elephant emerged from the bush, from different directions, we realised that this wasn’t just one herd but several, all converging on the same gap in the steep riverbank.

The herds narrow to single file as the approach the gap in the river bank, mothers keeping their babies close
The herds narrowed to single file as they approached the gap in the riverbank, mothers keeping their babies close. © Carl Fourie

Over the next hour, we sat in awe as herd after herd made its way past us into the river, in the moments in between not quite sure whether to watch the elephant cavort in the river or to remain on the lookout for more advancing. At one point, being so focused on what was going on in front of us, we failed to notice a herd approaching us from behind. Suddenly we were surrounded by elephant almost within touching distance of our open-sided safari vehicle. This was thrilling to be sure and convinced us that this really was the best place to see elephants in Kenya.

On the riverbed, the elephant behaviour was mesmerising. Each took its time sucking up trunkfuls of water, squirting it into its raised and open mouth – an adult elephant can consume up to 200 litres of water per day!

Elephants drink and socialise in the Ewaso Ng'iro river. Samburu National Reserve
Time to drink and socialise in the Ngiro River. © Gary Lotter

The smallest calves, still without this dexterity, were alternating between kneeling on their front legs to suck up water with their mouths and playfully chasing each other between their mothers’ legs.

Elephant calves drink with their mouths until they've learnt to use their trunks to suck up water
Elephant calves drink with their mouths until they’ve learnt to use their trunks to suck up water. © Carl Fourie

Watchful matriarchs kept an eye over the commotion, making sure to keep their herds together and youngsters close while sub-adult bulls tussled with each other on the riverbank, practicing for the day when they’d need to challenge each other for the affections of a lady.

Sub-adult males play-fight on the riverbank. © Carl Fourie

Meanwhile, downstream, a large crocodile raised its head at the activity, then skulking low in the water it swam upstream towards the splashing. Directly translated from the local language, the accurately named Ewaso Ng’iro means ‘river of brown’, and this muddy water provides wonderful camouflage to the resident crocs; although they’re plentiful they aren’t as frequently seen as you’d expect. As such the reptile in question was provided cover the instant it slid its body a fraction below the waterline.

The brown water of the Ewaso Ng'iro river is ideal cover for crocodiles.
The brown water of the Ngiro River offers ideal cover for crocodile. © Gary Lotter

An adult elephant is too large, but an ambitious croc might try to pull a sub-adult into the water, and a calf caught in a current is fair game. Fortunately, on this occasion, the water level was only waist-high to the babes, and the hungry crocodile was out of luck.

Our attention then switched back to the bush as we saw, with nervous delight, a massive musth bull emerging, the glands on either side of his head streaming. The other bulls – both the younger ones and those not in musth – raised their trunks at his unmistakable scent, growing noticeably jittery as he approached the river.

A young bull elephant testing the air as he pick up the scent of a musth bull approaching.
A young bull elephant testing the air as he picks up the scent of a musth bull approaching. © Carl Fourie

The bull’s colossal size made it tricky for him to negotiate the bank and he was forced to enter the water by sliding down on his belly, dragging his back legs. Despite this inelegant entrance, once in the water, he regained his full composure, striding among the remaining elephants that were milling about and drinking, all of whom scattered to maintain a safe distance.

The musth bull strides into the water, scattering the elephants around him.
The musth bull strides into the water, scattering the elephant around him. © Carl Fourie

Once it was clear that the cantankerous male was just there to drink the rest of the elephant relaxed somewhat, but not completely – every time he moved those around him shuffled off. Another larger bull made the mistake of standing too close and was quickly rewarded with an aggressive rush from the musth male, causing him to turn tail and run.

As the last of the elephant drifted onto the southern bank in search of tall, lush trees to shade them from the coming heat, we decided to follow suit, making our way back to our lodge. Saruni Samburu is perched atop a large granite outcrop with endless views of the barren and beautiful wilderness of northern Kenya, and we could already taste the G&Ts we’d be having poolside, and were looking forward to sharing our tale about the best place to see elephants in Kenya with the other guests.

Watch how it all happened…

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