An introduction to the mammals and reptiles of El Karama Ranch and Conservancy

An account by Washington Wachira (photos by Washington & Maureen)

The beautiful El Karama Conservancy is a fantastic place for mammals and reptiles. We enjoyed a stay at the amazing El Karama Eco Lodge in September, 2020 and managed to connect with some really amazing species. Below is an account of these special animals:-
The ranch is mainly comprised of savannah habitat, which includes open grasslands and also bushed grasslands. The River Ewaso Ng’iro runs across the ranch and also provides a great riverine woodland habitat. To the upper side of the ranch, there is some drier scrub vegetation that is slightly different from the lower side.
The open grasslands are a great place for Thompson’s Gazelles, Jackson’s Hartebeests and Beisa Oryx. These mammals seem to happily co-exist and even feed together in large herds. Often nearby, were herds of Common Impalas and Common Warthog families. Here we also found some Common Elands, that included some very large old bulls. On one morning game drive, we were lucky to find a solitary Steenbok feeding alone in a small grassy patch. Bright’s Gazelles were also very common here and we connected with a good number of herds on all our game drives. We also got to observe them at night and on one occasion, we found two males busy fighting as they sought to settle their grievances.   
The dry scrubland is a great place to look for the shy Smith’s (Gunther’s) Dikdiks. This is also a home for the rare Gerenuk, which is sometimes nick-named the “Giraffe Antelope”. These charismatic antelopes have a trait of feeding with their front limbs elevated on tops of bushes, as a way of reaching the soft shoots. This, combined with their long legs and necks, enables them to master the art of browsing. Their “nick-name friends”, the Giraffes are represented by Reticulated Giraffes. These are quite common at El Karama and you often encounter them in small herds, feeding together among the wooded savannah.
Other animals that love the dry scrubland, and rocky cliffs include the Rock Hyrax, a close relative of the modern-day African Elephant. Here we also found a herd of Greater Kudu, feeding together. We were also fortunate to connect with a family of Dwarf Mongooses that was feeding by the roadside.   
Along the riverine habitat, Common Hippos are at home, and once in a while you encounter African Buffaloes feeding along the river. The African Buffaloes are also common in many of the other habitats across the ranch. The Buffaloes are mainly a herd mammal, but sometimes you encounter lone bulls hiding in the bushes. These bushes, especially along the Ewaso Ng’iro River also formed a great habitat for the Bushbuck – a very beautiful antelope.  
Savannah or Bush Elephants (which we enjoyed both at night and during the day) and Grevy’s Zebras form the nomadic herbivores on the ranch. These two species move long distances, often following rains and pasture. Due to this habit, they are often encountered as large migratory groups but sometimes they can move into neighbouring ranches. We were very happy with our elephant encounters, and especially the family we met at night – which also had two young calves. We were not lucky with the Grevy’s Zebras during our short trip.  
Carnivores are plentiful on the ranch, with the African Lions being on top of the food chain. We met one lactating Lioness strolling peacefully across a hilly gorge. Leopards are also very common and a great project is going on here to try and identify them using mirror-based camera traps. During our stay, we were not lucky to connect with Leopards, but they are around and most of our time was spent filming so we did not search as hard. Another exciting Big Cat member that is sometimes also found at the El Karama Ranch is the Cheetah. Although not a very common cat, they do occur on the ranch too. The night is the realm of Spotted Hyenas (we were lucky to find many on our night game drives), Bat-eared Foxes (we saw many individuals during the night game drives and also day drives) and Aardwolves. Although the latter is quite shy and rare, we were lucky to meet one individual during one of our night game drives – organised by the amazing El Karama Eco Lodge. We also met a pair of Striped Hyenas on one of our morning game drives, another rare carnivore that is not easy to find in many parts of Kenya. Silver-backed (Black-backed) Jackals were also quite common across most parts of the ranch and these would be encountered in pairs or small families that included pups.  
Primates were also well represented across the entire ranch, with the commonest monkeys being the Hilgert’s Vervet. These were common around the river, in the woodlands and also around the beautiful El Karama Eco Lodge. Olive Baboons were also quite common and especially along the Yellow-backed Acacia woodland that runs across the Ewaso Ng’iro River. On our night game drives, we were lucky to connect with Kenya Lesser Galagos, which are not easy to find during the day. Bushbabies, as they are sometimes called, are always a tough group of mammals to find on safari. They are often heard calling at night, which is how they got their name, because some species call like a crying baby.
Other mammals encountered included the African Savanna Hares, which were almost always seen at night. They were quite common in the right habitats, especially in open grassy patches. We also enjoyed some exciting Squirrel species. The commonest species we encountered across virtually all habitats was the Striped Ground Squirrel. Along the river and around the lodge, we saw some Ochre Bush Squirrels busy feeding around the Orange-leaved Croton bushes.
Around the El Karama Eco Lodge, the lights attracted some very showy Yellow-winged Bats, which often hunted insects around the restaurant. These were always a great company species during dinner and watching them hunt was a great encounter. They are quite common in many dry habitats around Kenya, and sometimes you get lucky to find them during the day.    
We did not find many reptiles during our stay but we also found some beautiful species. One of the highlights was a single adult Marsh Terrapin, sometimes called Helmeted Terrapins. These small carnivores are a great species of the Kenyan dams or reservoirs.
We later connected with a nice Elmenteita Rock Agama, a phenomenal lizard that is often encountered basking on rocks. Their cousins the Kenya Red-headed Rock Agamas were also very common and especially around the El Karama Eco Lodge compound. Here they enjoyed sharing a home with the showy Blue-headed Tree Agamas.

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