Africa is a vast continent, world-famous for its wildlife attractions. There’s no doubt you would have heard of The Big Five, and maybe even The Ugly Five or The Little Five. But have you heard of The Samburu Special Five?

Situated at the southeastern corner of the Samburu District in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya, Samburu National Reserve is known for more than just its big herds of elephant, prides of lion, and leopard. It is also the home of The Special Five – a collection of unique and rare, northern specialist animals which thrive in the dry bush landscape.

Here are the five animals that make up the Samburu Special Five:

 

Reticulated Giraffe

With rich orange-brown patches, clearly defined by a network of striking white lines covering the entirety of their bodies including the full length of their legs, the Reticulated Giraffe looks quite different from their cousins elsewhere in Africa.

Also known as the Somali Giraffe, these beautiful behemoths blend in well with Samburu’s red earth, and herds are most often spotted feeding on the acacia treetops or taking a morning stroll down the dried up river bed (also a great spot for a bush breakfast). Males reach an average of 6 metres (18 ft) tall, with the slightly smaller females generally topping out at around 5.7 metres (17 ft). Most of this height is made up by the giraffe’s iconic long neck, which can, in large individuals, be 2.5 metres (8 ft) long on its own!

Introducing The Samburu Special Five
Reticulated Giraffe | Rainbirder

The Reticulated Giraffe has a relatively limited distribution across northern and north-eastern Kenya, with Samburu being one of the few places you can still see them in all their glory. It is also thought that small isolated populations most likely persist in southern Somalia and southern Ethiopia.

The reticulated giraffe population is under threat from habitat destruction and human encroachment and the current wild population is estimated to be no more than 16,000 individuals – down 50% since the 1990’s.

As a result of this decline, the species was added to the IUCN Red List and listed as Endangered in 2018, however numbers appear to be increasing across northern Kenya with improved community and private land conservation.

 

Grevy’s Zebra

Along with the giraffe, zebra’s are one of the most iconic animal species on earth thanks to their unique black and white striped patterning.

Grevy’s zebras are the largest of the zebra species, and like their relatives from across the continent, they boast vivid black and white stripes. The only difference being that they stop around the belly. Grevy’s zebras are also taller and more slender than plains zebras and have the larger ears. This combined with a slightly elongated neck, contribute to an overall mule-like appearance.

Grevy’s Zebra | Wildlife Partners

This species is well-adapted to life in dry, semi-arid grasslands. Grevy’s zebras can often be found amongst large collections of other grazers, such as wildebeest, ostrich and antelope, which they help out by nipping off the dry, hardened grass tips that are too tough for other herbivores to digest.

The Grevy’s zebra is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List, with approximately 2,500 adults currently surviving in the wild. While both Kenya and Ethiopia have laws in place to protect the species, it is estimated that only 0.5 percent of their natural range overlaps with protected areas like Samburu Game Reserve.

The greatest threats facing Grevy’s zebras are habitat loss, primarily for human settlement and cattle farming, and hunting for their meat and skin.

 

Gerenuk

Without a doubt the most unique of the Samburu Special Five, and arguably one of the most unique animals on the African continent, The Gerenuk is a highlight sighting for any safari-goers visiting Kenya.

The gerenuk, whose name means “giraffe-necked” in Somali, is an antelope species characterised by an exceptionally long neck. Adding to their almost comical appearance is a proportionately small head with oversized eyes and ears.

As with most other antelope species, only the males have horns, which are stout and heavily ringed. As a result males tend to have a slightly thicker and more muscular neck. They boast a coat that is brown on the upper back and lighter on the sides and a short tail that ends in a tuft of black hair.

Introducing The Samburu Special Five
Gerenuk

Thanks to their long necks and lanky stature, gerenuks can feed at higher reaches than other gazelle species. They stand erect on their hind legs, with their necks fully extended and browse on the tall bushes. By using their front legs to pull down higher branches, they can reach leaves six to eight feet off the ground.

They are almost exclusively browsers and largely prefer succulent plants, although approximately 80 different species of plants make up their diet. They do not eat grass and do not need to drink water. They usually get enough moisture from the plants they eat and because of this they can survive in the harshest dry landscape and even in the desert.

The Gerenuk is listed as near-threatened on the IUCN redlist with approximately 95,000 individuals living in the wild, but only 10% of these in protected areas.

 

Somali Ostrich

The Somali ostrich, also known as the blue-necked ostrich, is a large flightless bird native to the Horn of Africa. Previously considered a subspecies of the common ostrich, this member of the Samburu Special Five was classified as a species of its own in 2014.

As the largest bird in the world, the ostrich has some really large features that make it so. It boasts a very long neck which protrudes from their round, feathered bodies and legs positioned to enable the body’s centre of gravity to balance on the long spindly legs. This allows them great agility and speed. The ostrich can reach speeds in excess of 70 km/h (43 mph) at full sprint.

Introducing The Samburu Special Five
Somali Ostrich | Dan Bormann

For the most part, Somali Ostriches look similar to their common cousins with just a few slight differences. The skin on their neck and thighs is a grey-blue colour, rather than pinkish, and becomes bright blue on the male during the mating season. Their neck lacks a typical broad white ring, and the tail feathers are white.

The Somali ostrich is also differentiated ecologically from the common ostrich, by preferring bushier, more thickly vegetated areas, where it feeds largely by browsing, whereas the latter is mainly found grazing on the open savanna.

Once found all over Africa, Asia and the Arabian Peninsular the wild Somali ostrich has been the victim of extensive hunting and today is only found in a fraction of its original range. In Kenya they are found mostly in the northern part of Kenya and Samburu Game Reserve.

The Somali Ostrich is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN redlist.

 

Beisa Oryx

The Beisa Oryx, also known as the East African oryx, is found in arid and semi-desert regions throughout the Horn of Africa.

Common in the Samburu area, Beisa oryx can survive long periods of time without water, sometimes even as long as a couple of weeks thanks to the high moisture content in the plants they eat such as wild melon, underground roots and tuber.

Introducing The Samburu Special Five
Beisa Oryx | Shadows Of Africa

The species has unique mechanism which helps them survive in the harsh desert conditions where temperatures are always high and water is scarce. Unlike other mammals, the oryx can increase its internal body temperature to prevent perspiration and water loss. They also use a specific network of capillaries in their nose to cool down blood as it flows up towards the brain. This prevents the brain from over-heating.

Just because they don’t need water everyday, doesn’t mean the oryx aren’t always on the lookout for it. They boast an excellent sense of smell, with which they can detect rainfall up to 80 kilometres (50 miles) away. And once rainfall is detected, the whole herd is on the move.

According to the IUCN, the population of Beisa Oryx is 8000-9000 mature individuals, and currently decreasing due to hunting for meat and hides as well as habitat destruction which causes space-conflict with humans and livestock.