An old cape buffalo looking right at the camera in Amboseli National Park

Standing Guard, by Nature’s Twilight

"If only we could go back to the time when the flightless dodo strode the Mauritius landscape, the quagga grazed on the South African veld, and the Barbary lion prowled the Atlas Mountains. If only we had known then that whole species could not withstand man's heartless extermination." - Mohamed Ismail, The Lost Wilderness

Some years ago, we visited Kenya and were awed by the diverse animal and plant life we saw. East-Africa is one of the most biologically rich regions on Earth, second only to the Indonesian islands. It is one of the few places left where megafauna still walk the land. As city dwellers, the incredible sight of elephant herds, rhinos and big cats living in the wild was a dream-like experience. Up till then, all of our encounters with large mammals were in the artificial environments of city zoos.

Wildebeest on the African savannah, in the shade of an acacia tree
The classic image of Africa – Wildebeest on the African savannah, accompanied by an acacia tree

Travelling in their territory, I finally understood that we were not alone on this planet. It is one thing to know that such creatures exist through BBC documentaries and something else entirely to encounter them in nature. I realised then, in a visceral way, that we share this Earth, a lifeboat in the vast vacuum of space, with a multitude of other species.

The Greatest Show on Earth – The Great Rift Valley and Evolution

The Great Rift Valley stretches through Kenya, a fertile corridor running from north to south. Nowhere is this phenomenon better observed than in Hell’s Gate. Here, we found an other-worldly valley dominated by towering lava cliffs.

Clouds rolling over the vast valley floor of Hell's Gate, The Great Rift Valley
Clouds roll over a lush part of the Great Rift Valley that stretches from Djibouti in the north to Tanzania in the south, cutting through Kenya and Ethiopia

This unusual landscape holds a unique place in the evolutionary histories of many modern species, including us humans. The rift valley’s volcanically active land, with its rich soil and radioactivity, gave birth to a flourishing of life 25,000 years ago. High rates of speciation occurred here, leading to a proliferation of flora and fauna.

A solo biker on a path towards a canyon in Hell's Gate, The Great Rift Valley
A lone biker cycling on a path towards a gorge in Hell’s Gate, the Great Rift Valley

From the Mountains to the Seas

When we think of Africa, we often conjure images of its vast savannahs and deserts. But, there’s so much more.

Mangrove trees growing on a mudflat on Kenya's coast
Mangrove trees in Mida Creek. These specialised trees grow on the mudflats on the Kenyan coast, protecting the land from erosion and regulating inland weather conditions

East Africa’s unique geography has everything from montane forests on the slopes of Mount Kenya, grasslands in Amboseli to swamps on its coast. Each of these landscapes is home to endemic species found nowhere else on the planet.

Shrubs and snow cover the slopes of Mount Kenya
We can find a good example of a montane ecosystem on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Closer to the peak, the slopes are dusted with snow and have endemic plants adapted to the cold and wind

Nature’s Last Frontier

The African continent is the only place on the Earth where there is still a diverse range of large mammal species. Many, like the elephant, rhino, leopard and lion are popularised in everyday culture. They continue to represent what remains of a time before humans over-reached our influence.

A flourishing of life on Lake Amboseli

Industrialisation arrived late to Africa, after the concept of conservation was invented. For much of Europe, Asia, the Americas and Australia, it was too late – we had already pursued many of these creatures into extinction.

Those that remain, on the African continent and elsewhere, face a steep battle for survival within an ever-shrinking and increasingly hostile environment.

The Battle for Survival

The flora and fauna of East Africa face a constant battle for land and resources. Climate change and resource exploitation have pushed these living things into precarious positions within their ecological niche. Further exacerbating the issue are demands for ivory, rhino horn and big-game hunting which significantly threaten keystone species.

Impala in Nairobi National Park resting in the grass, with housing blocks right outside
A herd of impala resting in the grass in the Nairobi National Park. Residential housing in the capital city comes right up to the edges of the protected reserve


When the last two remaining white Rhinos pass away, we will see the extinction of their species. The last of their kind, these two females live under armed guard in a protected Kenyan reserve, as scientists attempt to regenerate this subspecies with IVF.

Mother and Baby rhino among tall grass
A mother rhino and her baby stand, hidden among the tall grasses of the Nairobi National Park

Asian demand, mostly from China and Vietnam, is the main culprit. Every year, poachers kill 1,400 rhinos to cater to an industry based on superstition. Many Chinese believe rhinos shed their horns, like deer shed their antlers, and know nothing of the industry’s cruelty. Education efforts, like an initiative by the Jane Goodall Institute, are underway to raise awareness and curb demand.

A rhino, hidden low in the grass
Portrait of a rhino

Kenya was the first country to use the “sanctuary approach” to protecting rhinos. This approach places rhino populations in fenced-off areas under the watch of armed rangers equipped with thermal imaging cameras and drones. Other countries like South Africa and India have followed suit. Such drastic measures are necessary as long as there is demand.

Rhinos are solitary creatures, preferring to keep their own company. The only prolonged relationship is between mother and calf

Rhino horn can cost up to USD$100,000 per kilo. This staggering price is the reason vast amounts of criminal resources are poured into the poaching and killing of rhinos.

“When you consider the criminal resources behind this illegal trade, you would not want to be the ranger who stands between the gun and the endgame. The syndicates are ruthless.”

Winnie Kiiru, from the group Stop Ivory


Elephants, like rhinos, are under threat from poaching. This threat has been so systematic that most elephants alive today no longer have long tusks. There are only 30 of these “Great Tuskers” left, most of whom live in Kenya’s protected reserves.

An elephant herd in Amboseli, Kenya
One of the elephant family groups in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya

Every year, poachers kill over 20,000 elephants for their ivory. More are also killed in land conflicts with pastoralists and farmers. This staggering number of deaths have a long-lasting impact on family groups, whose members depend on each other to survive and thrive.

A bond and sense of community pervades all elephant societies. Here two elephants, likely sisters, walk through the grassy plains of Amboseli with their calves right by them

These sensitive creatures live in closely knit, inter-generational herds. The success and longevity of a herd depends on the knowledge and skills passed down through the generations. Each calf is greatly treasured, not just by its mother but also all her sisters, cousins and the matriarch.

An elephant calf casually wandering after its mother and its herd, followed by the cattle egret, an opportunistic bird that feeds of ticks that live on large mammals

The elephants of Amboseli are fortunate to live in a relatively undisturbed area, where they are protected and cared. Scientists have used the herds here to study and understand natural elephant behaviour. They’ve observed that the elephants of Amboseli can respond to social threats collectively, in a way that elephant populations decimated by poachers are incapable of doing.


Although the giraffe is a common sight throughout the African plains, many giraffe subspecies are critically endangered. The Masaai giraffe, which can be identified by its vine leaf-shaped patterns, can be seen all over East Africa – in parks, protected reserves, on pastureland and quite often, by the roadside. Their prevalence gives the illusion that there are plenty of them when in truth there are only 35,000 Masaai giraffes left. In total, there are fewer giraffes than elephants living in Africa today.

A giraffe bends down to eat yellow flowers from a bush
“Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna,” says Julian Fennessy, co-founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation

“Giraffes are the forgotten megafauna. These iconic creatures are really not getting the attention they deserve.”

Julian Fennessy, co-founder of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation

Giraffes face the dangers of poaching, hunting and habitat loss. Their bone marrow is believed to be a cure for HIV/AIDS, and their tail hair is used to make jewellery and other crafts. Because the giraffe doesn’t get the same publicity as other big fauna, there’s less regulation around products made from giraffe parts, making these creatures more vulnerable to poaching.

A Masai Giraffe looking straight into the camera for a portrait shot
A portrait of a Masai Giraffe


One of the most charismatic animals of the African savannah is the cheetah. In 2006, the BBC immortalised the little cheetah cub, “Toto” in their documentary series, “Big Cat Diary.” The episode showed the harsh realities of a cheetah mother trying to raise cubs in the wild.

Two cheetahs resting in the yellow grass of Amboseli national park
Cheetahs in the Amboseli National Park

One of the most significant pressures facing cheetahs is habitat loss and dwindling prey numbers. The world’s fastest animal, unsurprisingly, needs to roam over large areas of land. Unfortunately, the land available in protected areas is barely sufficient to support even one-third of the current cheetah population. 

Something seemed to have disturbed this cheetah, whom we found resting in the shade of a tree

Out in the unprotected areas, cheetahs often come into conflict with pastoralists, who fear the cheetahs may eat their livestock. This fear is mostly unfounded, as livestock is not part of a cheetah’s normal diet and eating it often will shorten its life.

“As much as the human wants to sur­vive by want­ing more land, and leav­ing lit­tle or none for the wild ani­mals, the chee­tahs also must have their lands to sur­vive, as they too have fam­i­lies.”

Action for Cheetahs


Right behind the grassy horizons of the Nairobi National Park, we could see the capital’s industrial silhouette. These desolate buildings stand in stark contrast against the park’s northern, eastern and western borders. Human encroachment into nature is most apparent here, where people live right up to the very edge of the park.

A lioness stands in the grassy plains of the Nairobi National Park. Behind her are the industrial buildings of Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, one of Africa’s largest economies

Lions in the park are safe as long as they stay within the protected area. However, its southern border, being part of a wildlife corridor, is unfenced. Beyond that is land where farmers graze their livestock. Because natural spaces and large prey are in continuous decline, the lions are regularly left with no choice but to enter farmland and to kill livestock for food. In retaliation, farmers kill the offending lions. Often the lions that hunt livestock are the ones that are old or injured and unable to pursue their regular prey.

A young male lion nuzzles his sister in Nairobi National Park
We caught this lovely, intimate moment of a young male lion nuzzling his sister in the Amboseli National Park

Although the government offers compensation to mitigate such retaliatory killings, it is not enough, and the human-wildlife continues to intensify year on year.

Into the Future

Increasing conflict between man and beast is inevitable as countries industrialise and modernise. On the other continents (Asia, Europe, The Americas, Australia), we have decimated the megafauna populations that once roamed their lands. Today, great effort is put into the conservation of human-managed habitats that continue to support wildlife, like meadows and renewable forests. But, for the megafauna on these continents, it is already too late.

A hippo eating in the foreground, an elephant herd walking by behind
People still share the land with a wide variety of animals on the African continent

In Africa, however, people continue to share the land with a vast array of wildlife. Tribes like the Maasai and the Samburu continue to exist in harmony with the large wild creatures of the East African plains. This is, in part, possible because of tourism, which makes preserving these creatures and their habitat sustainable despite a growing human population sharing the same land.

The sand plover in flight with a heron walking behind, on a mud flat
The greater sand plover (the bird in flight), a migratory bird that populates the marshes of Mida Creek, has seen its numbers decline drastically since the 1950s. These birds, which journey far north into the Artic to breed, have seen the drying of the Caspian and Aral seas, important stopover point during the journey

But it would be a mistake to think of conserving nature solely because the lion, the cheetah and the elephant are economic assets. The land they live on is also part of this Earth that we all share. Their losses will inevitably be ours.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it is hitched to everything else in the Universe”.

John Muir