Laikipia is an upland region and one of the 47 counties of Kenya. Located in the centre of the country and straddling the equator, the Laikipia plateau rolls out between the lush slopes of Mount Kenya in the East, the Aberdares mountain range in the south and the edge of The Great Rift Valley to the west. Beyond the northern county border lies Kenya’s remote and rugged Northern Frontier, the vast expanse of wilderness that leads up into Lake Turkana.
A lion stands against a classic Laikipia landscape – photo credit Alisa Karstad
For decades the area was home to commercial livestock ranches. However, it has now earned itself a well-deserved reputation as being one of the premier wildlife destinations in East Africa; for people wishing to enjoy exclusive and authentic safari experiences, in a region that is at the forefront of conservation. In Laikipia, biodiversity and cultural diversity coexist.
Livestock on Mugie Conservancy – photo credit Ann Aveyard
Mugie Conservancy is private wilderness of 49,000 acres lying to the very north-west of the Laikipia region; it borders both Samburu and Baringo counties and forms an essential corridor for dispersal of wildlife between West Laikipia and the highlands of Mount Kenya.
Plains zebra on Mugie Conservancy – photo credit Brian Odida
The conservancy is home to a couple of ‘near threatened’ mammal species including plains zebra and African buffalo. ‘Vulnerable’ species here include resident big cats such as cheetah, leopard and lion, while other ‘endangered’ carnivores are vagrant packs of wild dogs that are known to pass through on occasion.
A lioness on Mugie; there are two resident prides comprising a total of 30 lions – photo credit Ann Aveyard
A mother cheetah and her two cubs – photo credit Alisa Karstad
African savanna elephants are an endangered herbivore species that occurs in healthy numbers here and very recently, five hippopotamuses have found their way into the Mugie Dam; these are listed as a vulnerable species on the IUCN red list.
Laikipia as a whole boasts strong elephant populations – photo credit Ann Aveyard
Mugie is also designated by the National Museums of Kenya as an important breeding area for the endangered grey crowned crane; this species is the third most threatened bird in Kenya and the world’s fastest disappearing crane.
The grey crowned crane – photo credit Felix Rome
However, there are five special species living on the conservancy which our guests won’t find at any of the other Governors’ properties. Each is perfectly adapted for a life in more drought-prone regions and each needs special conservation efforts to ensure their long-term survival in the wild as all of their global populations are currently listed as ‘endangered’, or in the case of the striped hyena, ‘near threatened’.
With its towering presence and a striking orange and white geometrically patterned coat, the reticulated giraffe is certainly considered to be one of the most beautiful animals to see on safari.
A reticulated giraffe browses on Mugie’s scrubland – photo credit Ann Aveyard
Officially listed as one of the nine subspecies of giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis ssp. reticulata), recent DNA evidence suggests that it is instead one of four distinct species (Giraffa reticulata).
This giraffe is native to the Horn of Africa and unfortunately most of their range in Kenya falls outside of protected areas. With a population that is estimated to have declined by over 50% in just three decades to between 11,000- 16,000 individuals, the species/subspecies is now considered to be endangered.
A baby reticulated giraffe gallops to catch up with its mother – photo credit Brian Odida
Their native rangelands overlap with pastoralist herders whose domesticated camels compete for both food and water resources in these arid regions. Other threats include poaching and habitat loss, fragmentation – as well as predation by big cats, which is one of the biggest threats to giraffes on the conservancy.
Conservation work in action:
To save the remaining giraffes, conservation organisations such as San Diego Zoo’s ‘Twiga Walinzi’ (‘giraffe guards’ in Kiswahili) initiative, have been formed. Their work includes hiring and training local Kenyans to monitor trail cameras that capture footage of wild giraffes; developing a photo ID database so that individual giraffes can be tracked; informing rangers of poaching incidents and removing snares; caring for orphans; and educating communities about giraffe conservation.
These efforts are starting to pay off as in recent years, numbers across northern Kenya appear to be increasing with improved community and private land conservation. Our guests can also get involved in reticulated giraffe conservation from afar, by participating in a Citizen Science program where camera trap images need constant classification.
Reticulated giraffe seen on Mugie:
Whilst staying at Governors’ Mugie House, visitors will have ample opportunities to see reticulated giraffes ambling across their natural habitat.
Tala the giraffe – she is Mugie’s main mascot! Photo credit Ann Aveyard
One can often get up close and personal with orphaned Tala, who has become completely habituated towards humans. She tends to wander through the Mugie Conservancy headquarters and many guests enjoy going down to meet her there.
Guests can visit the headquarters in hope of meeting Tala – photo credit Alisa Karstad
This is the largest of the three zebra species; narrow black and white stripes, big round ears, a white belly and long legs make it stand out from the others. Grevy’s also have a distinct black line down their spine.
Grevy’s zebra on Mugie – photo credit Ann Aveyard
The species has undergone one of the most substantial reductions in range of any African mammal and is now solely confined to Southern Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.
As with the reticulated giraffe, their population has also declined by over 50% in just three decades to around 2000 wild individuals resulting in it being listed as endangered. Northern Kenya is home to about 90% of the world’s population.
Up close with a Grevy’s; notice the unique ‘Mickey Mouse’ type ears – photo credit Brian Odida
Grevy’s (Equus grevyi) are the most threatened of all zebra species. Competition for resources with domestic livestock, particularly cattle, means that fewer foals are surviving their first year. Other threats include drought and poaching.
GPS collars provide information regarding movement patterns that help to better protect the species. The Grevy’s Zebra Trust works to foster coexistence between pastoralists and Grevy’s zebras in its arid northern rangeland habitats.
Grevy’s zebra seen on Mugie:
Mugie provides a safe habitat with abundant resources where around 56 individuals currently thrive. These are often found out on the grasslands, in mixed herds with the more common plains zebras.
Common beisa oryx
Long straight horns and contrasting black, white and beige face markings make this an unmistakable large bovid. It is one of two subspecies of beisa oryx, the other being the Fringe-eared oryx, which is found south and west of the Tana River in Kenya.
Beisa oryx – photo credit Brian Odida
An iconic desert species, it is perfectly adapted to live in the semi-desert bush lands and savannah of the Horn of Africa. The majority (83%) of the population lives outside of protected areas. With an estimated population of between 8000-9000 individuals, this subspecies is listed as endangered by the IUCN.
Hunting (for meat and hides) and encroachment by settlements and competition with livestock for pasture remain the major threats to this subspecies (Oryx beisa ssp. beisa).
The Northern Rangelands Trust implemented a conservation project in 2020 aimed at reducing subsistence poaching and habitat destruction activities in the core areas of this subspecies range. The hopes are to raise awareness of Beisa Oryx conservation efforts by explaining their importance to the local community.
Beisa oryx; see them on Mugie Conservancy – photo credit Ann Aveyard
Seen on Mugie:
Laikipia has a relatively stable population of approximately 700 oryx, around 40 of these are found on Mugie where herds are frequently seen grazing amongst plains zebra and other ungulates, from whom it is thought they gain a sense of security from predators.
Beisa oryx graze amongst other species on Mugie – photo credit Alisa Karstad
A large chestnut-brown antelope, with a particularly elongated forehead, oddly shaped horns and a conspicuous hump over the shoulders make this a rather unique looking animal. Certain adaptations enable the animal to feed well and survive on less water than other members in their tribe such as wildebeest, topi and hirola antelopes.
Jackson’s hartebeest are protected on Mugie Conservancy – photo credit Alisa Karstad
By obtaining water from wild melons, roots, and tubers, they can live in areas with scarce water and do well during the dry seasons – which has also meant that they have become the least migratory species within the tribe.
Eight subspecies of hartebeest are currently recognised. The Jackson’s hartebeest does not have a clear taxonomic status. It is regarded as a hybrid between the ‘endangered’ Lelwel (Alcelaphus buselaphus ssp. lelwel) and the ‘least concern’ Coke’s (Alcelaphus buselaphus ssp. cokii) subspecies.
It is sometimes also called the Kenya highland hartebeest or the Laikipia hartebeest. In Kenya, we often refer to the animal using the Kiswahili word for hartebeest – ‘Kongoni’, though this is usually reserved specifically for the Coke’s hartebeest which we find in the Masai Mara.
Typically inhabiting dry savannah and wooded grasslands, the Jackson’s is confined to Kenya’s central plateau.
These antelope are adapted to living in arid regions such as Mugie Conservancy – photo credit Brian Odida
Formerly widespread in Africa, most hartebeest populations have undergone drastic declines. The various hartebeest subspecies have different conservation statuses ranging from extinct to least concern. The Jackson’s are considered to be endangered, as their population in Laikipia has declined by over 80% in the past 15 years; it’s thought that there are between 700-1000 living in there.
Threats to this hartebeest include habitat destruction, disease, hunting, encroachment of human settlements, and competition with livestock for resources.
Ol Pejeta, which is another private wildlife conservancy in Laikipia, has taken various measures to boost numbers, including allocating 2,500 acres of predator free enclosures where the species has a chance to breed naturally and grow their numbers.
Primarily grazers, the best place to find these animals is out on the open grass plains across the road that intersects Mugie Conservancy. Active mainly during daytime, they graze in the early morning and late afternoon and rest in the shade during the heat of the day.
Smaller than their more famous spotted cousins, with pointed ears, a long muzzle, a bushy mane of erectile hair along the spine and a striped coat, the striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena) is primarily a scavenger, but being an omnivore, it will also eat insects and wild fruits.
The ever-elusive striped hyena – photo credit Josh Perret
Though they have a somewhat doggish appearance, they are not members of the dog family. Instead they are the least studied of four species which together form their own family, Hyaenidae. Interestingly, their next closest relatives would be the genet/civet (Viverridae) and mongoose/meerkat (Herpestidae) families.
Native to North and East Africa, the Middle East, India and parts of Asia, they eke out a life in habitat too difficult to live in for other large predators such as semi deserts, rocky scrublands and savannahs.
Though the species has a vast range, their populations are isolated, scattered and sparse, which makes them difficult to study and vulnerable to local extinction. Various counts put the total African population at between 2,450 and 7,850, which account for around half of their global numbers. The number in Kenya is estimated to be more than 1,000. Striped hyenas are listed as ‘near threatened’ by the IUCN.
Photo credit Josh Perret
As an often-misunderstood animal, they are viewed as dangerous or destructive in some areas resulting in them being the direct targets of deliberate poisonings, trappings, or shootings for supposedly preying on livestock or raiding farms.
While populations of other large carnivores decline across their range, so too do the carcasses that are left behind on which striped hyenas scavenge. Habitat destruction and being hit by vehicles when they themselves are scavenging on road kill, also account for the decline in numbers.
Seen on Mugie
Striped hyena sightings are rare due to their shyness, nocturnal nature and their preference for living in more rugged habitats, however private conservancies offering night game drive activities, such as Mugie, are some of the best places in the world to try and spot this elusive, nocturnal carnivore when they are out looking for items to scavenge on.
Kenya’s Laikipia region offers a completely different wildlife experience from the Masai Mara. Up here in northern Kenya, our guests at Governors’ Mugie House can enjoy sightings of specific northern rangeland species that are endangered and endemic to certain parts of Africa.
A European roller – more likely to be seen on Mugie than the Mara – photo credit Brian Odida
A minimal tourism presence results in some of the most authentic and exclusive wildlife experiences to be found anywhere in East Africa; and a diversity of experiences will ensure that you can enjoy activities without being confined to a vehicle. We suggest pairing a few nights here alongside any of our Mara camps, for a truly diverse and conservation-focused wildlife safari.
By Alisa Karstad, Community and Conservation manager for the Governors’ Camp Collection.