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Tsavo East National Park

Established in 1948, Tsavo East is the larger of the two parks, covering nearly 12,000 sq. km (more than 4,680 sq. miles) of harsh, rugged terrain. Considerably flatter, more arid, and a good deal bushier than neighboring Tsavo West, it's also the less-visited park. Its vast expanses of thornbrush scrubland are cut through by the impressive spine of the Yatta Plateau -- at about 290km (180 miles) long, it's the world's longest lava flow (also the oldest fossilized lava flow on Earth), reaching up to 10km (6 1/4 miles) wide and 300m (984 ft.) high in places. For many years, the northern reaches beyond the Yatta Plateau have been closed to general tourist traffic, thanks to poachers who cross the border from Somalia, threatening the security of animals, visitors, and park employees alike. But park rangers have been putting up a solid fight. In 2006, five poachers were killed in two separate incidents, and rhino horns and AK-47 rifles were recovered; in 2007, conflict resulted in three rangers losing their lives. There have been no such incidences since, and officials are hopeful that the war on poaching is being won. Authorities even have plans to open this lesser-explored part of the park in the very near future, hopefully with a focus on exclusive, low-impact tourism.

Those who do take the time to explore this vast and, in parts, extraordinary terrain are rewarded with an intriguing mix of habitats; the rugged, varied landscape comprises brown, dust-strewn arid plains; thick scrubland; and volcanic lava fields. Rugged, untamed, and often harsh, Tsavo East's vast, unpredictable expanses are stomping ground for large herds of fairly aggressive elephants -- there are more here, in fact, than in Tsavo West, as well as a tiny population of one of the world's rarest antelopes -- the hirola, or Hunter's hartebeest. Other uncommon species regularly spotted here include lesser kudu, gerenuk, fringed-eared oryx, and Peter's gazelle. The park also supports Africa's largest unfenced black rhino population; at least 50 of the endangered animals roam the area around Galdessa. The park also serves as a temporary refuge for birds migrating from Oman, Malawi, Iran, Germany, and Russia.

A good opportunity for visitors from the coastal resorts to make a quick game-viewing getaway, Tsavo East is a relatively easy overland trip from Mombasa, yet the park remains one of the lesser-explored wildlife destinations in Kenya, its prospects often marred by its reputation for severe drought, which creates the impression of a hostile wilderness. In the past, even the 85-hectare (210-acre) Aruba Dam, built across the Voi River in 1952, has succumbed to the heat and dried up completely. The park's salvation is the lush vegetation along its permanent and seasonal rivers. Snaking its way through the parched terrain is the doum palm-flanked Athi River, which at one boulder-strewn section forms the Lugard Falls, a tremendous, invigorating stretch of gushing white-water cataracts where it's possible to follow a riverside route on foot as you search for sunbathing crocodiles. Not true falls, but a series of rapids, the waters here gush through a tiny fissure before dropping to Crocodile Point, where the river merges with the Tsavo. Here it becomes the Galana River, which supports lush vegetation and is bounded by several sandy beaches -- good for spotting hippos, crocs, and all kinds of animals that come down to drink.

Weird, Wonderful, and Nearly Gone -- Known as the "four-eyed antelope" because of the eyelike appearance of their large pre-orbital glands, the hirola (also known as the Hunter's hartebeest) is Africa's -- probably the world's -- most endangered antelope and endemic to the dry Kenya-Somalia border region. Fears for the survival of the species back in 1963 prompted the Kenya Wildlife Service to undertake a translocation of about 50 hirola to Tsavo East, a move that was strongly opposed by local communities. Censuses undertaken in the 1970s counted around 14,000 animals, but competition with domestic cattle and drought, which continues to plague the region, has severely impacted their numbers. These factors, exacerbated by the escalating conflict in Somalia in the 1990s, saw a continuous decrease in population numbers and urged a second translocation in 1996 -- again fiercely opposed. The move has, however, resulted in an isolated and viable ex situ population of an estimated 100 hirola antelope in Tsavo East, while the total population is now thought to be between 500 and 1,200 animals in the wild, as well as a single female in captivity.

Critically endangered and on the brink of extinction, the hirola was identified as one of the top 10 "focal species" in 2007 by the Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered (EDGE) project, a conservation program launched by the Zoological Society of London to help ensure the survival of the world's most unusual creatures. EDGE identifies species, particularly those that have few close relatives and have been otherwise ignored by prevailing conservation schemes, but that are in dire need of better protection to prevent extinction.

Spend a day or two in Tsavo East, and there's a very strong chance you'll spot hirola. Even if you've had your mind firmly set on Big Five sightings, it's worth making the effort to see these antelope. When looking for hirola, the extra set of "eyes" is a dead give-away; the animals have lyre-shaped, conspicuously ringed horns and a sandy brown coat (males are somewhat grayer), with a slightly paler underbelly and, over the bridge of the nose, a small white strip. They're diurnal, so out and about in the day, when they can be seen grazing or appearing to march in single file in herds of between 2 and 40 females led by a single territorial male. Small bachelor herds of about five hirola may also occur. Because the males are very territorial, they tend to stick to certain pockets of land, a factor that may have impacted their diminishing numbers.

Tsavo West National Park

More visited than its sibling across the highway, Tsavo West is a better-developed park with well-signposted roads and a more closely monitored infrastructure. It also has a more varied topography and a greater diversity of habitats; it's notably hillier and shot through with impressive volcanic lava flows and large tracts of thick woodland. There's also more visual variety here, not to mention possible glimpses of Mount Kilimanjaro and epic runaway vistas from special points such as Poacher's Lookout -- a fine spot for sundowners accompanied by majestic views of the surrounding landscape. Much of the northern sector is acacia bushland, and you'll also see Africa's famous "upside-down tree" -- the baobab, which is reputed to live for 1,000 years -- scattered here. The permanent Tsavo River runs through the northern part of the park, fringed by riverine acacia woodland. As you move farther south, expect to see more open grassy plains alternating with savannah bush and semidesert scrub.

A near-mandatory stop-off within the park is the Mzima Springs, where 220 million liters (58 million gallons) of water, filtered to crystal-clear purity by the Chyulu Hills lava massif, gush out into a series of pristine pools, forming a spectacular oasis where hippos swim, crocs bask, and birds and monkeys gather en masse. Despite being a true Eden in the midst of an otherwise dry landscape, Mzima can feel like a bit of a commercial experience -- there's even an underwater observation tank (where you can count yourself extremely lucky if you happen to spot a submerged hippo), and you need to be escorted around the water (by an ill-informed, armed park ranger) -- but it's nevertheless a haven for a rich wildlife pageant and makes an ideal spot for a picnic, provided there aren't too many other people around.

Apart from the famous red elephants, there are numerous lions, some perhaps directly descended from the infamous "Maneaters of Tsavo," and other predators, including serval cats, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and caracals. For those interested in seeing rarer beasts, the park shelters less commonly spotted animals such as fringed-eared oryx, gerenuk, and lesser kudu. But that doesn't mean it's particularly easy to spot animals -- thanks to the nature of the terrain, game viewing here requires patience and is more time intensive than in, say, the Masai Mara.

Red Elephants -- Tsavo's famous red elephants are not, as the mythical-sounding name suggests, red at all. In fact, they're normally pigmented pachyderms but wear a coat of red Tsavo soil -- rich in iron -- from time spent dusting and mudding themselves as part of their daily routine to keep cool under the heavy sun.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.