Kakamega Forest National Reserve

Kakamega Forest National Reserve
The high canopied indigenous forest has been the focus on much field research into forest ecology – here a look into the canopy in Buyangu area

Kakamega forest is the only remnant in Kenya of the once great tropical rainforest that stretched across Central Africa, also known as the Guineo-Congolian forest.

The Buyangu area in the northern parts of Kakamega forest is controlled and protected by the Kenyan Wildlife Service and is famous for its virgin forest with trees more than 100 years old creating a multitude of places and heights for animals to live in and thereby supporting an amazing biological diversity. On the way to Kakamega forest from the regional city of Kisumu at 1200 meter altitude the road climbs up over the Nandi Hills mountain range and on the way one crosses the beautiful Yala river that runs through- and is sustained by the Kakamega forest

The forest is not only productive of an amazing biological diversity, the animals; monkeys, forest squirrels, genettes, pangolins, giant forest squirrel, hammer-headed fruit bats, bushpig, about 400 species of birds, snakes, insects and butterflies are all interconnected and part of supporting the forest’s ecosystem itself by spreading the seeds of the trees and pollinating the flowers.

Geography and geology

About 10,000 years ago when the climate became drier the area of the rainforest shrank to what it was about 250 years ago. With time, much of the indigenous forest has been cut down as people needed the land for farming and Kakamega forest has become an exotic isolated relic of this vast African equatorial jungle, making it a unique habitat in Kenya. To the local Luhya people, Kakamega forest has not only been a generous supplier of firewood and building materials for centuries, medicinal plants are being used to heal all kinds of illnesses.

Due to commercial exploitation and increased population in the area the future of the forest was uncertain untill two nature reserves (Yala and Isecheno) in 1967 were being created and in 1985 two more reserves in the northern part of the forest (Buyangu and Kisere) were being created, somehow reducing the pressure on the forests natural resources.

Slowly Kakamega forest has become famous around the world for being home to several hundred species of birds, snakes, lizards, insects, monkeys and other mammals. A choice of walking trails, view points and guided tours enable you to experience some of this fascinating, beautiful and unique forest first hand. Especially in the northern part of the forest you will find virgin forest, intersected only by gurgling streams.

Yala river in Kenya
The Yala river run through Kakamega Forest, here on its way further south-west until it drains out into the Lake Victoria basin

Biodiversity in Kakamega forest

Great blue Turaco in Kakamega forest
The Great blue Turaco live in Central African countries like Uganda and DR Congo and a few places in Western Kenya

In the forest there are about 385 species of plants, including Elgon teak, red and white stink woods, varieties of Croton, Aniageria Altisima and several types of orchids. The forest is host to a number of lizards, amphibians and reptiles and true to the forests continental origins, the snakes of Kakamega are mainly from West Africa, the Forest Cobra, Jameson’s Mamba, Bush Viper, Gaboon Viper and Rhinoceros Viper.

There is a wide variety of unique birdlife to be observed in the park which has about 350 species of birds, including snake-eating birds, Black and White Casqued Hornbills, Turacos, Pygmy Kingfisher, Jameson’s Wattle-eye, Yellow-crested Woodpecker, Red-breasted Owlet, Martial Eagle, Crowned Eagle, Bateleur and many more.

It is probable, that at least forty five of the species on the Kenya list of birds are to be found only in the Kakamega and also there are many other endemic species in Kakamega forest. It is the last refuge in Kenya of the Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus erithacus) which is present in very low numbers and is close to being extirpated (locally extinct). In ancient times there were elephants roaming the forest and still the Bais (an open area surrounded by forest) evidences this. When walking through the forest you will often hear the Black and White Casqued Hornbills loud cry echoing between the more than a hundred years old trees, long before you get to see the bird itself.

Kakamega forest is among one of the best places in Kenya to see butterflies. Almost fluorescent in colors, they appear like the jewel of the crown of this excellent slab of Guineo-Congolian rainforest – the only of its kind in Kenya. If you look carefully, you might see Regal Swallowtail (one of the largest), Black tipped Diadem (by many regarded as one of the most beautiful butterflies of the forest), Mocker Swallow-tail, Large Blue-spangled Forest Charaxes and the Forest Mother of Pearl to name a few.

A wide range of mammals includes giant forest squirrel, scaly-tailed flying squirrel, hammer-headed fruit bats, bushpig, gray duiker, civet, sunni and clawless otter. There are many nocturnal animals too like the ground pangolin, the potto, hedgehog, aardwark, brush-tailed porcupine and leopards are also to be found in Kakamega forest though rarely seen (the last confirmed report was at Buyangu in 1991). Finally there are rare primates like the black and white Colobus, De Brazza Monkeys, Blue Monkey, Sykes Monkey, white-nosed Monkey, Red-tailed Monkey and olive baboon. Plans about setting out Chimpanzees in Kakamega forest have recently been discussed.

Swallow-tail butterfly in Kakamega Forest
Kakamega Forest has a great variety of butterflies and insects - here a Swallow-tail butterfly is perching on a branch in the forest

Weather in Kakamega Forest

Black and white Colobus monkey in Kakamega Forest
Black and white Colobus monkey jumping from a tree to another in Kakemega Forest in western Kenya

This part of Kenya receives some of the highest rainfall in the country and annually the precipitation is 2,000 milimetres. Most of this rain falls between April and November, with a short dry season from December to March. Rain falls mostly in the afternoon or early evenings and is often accompanied by heavy thunderstorms.

The temperatures does not vary greatly throughout the year, with a mean maximum shade figure of 270 C and a mean minimum of 150 C. Practically speaking this means that during the daytime it can be quite hot and since there is high humidity in the air, light clothes are preferable and you should always be prepared for wet weather and wear footwear adequate for muddy and uneven trails. The nights and early mornings can be surprisingly chilly and a fleece or jacket is needed.

When to visit and how to move around in the forest

For visitors, the best time to visit the park is during the rainy season (April-July) when the flowers are blooming, but any time of the year is a rewarding experience to visit Kakamega forest. Accommodation is provided at the park in the form of guesthouses, self-help bandas and two campsites. Also, the exquisite Rondo Retreat has recently been opened, and there are hotels available outside the reserve like the Golf Hotel in kakamega Town. Rondo Retreat – a former sawmillers residence is now a charming lodge in the southern part of Kakamega forest (Isecheno area). The gardens at Rondo Retreat blends beautifully into the surrounding forest.

If you don’t mind being talked to constantly for several hours, a guide can definitely make your trip more memorable…! With an average of about 400 people per square kilometre, this part of Kenya is the most densely populated and hiring a guide will allow the locals to put less pressure on the natural ressources of the forest. Some of the guides working in Kakamega forest is first class guides and they will not only see to that you return safely to the starting out point, they will also share their immense knowledge about the forest with you on the way. Accompanied by a good guide you are bound to have a great experience in Kakamega forest, because the guides really know the forest and they have much better chances of spotting some of the animals and the many different species of birds than you.

Also it is quite easy to get lost in the forest and so if you decide to venture out on your own, you should keep to the trails, which have been marked and opened for visitors and it is always a good idea to carry a compass. Guides can be hired at the Rondo Retreat near Isecheno in the southern part of the forest or at Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in the northern part of the forest though if you decide to visit the northern part a fee of about 20-30 USD to enter the National Reserve has to be paid at the KWS headquarters.

Kakamega forest at Rondo Retreat
A small clearing in Kakamega forest at Rondo Retreat

Nearby attractions

View from Ndere Island
Ndere Island is a small island in lake Victorias Winam Gulf

Close to Kakamega forest the mysterious Crying stone of Ilesi (ikhonga murwi) is worthwhile seeing and while you are in Western Kenya you may have the opportunity to visit some of the regions other scenic areas. A few hours drive north from kakamega you will find Mount Elgon (4,321m) – an extinct vulcano with the largest true crater in East Africa.

The Mount Elgon National Park taking in most of the land above 2,400m in altitude, is home to herds of wild buffalo and elephants – the latter visiting Kitum cave at night to lick salt exposed by gouging the walls with their tusks. Not far from Mount Elgon is Saiwa Swamps National Park – a 32 km reserve set up primarily to protect the Sitatunga (a rare and beautiful antelope) and despite being the smallest National Park in Kenya, you can here see the rare De Brazza’s monkey and it’s an ornithologist’s delight. Also Lake Victoria is easily accessible from Kisumu or Homa Bay and has a shoreline with hippos at many places as well as many species of birds.

Ndere Island National Park is a two hours boat ride from Kisumu and if you arrive early in the morning chances to spot crocodiles are quite good. Another National Park, Ruma, lies about 15 km west of Homa Bay and it is the only place in Kenya to see the Roan antelope.