Red Elephants

Surprisingly, the only place in the world to see Red Elephants is in Tsavo National Park (TNP). TNP is the largest National Park in Kenya, established on April 1st 1948. It is approximately 22,000 km2, situated halfway between Mombasa and Nairobi. However, the original park was vast, and therefore it was divided into two distinct parks to make it more manageable. They were renamed Tsavo East National Park and Tsavo West National Park. The dividing line between the two parks is the Nairobi-Mombasa railway/road.

Map of Tsavo East and West National Park
Map showing Tsavo East and West National Parks

TNP is also famous for some of Africa’s last big tusker elephants. During the 1970–1980s, extensive ivory poaching occurred in Tsavo. As a result, in 1988, the elephant population was down to around 5,300 elephants. However, thanks to Kenya’s comprehensive and consistent conservation endeavours, the elephant population has increased to approximately 12,000 individuals.

Both Tsavo East and West have an abundance of elephants, lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas, jackals, oryx, zebra, kudu, and many different bird species. However, the parks are also famous for their large herds of ‘red elephants’.

Tsavo East

Tsavo East National Park is located halfway between Nairobi and Mombasa. The landscape consists of vast savannah plains, thorny bushes, acacia trees, scrubland, and woodlands.

Tsavo West

Tsavo West National Park has a more volcanic landscape of jagged black rocks comprised of solidified ancient lava flows. Its rugged terrain of green hills, trees, thick bush and woodlands is home to the clear freshwater Mzima Springs. Due to the extensive bush, it is more difficult to view wildlife in Tsavo West. However, the waterholes are an excellent place to see them. At different times of the day, all the wildlife comes to the waterholes in shifts. It is fascinating how each species will come and go, never at the waterhole at the same time. When one group is there, other groups will stay well back and not approach the waterholes until the previous group have departed.

Shetani, the extinct lava flow at Tsavo  west National Park
Extinct lava flow ~ 8 km long, 1.6 m wide, and 5 m deep at Tsavo West National Park.   
Why is Tsavo soil red?

While both parks have very different landscapes, they both have the same characteristic red soil due to a high iron oxide content in the ground.

Red Elephant at Tsavo West National Park
Red elephant, Tsavo West National Park
Red Elephants

For anyone wanting to see ‘red elephants’, take a trip to Tsavo, as it is the only place in the world where you will see red elephants. Like all elephants, their skin is a natural grey colour. However, bathing and dusting in the red soil stains their skin with iron-rich red soil. Notably, an elephant’s skin will change colour depending on their environment’s mud and sand colour.

Red elephants at a waterhole at Tsavo West National Park
Red Elephants at a waterhole, Tsavo West National Park
Elephant skin

An elephant’s skin is around 4cm thick. However, it is much thinner behind the ears. While elephant skin looks very tough, it has no sweat glands and minimal hair. As a result, elephants have difficulty keeping themselves cool, and their skin protected in the harsh, hot African climate.

Elephant trunks

An adult African elephant’s trunk is around two metres long and has approximately 40,000 muscles. Elephants use their trunks for breathing, trumpeting, drinking, eating, as a snorkel when in deep water, smelling, and grabbing things. When an elephant drinks, it can suck up to 7 litres of water into its trunk. It then curls it under and either drinks the water or blow it out. 

Red elephant using its trunk to spray mud over its body, Tsavo West National Park, Kenya
Red elephant using its trunk to spray mud over its body, Tsavo West National Park, Kenya
Elephant dusting

Elephants also take dust baths and mud baths to keep their bodies cool and clean. The layer of mud forms a barrier on their skin to prevent sunburn, ticks and insect bites. They will also spray water and soil over their bodies and behind their ears. In addition, elephants use their front foot to dig up and soften the ground and then suck up the dusty earth and promptly spray it over their body.

Elephant dusting at Tsavo West National Park, Kenya
Elephant dusting at Tsavo West National Park, Kenya
Shy elephant, Tsavo West National Park, Kenya
Shy elephant, Tsavo West National Park, Keny

Red dusty elephants are permanent residents at Tsavo National Park and are not hard to spot. Their well-trodden trails all lead to and from the waterholes. Tsavo is wild, uncrowded and the red elephants are the main attraction. These unique elephants allow travellers to enjoy wildlife experiences during their game drives at Tsavo National Park. 

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