Kenya: Animals That Have Shot to National and Global Fame


Elvis Ondieki & George Sayagie, All Africa / The Nation

Date Published

Scarface. Elsa. Christian. Do those names ring a bell? They should, if you have been following stories of Kenya’s famous animals. The three are some of the most famous lions to ever roar on Kenyan soil.

And we are about to have more famous names in Kenya, if an initiative launched on June 15 by Tourism Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala gains ground.

Through the initiative, a person can adopt an elephant for as little as Sh1,000. To have a jumbo named after them, they need to part with Sh500,000. The adopted elephant will, however, remain in its habitat even after adoption.

If the initiative catches on, we will have more names to add to Scarface, Elsa, Christian and others that have gained followers locally and internationally.

Scarface, one of the most sought-after lions at the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, died on June 11. He got his name due to a big scar on its face that set him apart in a group of four lions who had been christened “The Four Musketeers”.

Wildlife photographer-cum-tour guide Antony ole Tira, who is based at the Matira Camp in the Mara, told Lifestyle that Scarface lived in a pride of other lions for eight years.

Mr Tira added that in the course of his dramatic reign, Scarface personified what it is to be a lion in the Mara — a life punctuated by bloody battles, infanticide and violent conflicts with pastoralists.

“He came to the limelight in 2011 when, along with three other young males Morani, Sikio and Hunter — Scarface invaded the Marsh Pride territory (Marsh Pride was another famous group of lions). They were nomads, full of swagger and aggression and pumped with testosterone. They were identical, except for Scarface, who stood out straight away due to his disfigurement on the right eye,” said Mr Tira.

The death of Scarface saddened many wildlife enthusiasts as he was a hugely popular lion in the Mara.

Elsa and Christian, the other lions mentioned above, were famous decades ago. Elsa, a lioness, died in 1961, and is buried at the Meru National Park. She gained global fame when she was under the care of conservationist George Adamson and his wife Joy. Mr Adamson shot a lioness in the wild that had charged at him and later realised she had three four-day-old cubs. Elsa was among them.

The other two were sent to a zoo but Mrs Adamson was determined to have Elsa learn to live in the wild. The training programme of the young lion was documented in the book Born Free that later became a film.

Today, an image of Elsa is on display at the Nairobi National Museum.

Christian, was a lion adopted by two friends in the United Kingdom. But he grew too large, necessitating his move to Kenya at the Kora National Reserve. He was under the care of Mr Adamson and his wife. In 1971, a year after he was moved to Kenya, Christian’s former owners came to visit him and he remembered them. A video of that reunion has been circulating online for a while.

An official at the Kenya Wildlife Service told Lifestyle that the habit of naming animals is mainly driven by visitors from the West.

“They are the ones whose approach is to humanise the animals. You will find that ordinary Kenyans are not quite into this,” said the official, whom we will not name because he is not authorised to speak to the press.

“Through this naming, attention is drawn to an animal internationally,” he said.

A famous animal in an area is the most befitting ambassador for tourism, according to Dr Philip Muruthi, the vice president for species conservation and science at the African Wildlife Foundation.

“The big tuskers in Amboseli are a good example. They represent longevity (the older an animal, the bigger it is), and are a good indicator of conservation success,” Mr Muruthi told Lifestyle.

“They stir strong emotions in people because human beings want a personal connection to animals, which inspires them to take positive action for a longer period of time, like donating money to conserve certain individuals or landscapes. In Rwanda, this has worked very well. The gorilla babies are never enough for the number of ‘namers’ interested,” noted Dr Muruthi.

He went on: “Often, the iconic individuals come from iconic species; so they already have status as ecosystem engineers (elephants) or keystone species (lions). This means their actions affect more than just themselves and their abundance is a sign of ecosystem health and vibrancy.”

The conservationist, however, noted that there is a downside in having animals gain fame.

“The personal connection derails conversations about larger conservation policy decisions such as consumptive utilisation,” he said.

Some of the famous named animals in Kenya include Sudan, the northern white rhinoceros who died in 2018. There is also Kamuniak, the lioness who wowed many when she adopted an oryx in 2002. Below, we look at some of the wild animals in Kenya that gained national and international fame.

Ahmed, the Elephant Who Had Bodyguards

One of the remarkable sights at the Nairobi National Museum is a life-size model of Ahmed, which is mounted outside the main building. Ahmed’s real skeleton and famous tusks are inside the museum in the Great Hall of Mammals.

Ahmed became famous because his protection while at the Marsabit National Park was sanctioned in 1970 by President Jomo Kenyatta. A famous photo of him taken by legendary photographer Mo Amin showed a group of armed guards around him.

“Ahmed was still able to roam freely in Marsabit Park and got used to the presence of his guards,” reports Nomad Africa.

Ahmed died in 1974 and was found resting on his famous tusks, half-leaning against a tree.

He inspired a number of films, one of them being a series titled The American Sportsman, which aired on American Broadcasting Company.

Omieri, the Python Locals Gave Goats

As far as snakes go, none was more famous in Kenya than the python called Omieri, who shot to national fame in April 1987 after she was singed in a bush fire. The burn left her suffering for a while and KWS swung into action to give her treatment.

The reptile had suffered the misfortune in Nyakach, Kisumu County, and locals did not want her taken to Nairobi for treatment. Some claimed the absence of Omieri brought misfortune. KWS had to return the snake to the Kisumu museum.

Mr Albert Otieno, a curator at the Nairobi Snake Park, told Nation in 2017 that upon her return to Kisumu, Omieri was not treated for some time. She was taken back to Nairobi but died in June 1989.

When she was alive, locals are said to have been giving Omieri goats to eat because they believed she brought good tidings, including rain, when she came to their land.

Today, Omieri’s carcass is preserved at the Nairobi Snake Park, resting in a thick glass container filled almost to the brim with industrial methylated alcohol.

Tano Bora, the Adorable Cheetahs

There is a group of cheetahs in Maasai Mara that is exciting people from far and wide. The group is made up of three brothers from one family and two from another.

Mr Tira, the wildlife photographer, told Lifestyle that the group has gained fame because it is not common to find such a large number of big cats operating together.

“This male cheetahs’ coalition has become well-known due to the unusually large coalition size and the many pictures and films of them seen across the media, and for their might of going for big prey like gnus, topis and zebras — just like what packs of lions do,” said Mr Tira.

The five cheetahs have occupied a territory between Hammerkop on the western side of the Maasai Mara to Olare Orok Conservancy, an area equivalent to 100 square kilometres.

They are unmistakable because they are well-placed, healthy and employ group tactics. Their survival tactics have become a spectacle for wildlife enthusiasts.

The cheetahs may be between seven and nine years old, as they were first spotted together hunting in 2015 without their parents.

The five cheetahs are unique, bold and energetic. They can take down prey 10 times the size of any one of them, making them one of the most successful and famous coalitions in the Masai Mara. They are now celebrated worldwide, including through documentaries and magazine articles.

Malaika, the Cheetah

It is not every day that a wild animal enters a tourist’s car and is welcome. But in 2015, a cheetah nicknamed Malaika did exactly that. A photo of her inside a tour vehicle in front of a shocked tourist has been doing rounds on the Web.

One tourist account of meeting the cheetah in the Mara, published in 2015 in Aardvark Safaris, reads: “We found Malaika just after dawn one morning; it was a magical experience being able to watch her from the vehicle only a few metres away.”

Related to Malaika is Siligi, another famous cheetah in the Mara. She attracted attention in 2019 when she was photographed with seven cubs, a rare feat for a cheetah in the wild.

London’s Daily Mail ran an article alongside photos of Siligi and her cubs under the headline: “Cheetah gives birth to giant litter of seven adorable cubs”.

Siligi is a Maasai word meaning “hope”, which might have been used to describe her hunting behaviour. She has attracted droves of vehicles carrying both local and international tourists to her territory.

Lightning Bolt, Usain Bolt’s Cheetah

An eight-month-old cheetah cub became a global sensation in 2009 when he was adopted by retired Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt. He was then named Lightning Bolt.

The athlete paid $13,700 (Sh1.5 million in today’s rates) to adopt the animal that was left in the care of the Nairobi Animal Orphanage. The Associated Press reported that he was also to pay $3,000 (Sh323,220) a year for maintenance of the animal whose speed is legendary.

At the orphanage, a number of animals are usually up for adoption and naming. There are different adoption categories and the orphanage is encouraging Kenyans to adopt the animals.

An official at the orphanage told Lifestyle on Thursday that Lightning Bolt died two years ago.

“He died due to old age. While in captivity (like an orphanage or zoo), cheetahs die aged between nine and 13 years, and in the wild they die between nine and 11 years,” the official said.

Also in 2009, then chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Mr Luis Moreno-Ocampo, visited Kenya and was photographed with a cheetah at the Nairobi National Park.

KWS would later come out to deny reports that Mr Moreno-Ocampo had adopted the animal he was pictured with, in what gave a hint of the political symbolism that comes with the naming of animals.

“The picture is actually one of Moreno-Ocampo cuddling the famous cheetah named Sharon that is available for re-naming and adoption. This was during his private tour of the Nairobi Animal Orphanage and game drive at the Nairobi National Park,” KWS stated in a lengthy clarification of the photo that had been carried on Page 1 of the Sunday Nation of November 8, more than a month earlier.

“For the record, International Criminal Court chief prosecutor politely declined an offer to name or adopt a wild animal at the Nairobi Animal Orphanage, citing the nature of mission in Kenya as well as the timing,” KWS further stated.

Satao, the Elephant Poachers Couldn’t Spare

This elephant endowed with humongous tusks lived to be one of the most admired in Kenya. He featured in a documentary on Apple TV+ titled The Elephant Queen, among other appearances.

Like Ahmed, Satao had tusks so big they almost touched the ground. He lived in the Tsavo East National Park and was about 45 years old at the time of his death in May 2014 — three months after an attempt to take him down using poisoned arrows had failed.

Though he was under constant surveillance from KWS personnel, he used to wander in a vast area and one day, a warden found a huge elephant lying dead with its tusks missing. The beast would later be confirmed to be Satao and the Tsavo Trust issued a tearful announcement of his death.

“(He was) killed by an ivory poacher’s poisoned arrow to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in far off countries. A great life lost so that someone far away can have a trinket on their mantlepiece,” read part of their statement.

Related to Satao is Tim, an elephant who died in early 2020.

“He is the most majestic elephant that I have ever met, probably the biggest tusker in Africa,” conservationist Paula Kahumbu wrote on the Wildlife Direct website as she paid a tribute to Tim.

“Tim brought so much joy to so many people. I know at least one person whose purpose in life was a quest to meet Tim. He had no shortage of humans who worshipped him,” Dr Kahumbu further wrote.

Tim died of natural causes aged around 50 years.