In search of the elusive elephant shrew
By Jayne Rose Gacheri

A path through Arabuko Sokoke [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

I arrived at Mnarani, Kilifi, late on a Thursday evening looking forward to a relaxing night and a late morning before starting my back-to-back three days scheduled tour of Kilifi. That was not to be.

You cannot visit Kilifi and miss out on an early morning walk “of discovery” through the Arabuko Sokoke forest,” Ludi Mwalimu, my host, tells me, explaining that if I wanted to see the elusive golden-rumped elephant shrew only found at the Arabukoko Sokoke forest, then I have to be up by 5 am! What an irresistible offer, I thought to myself.

I am down at the reception at 5 am and I am surprised that a handful of others are ready for the focus of the morning – to track the golden-rumped elephant shrew, a rare creature found in only in Arabuko Sokoke indigenous forest (the second largest forest after Congo).

The brief

After a briefing about our mission, we set off for the forest. On arrival at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), Arabuko Sokoke station, a guide from the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Guides Association meets us. He will be our guide for the day. However, if you love to discover things without help, there are good maps and signposts available in the forest to help you.

During the brief, we learn that there are over 40 km of rough driving tracks and a network of walking paths for exploration purposes. Besides, there is an equipped visitor centre, at Gede Forest Station, which, is open daily for information and booking of forest guides.

We are now equipped with information and are ready to set off to track down the elusive creature.

The shrewd elephant shrew

It is 6.10 am and after about a kilometre, we leave our car behind and set off on foot. A short walk brings us to an open path and, our guide signals for us to be “dead silent” and watch the path ahead. The silence that follows this order is deafening! Suddenly, the guide points at what seems like a black object about 200 metres ahead. I am baffled. The elephant shrew was this tiny! It is no bigger than a mongoose. I thought what I had seen earlier in the picture was a minimised image.

The cameras started clicking. The tiny little thing must have a strong sense of hearing as it quickly dashes back into the forest. For the next 20 minutes, we wait, hardly breathing but in vain. The guide decides that we can explore the forest – to try our luck once more. 

The Elephant Shrew at the Arabuko Sokoke forest [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

Our next destination is the Tree House. We take the main track that leads us to the Elephant Track (the tracks are labelled), a sandy path that goes between some wooden posts and leads to an open area of a sand quarry, completing the walking loop. About 100 metres beyond the posts, we take a narrow marked path to the right that leads us directly to the Tree House.

From the viewing platform, the view is splendid, spreading out over the old sand quarry area and onto the adjacent forest. Normally, the pools are filled in the rainy season and provide an ideal habitat for a variety of water birds as well as over 17 species of frog.

As we continue our walk, the guide explains to us that the Arabuko Sokoke forest is the largest surviving coastal forest in East Africa. It covers an area of about 400 sq km and is composed of three distinctly different forest habitats. These are mixed lowland forests, open woodlands, and dense forests. The forest, we learn, provides a unique and important habitat for many endangered birds, insects and mammals.

Bird Watching at Arabuko Sokoke [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

The forest, too, has a small population of elephants, buffalos and six species of small antelope, adder duiker, a globally endangered species, mongoose, genet cat, bush baby, all of which are resident in the Arabuko Sokoke forest.

Elephants of Arabuko Sokoke [Courtesy]

Birds are a galore here! There are over 260 species of birds recorded in this forest, out of which six are globally threatened. The forest is critical to their survival and conservation. Many coastal bird species including Fisher’s Turaco and Southern Branded Snake Eagle thrive here. Butterflies are abundant in the forest especially during the rainy season, with one-third of Kenya’s 870 species found here.

Phenomenon butterflies of Arabuko Sokoke [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

On our way back to the station, luck is on our side as we encounter a pair of elephant shrews. The guide confirms our luck, commenting that some visitors have never had a chance to see one even after multiple visits.

Some birds at the Arabuko Sokoke [Jayne Rose Gacheri, Standard]

Back at the station, we watch a documentary of the Elephant Shrew after which Matthias Mwavita, a warden, gives us a brief on the animal. The golden-rumped Elephant Shrew, he explains, is a strange-looking animal, considered distantly related to the aardvark and elephants, hyraxes and sea cows. Its survival is dependent on the continued ecological health of the forest.

The tiny animal takes its name from its long pointed head with its grey long, thin and mobile trunk-like nose. It also has long, slim legs, and its characteristic hunchbacked posture gives it the appearance of a miniature antelope, or perhaps a tiny pig with a long tail. A gland on the underside of its tail produces a strong scent that they use to mark their territories. The musky smell serves as a deterrent against many carnivores. It uses the strong musky scent to mark its territory and makes it an unsavoury meal for carnivores, leaving snakes and birds of prey as its predators.

At dusk, the elephant shrew goes to one of many nests in its territory. It does not burrow or climb, but instead nests in a shallow depression. It spreads its forelegs over some leaves and then shuffling backwards, drags them into the depression. The finished nest appears as an inconspicuous mould of leaves. The elephant shrew approaches a nest cautiously before quickly slipping under the leaves at night.

Interestingly, elephant shrews form pairs that live in a common territory of several acres, but they are generally anti-social and seldom together. However, they do keep track of each other’s whereabouts through the scent markings. They are not friendly to strangers. Elephant shrews are shrewd. They are intolerant of close neighbours, and should one stray into their territories they will be violently evicted.

Aggressiveness includes screaming, sparring, snapping and kicking, all of which can happen rapidly that it appears to be a blur of animals tumbling on the forest floor. Sometimes have a sudden bout of activity for no apparent reason. They may run in wide circles or make high, short leaps. This behaviour is not aggressive but not understood.

Elephant shrews give birth four to five times a year. The fully haired newborn remains hidden for the first three weeks and then follows the mother for about a week, thereafter becoming independent. The offspring stays within its parent's territory for the next six weeks before leaving to establish its territory. This is the most vulnerable time of the elephant shrew. Those that survive and manage to set up their territory will probably only live up to four years.

At the end of the brief, we agree that this trip was worth the 5 am wake-up call.

Students learn about the Ecosystem at the Arabuko Sokoke Forest [Image, KWS]

Facts File

Location: 7 km from Watamu, and 18 km from Malindi along the Mombasa Malindi highway.

Management: Jointly by the Forestry Department and Kenya Wildlife Service, assisted by the Kenya Indigenous Forest Conservation Programme

Elephant Shrew Quick Facts

Scientific name: Macroscelididae

Weight: 25 to 700grams

Size: 22 to 30 centimetres, excluding the tail

Lifespan: 2-4 years

Habitat: Dense forest to open plains

Diet: Insectivorous

Gestation: 45 to 60 days

Relationship: They live in monogamous pairs

Predators: Snakes, birds of prey, various carnivores

Species: There are various species of elephant shrew with the species found in Central and Eastern Africa to the North-eastern corner of South Africa. The species are checkered elephant shrew (Central Africa), golden-rumped elephant shrew (endemic to Kenya), grey-faced, (Tanzania) and the black and rufous elephant shrew found in East Africa. Smaller species of elephant shrew are found in the uplands of southern, eastern, and north-western Africa.