World Heritage Sites in Kenya

7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kenya

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kenya

Brief Overview of World Heritage Sites in Kenya

Kenya is home to 7 UNESCO World Heritage Sites – 3 natural and 4 cultural – which carry valuable heritage and fantastic scenery. The great gash of the Rift Valley, Mount Kenya National Park and Lake Turkana National Parks point the contrast of scenery and ecology in Kenya. Lamu Island, the oldest continually peopled town in Kenya, lies astride one of the most beautiful beaches in Kenya. The Southern Coast offers eleven sacred gloves at the Miji Kenda Kaya Forests. These forests, widely venerated throughout the continent for their untouched cultural heritage, also contain a splendid concentration of birds. Fort Jesus, the most significant of builds of the Portuguese Era in Kenya, at which the remains of three subsequent rules in Mombasa have been preserved, provides links in the far-reaching reaching history of Mombasa and the Coast Region of Kenya. Conscious of the need to preserve wildlife, sundry wildlife conservancies have been created, totalling more than seven million acres, in which all the wildlife is protected. Lewa Conservancy, one of the best-known in Kenya, was included as part of the Mount Kenya World Heritage Site in 2013. In all, Kenya has 8 lakes lying in the stretch of the Great Rift Valley, and three of these – Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita, are enlisted under the World Heritage Site.

Lake Turkana World Heritage Site. Published by Daniel de la Parra

About the UNESCO World Heritage Convention

“The cultural and natural heritage are among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation, but of humanity as a whole. The loss, through deterioration or disappearance, of any of these most valuable assets constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of all the peoples of the world. Parts of that heritage, because of their exceptional qualities, can be considered to be of “Outstanding Universal Value’ and as such worthy of special protection against the dangers which increasingly threaten them” – World Heritage Convention.

Political Map of Kenya.  Photo Courtesy

1. Lake Turkana National Parks

Inscribed in 1997

View of Lake Turkana - found in Marsabit and Turkana Counties - designated as a World Heritage Site in 1997.  Photo Courtesy

The C77 Laisamis-Loiyangalani Road through South Horr is also the quickest route to Lake Turkana. Almost 72% of the 7,000 km2 Lake Turkana (300 kms long and 50 kms wide) lies in Marsabit County; the rest lying Turkana County. This oddity, sometimes considered a miraculous anomaly, is widely popular as the world’s largest desert lake and which is also ranked the 4th largest salt-lake following the Caspian Sea, Issyk-Kul and Lake Van. The tempestuous Jade Sea, as popularly portrayed, habours an impressive variety of wildlife that feed on the sub-surface water weeds as well as on the plants whose parts are above the water level. For the avid fisherman, Lake Turkana has been a must-go-to spot, and since the early 1900’s it has etched a reputable name as a leading site for Nile perch fishing. Today, perch of 200 pounds are not as often caught in Lake Turkana as in earlier times, though fish weighing between 100 and 200 pounds are regularly encountered. “On the brighter side, Lake Turkana happens to be an ornithological paradise with over 300 species of birds, notably during the months of European winter. The vast resident bird population is enhanced by thousands upon thousands of migrant waders, water fowl, and raptors. Large flocks of storks soar high overhead while Pelicans form sweeping flight patrols over the surface of the water and flamingos add colorful decor to the lakeshore”.

Lake Turkana is the largest and most saline lake in Kenya’s Lake System in the Great Rift Valley. Estimated to be 250 kms long and 30 kms wide, it the world’s largest desert lake, covering a mind-boggling 7,000 km2. With no outlets and a high evaporation rate, it increases in salinity year-in, year-out as a result of the depositing of salt in its soil and the capping on the surface-river. Lake Turkana is principally fed by River Omo, from Ethiopia, and Rivers Turkwel and Kerio. Formerly known as Lake Rudolf and renamed after the native Turkana, Lake Turkana, located on the floor of the Great Rift Valley, was formed by faulting. No amount of infographics quite prepares anyone for the splendour of Lake Turkana. Perhaps, the most exciting and most memorable way to explore this oddity it to cruise along the shore by boat. There are three exceptional national parks in, and along its bays – Sibiloi National Park, Central Island and South Island National Parks – which are all listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as Lake Turkana National Parks.  It is located 800 kms north of Nairobi.

2. Mount Kenya National Park

Inscribed in 1997

View of Batian Peak at Mount Kenya National Park World Heritage Site in Kenya.  Photo Courtesy

Almost half of the area of Mount Kenya National Park sits in Meru County – the rest shared by Nyeri, Kirinyaga, Embu and Tharaka Nithi Counties. The scenery around Mount Kenya is one of the magnificent landscape in Kenya.  All the area over 11000 ft forms Mount Kenya National Park, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 for its unique flora and bio-diversity range. Ngare Ndare Forest Reserve and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy form the low-lying parts of the World Heritage Site. These two properties are connected via a wildlife corridor which is part of the buffer zone for the park, and which provides connectivity for elephants moving between Mount Kenya and the larger conservation arc of Samburu-Ewaso Ecosystem. Especially popular as a hiking destination, the 715 km2 park offers exciting prospects for day excursion and a rewarding challenge for the strong-minded hikers aiming for its peaks. Once through the gate, there are spectacular forests, moorlands, valleys and tarns seen en-route to the peaks.

Of the five mountains in Africa whose peaks rise over 14,000 ft, only three are permanently snow-capped – Kilimanjaro (19,340 ft), Kenya (17,058 ft) and the Ruwenzoris (16,763 ft). They were climbed in that order – Kilimanjaro being first in 1888, Kenya second in 1889, and the Ruwenzoris in 1906. Every year, thousands of people take to these three mountains for the hiking challenge. Mt. Kenya, which is more scenic than faunal, is the most-liked climbing destination in Kenya. The ascend to Point Lenana, 3rd highest peak, can be made through eight different trails but the two most popular are Naro Moru and Sirimon. The snowy peaks of Mount Kenya, lying just south of the equator, are the prominent landmark in the five counties whose borders extends to the tip of Mount Kenya – Nyeri, Meru, Tharaka Nithi, Embu and Kirinyaga; as well as in Laikipia and Isiolo Counties in the peripheral area. The encircling ring of land from 5,000 to 9,000 ft., is comprised of secured forests. In size Mount Kenya Park is 715 km2.

3. Lamu Old Town

– Inscribed in 2001

View of Lamu Old Town World Heritage Site in Lamu County.  Photo Courtesy

As one of the oldest Swahili settlements in Eastern Africa, Lamu Town of coral-timber-build houses with seaward facing verandas and carved doors, bringing together Arab, Indian, Swahili and European styles, has now been continually settled for over 700 years. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001, it is best-known for its narrow labyrinth streets modelled from old Arab towns “mtaa” layout. Although the 20th Century has reached Lamu, there is certainly no much evidence of it, and it has hardly changed since the 18th Century when it pieced itself together. Travellers to Lamu Island and its surroundings, usually for a weekend getaway, in their few moments in Lamu can scarcely comprehend let alone participate in many of the centuries old time-worn traditions. Still and all, most succumb to the rich culture, fascinating sights and numerous interests.

Lamu Town consists of three parts: the old town west of the main street where the Swahili stone houses are found; the 19th Century additions of Indian styled builds along the promenade; and the impermanent mud and wattle part mainly to the south where the poorer families live. The first and second parts meet at the main street running north-south and has over a hundred and fifty shops. Opposite the main jetty, south of the stone town, is a large piazza bound by the early 19th Century fort on the west and the lawn’s market on the south. Just north of the fort is Pwani Mosque which claims its origin to 1370. All in all, the town stretches between the sea to the east and a low range of hills to the west for a length of about 1.3 kms. Its maximum width occurs roughly at the middle where it measures 300 ms. To the north and south of this point the landward edge sweeps gently seaward, giving the town the shape of a segment of a circle.

4. Miji Kenda Kaya Forests

Inscribed in 2008

View of the Miji Kenda Kaya Forests World Heritage Site in the Coast Region of Kenya.  Photo Courtesy

11.3 kms from Diani Shopping Mall you arrive at one of Kwale’s 21 sacred forest groves, locally known as the Kayas, which are historically maintained by local traditions and collectively recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the Sacred Miji Kenda Kaya Forests. Kaya, in the native lingo translates as home or as homestead in nearly all nine Miji Kenda dialects. These are also dubbed as Nganasa, the Maasai equivalent for boma or homestead. As it goes, the Kayas were originally places of refuge for Waduruma and Wadigo, where they sought refuge from the invading Maasai herders who swayed an extensive territory in pre-colonial Kenya. Later, as the threat subsided from the Maasai Community, the Kayas began to be used by the community elders for prayer and traditional ritual ceremonies. Consequently, the Kayas became treasured by the rest of the Miji Kenda communities as sacred groves. Of a more recent development “Kaya Kinondo ecotourism project is a pilot project that seeks to initiate and test the viability of ecotourism as a means of linking conservation to tangible social and economic benefits of local community” – CIVS. Other Kayas in Kwale County include: Gandini, Mtswakara, Chonyi, Chitanze, Lunguma, Bombo, Kiteje, Waa, Teleza, Miyani, Tiwi, Galu, Chale, Sega and Jego. In sum, there are almost 50 Kayas ‘sacred groves’ scattered throughout forests in the Coast Region of Kenya. “Miji Kenda Kaya Forests consisted of 11 unique forest sites spread over some 200 kms along the coast also contain the remains of numerous fortified villages, known as the kayas, of the Mijikenda people. The kayas created as of the 16th century but abandoned by the mid 1940’s are now regarded as ancestral shrines and are revered as sacred sites and, as such, are maintained as by councils of elders. The sites bears unique testimony to their cultural tradition.” – UNESCO

5. Fort Jesus Museum

Inscribed in 2011

View of Fort Jesus World Heritage Site in Mombasa overlooking Tudor Creek and Indian Ocean.  Photo Courtesy

Fort Jesus was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, as one of the most outstanding and well preserved examples of 16th Century Portuguese military fortification and a landmark in the history of this type of construction. During the 16th Century the Swahili towns remained generally independent of Portugal’s control and under the government of their traditional Shirazi ruling families. However, owing to Portugal’s disruptive commercial policies, the 16th Century was a period of decline. During the second half of the century a new oceanic power, Turkey, made two brief appearances on the Swahili Coast and succeeded in inciting local revolts against the Portuguese. After defeating the Turks, the Portuguese decided to consolidate their power in East Africa by keeping a permanent garrison in order to ensure continued control on their dominions. The construction of Fort Jesus of Mombasa began in 1593 to the designs of Jao Batista Cairato, an Italian architect in the employ of Portugal in India. It is a heavily fortified building with elaborate outworks, moats and salients to counter the effectiveness and accuracy of the new projectiles. The salients were so arranged that any bastion could come to the aid of the other by means of crossfire. Its plan consists of a central court, with bastions at corners. Gunports and turrets were placed to control entering ships, and the main street.

For the casual visitor, sitting on the antediluvian carronades to get a better sea view through the turret-holes, Fort Jesus is a sophisticated historic ruin. For the intrepid explorer, there is nothing unpretentious about the brutal intention of this citadel, which must have stood like a colossus seen from miles out in the undeveloped and unpeopled Mombasa Island, whose population by the turn of the 15th Century had stood at 10,000. The earliest known plans of Fort Jesus is in a manuscript Atlas by Manuel Godinho de Heredia, dated 1610, that shows its original design. Its layout consists of a central court with bastions in the four corners and a rectangular gun platform facing Indian Ocean. “It was designed in such a way that it was impregnable during any attacks”. Within it, it had a chapel, cistern, a captain’s house, barrack rooms (north and south), firing steps, guard rooms, 10 watch towers and gun ports. All in all, it covers six acres and has only one main entrance, in the rear, and two passages facing Indian Ocean.

6. Lake System in the Rift Valley

– Inscribed in 2011

View of flamingos in Lake Nakuru National Park in Nakuru County.  Photo Courtesy

The Kenya Lake System in the Rift Valley, a natural property of outstanding beauty, comprises three inter-linked relatively shallow lakes (Lake Bogoria, Lake Nakuru and Lake Elementaita) in the Rift Valley Province of Kenya and covers a total area of 32,034 hectares. The property is home to thirteen globally threatened bird species and some of the highest bird diversities in the world. It is the single most important foraging locale for the lesser flamingo – UNESCO.

Lake Bogoria

Originally known as Hannington Lake, Lake Bogoria also lacks little in The 101 km2 Lake Baringo 25 kms north of Lake Bogoria is famed for its jazzy diversity of birds and its grandiose beauty, once described by John W. Gregory (British geologist & explorer) as the most beautiful view seen in Africa. Its fresh nature is partly due to the fact that it has a submarine outlet discharging water northwards to Kapedo, and also that it accrues great quantities of fresh water from its inflowing rivers. The Lake, which is fed by Rivers Molo, Pekerra and Ol Arabel, has 13 islands each holding a unique beauty and mystery. It is possible to explore at least 7 of these islands – Lokoros, Rongena, Lengai, Devil’s Island, Samatian, Ol kokwe and Parmolos – in an afternoon’s adventure by means of motorized hop-on hop-off boat taxis. Adventure-makers whose only aim is to enjoy the aesthetics and serenity of the lake can take shorter trips aboard the tradition ambach boats popularly used by the Njemp, Tugen and Pokot anglers. Unique to Lake Baringo is the overt, undeviating, and monotonous shrubland. Prosopis, a perennial thorny shrub native to the Americas, was introduced here in the 1980’s by Government of Kenya, with financial backing from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). It was intended to ensure self-sufficiency in wood products, make the environment habitable, and also to safeguard the existing natural vegetation from over exploitation. In some parts of the world where it has been introduced, there have been many benefits, but, at Baringo, especially around Lake Baringo, it became invasive and it has been of little use. Its other unique feature is a little-known wonder located high above its cliffs. The basalt cliffs of Lake Baringo are famous among bird-lovers as one of few places in Kenya to spot the rare Verreaux’s eagles, also known the African black eagle. “The cliffs of Baringo are their favourite haunt because these birds of prey are among the most prey-specific of any avian predator, hunting for rock hyrax, the close kin of the elephant” – Rupi Mangat. It is located 21 kms from Marigat.

Lake Nakuru

Lake Nakuru National Park is on account of its beauty, diversity and popularity the up-country counterpart of Nairobi National Park. At 188 km2 – enclosing the lake bed and the 60 km2 surrounding riparian – it’s a fairly small park but far important than its size suggests. The Lake itself, 45 km2 at 5,776 ft. lying in a graben bound by the Lion Hill and the Mau Escarpment is one of the world’s great attraction for ornithologists. Its parkway runs through the lush woodland before emerging at the lakeshore marked by a shimmering pink band, about 20 yards wide. It the epic line formed by hundreds of thousands of flamingos. And these are by no means all. More than 300 other species have been classified in the park, all which combine to make a unique and pleasing birding experience.

Lake Elementaita

It may have lost some of its glamour when the flamingos flew and hardly came back but its magic lives on. In 2015, it was named fifth Ramsar Site in the Rift Valley owing to its importance as a birding area: an average of almost 610,000 birds having been counted in the area during the annual census, belonging to more than 450 species of which 80 are waterfowl.  The surface increment of the shallow 13 km2 Lake Elementaita is from the Kekopey, Mereroni, Mbaruk and Kariandusi streams, and like Lake Nakuru it is also fed from the water tables. Evaporation accounts for its high salinity. The flora around the lake is mainly Acacia that hosts multitudes of bird species. It is bounded to the south by the volcanic pile of Eburru and to the north by the Bahati Escarpment. Between Eburru and the Lake are many prominent volcanic cones which form a “pock-marked” rocky wilderness known as the Elementeita “badlands”. These cones stand up as striking features from the plain. The most prominent of these is, of course, the Sleeping Warrior massif. About 2/3 of the shoreline sits within the Soysambu Conservancy and there is an impressive catalog of hotels around the lake. A viewing slip-road off the Gilgil-Nakuru Road for viewing the Lake has been in existence for many years. Lake Elementaita is found 12 kms from Gilgil.

7. Thimlich Ohinga Cultural Landscape

– Inscribed in 2018

Entrance to the Thimlich Ohinga World Heritage Site in Migori County.  Photo Courtesy

Located 46 kms northwest of Migori Town, Thimlich Ohinga thought to be built in 16th Century is arguably the largest and best preserved traditional enclosures depicting early settlements typical of the first pastoral communities in the Lake Victoria Basin. The most obvious features are the dry-stone wall of interlocking brick configuration that encircles the landscape in a fort-like formation, and the low entrances which ensured maximum security. Up until now, its surrounding landscape has retained its jungle-like atmosphere. Formerly known as the Liare Valley or the “frightening dense forest”, this area presented unique challenges not least of impending predatory wildlife, tribal hostilities and brutal raiders. Inside the larger stone wall are shorter walls that demarcate the property into different areas, for livestock and occupation. Further, the areas for occupation have been clearly demarcated in accordance to the traditional system of living still seen widely in the region. It provides an invaluable yardstick to reference the spatial planning and early settlement patterns around Lake Victoria basin. Thimlich Ohinga Landscape was inscribed as UNESCO Heritage Site in July 2018, “as a stellar testimony of settlement patterns and spatial community relations in Lake Victoria area, which documents the successive occupation by different people from various linguistic origins during an important episode in the settlement between the 16th and 17th centuries. It is located 10 kms north of Macalder Site, and reached via Migori-Muhuru Road or Migori-Nyarongi Road.

Travel Quotes - Museums are places of worship for those whose faith dwells in human stories and tales.

On the UNESCO Tentative List

  1. Mombasa Old Town
  2. Lake Nakuru National Park
  3. Lake Naivasha
  4. Lake Bogoria National Reserve
  5. The Historic Town of Gedi
  6. The Mfangano-Rusinga Islands
  7. Marakwet Furrow Irrigation Scheme
  8. Olorgesailie Pre-Historic Site
  9. Abedare Range and National Park
  10. The Eastern Arc Coastal Forest and Shimba Hills National Reserve
  11. The Kakamega National Forest Reserve
  12. The Meru Conservation Area
  13. Hell’s Gate National Park
  14. The Masai Mara Ecosystem
  15. The Tana Delta and Forest Complex
  16. Tsavo National Parks and Chyulu Hills National Reserve