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Nile crocodile in Rangi River.
  More about reptiles
Books on reptiles
Good, modern books on East African reptiles are available in English. If you don't really feel tempted owning such books, you probably won't need them during your safari.
More about books on animals
Five reptiles
You may keep your eyes open for the following reptiles. Spotting the last two takes attention and some luck:
· Nile crocodile
· Monitor lizard
· Agama lizard
· Leopard tortoise
· Rock python
Safari glossary
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Wildlife & nature:
Most animals that you see during a safari in Kenya or Tanzania are mammals and birds, but you may also see some reptiles, for example lizards, without really looking for them. Also crocodiles or tortoises may be seen in some areas, and some visitors see turtles off the coast. Snakes are less commonly seen.

Good reptile areas are dry parks such as Samburu and Shaba. The river bordering these parks is home to many crocodiles, and monitors, lizards and tortoises may be seen in the bush. Lizards are often observed around lodges and tented camps.

Species list: Reptiles

Are they dangerous?
Most reptiles, including all East African lizards, are harmless to humans. (All East African frogs, which are not reptiles but amphibians, are also harmless.)

The only reptiles in Kenya and Tanzania that may hunt humans are Nile crocodiles and very large rock pythons. Some snakes are venomous, and may strike to defend themselves.

A large monitor lizard may defend itself by biting.

Great plated lizard in Tarangire, Tanzania.

The Nile crocodile, which is the crocodile species found in Kenya and Tanzania, is a very large reptile. Large crocodiles may be more than 5 m/16 ft long. Together with the salt-water crocodile of south-eastern Asia, it's the only of the world's crocodiles that regularly kills humans.

Nile crocodiles can be found in both rivers and lakes, but may also occur in brackish water and may even enter the sea. They hunt by stealth, slowly approaching their intended prey, well camouflaged and hard to see in muddy water. Once they attack, they are explosive and powerful.

The crocodiles of some parts of the Mara and Grumeti Rivers in the SerengetiMasai Mara ecosystem are known to be big. This is a result from the huge wildebeest and zebra herds of the migration crossing these rivers every year, and as you may have seen in documentaries on television, this means a feast for the local crocodiles.

Meeting crocodiles
Nile crocodiles in Africa regularly kill humans. Be aware when approaching waters where crocodiles may be present. Look where you are going, and stay 10 metres/yards or more from the shores of lakes and rivers.

Mwanza flat-headed agama in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Most reptiles seen in East Africa are lizards. Geckos are seen on walls at night, agamas scurry over rocks in the sunshine, and monitor lizards are sometimes spotted around rivers and creeks. Skinks and lacertids may also be seen. There are chameleons, too, but as they move slowly and favour denser vegetation, they are hard to spot.

Some of the agamas have bold red or orange colours, but this is not a warning signal telling you that they are poisonous; they are not.

Nile monitor lizard in Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania.

The monitors are the largest lizards in East Africa. The species most seen, the Nile monitor, is usually found close to water. It is shy, and often scurries away if approached, but is capable of biting if cornered. The maximum length of the Nile monitor is around 2.5 m/8 ft, but the ones seen are usually much smaller.

Another species, the savanna monitor, has a heavier build and reaches lengths around 1.5 m/5 ft. It prefers drier habitats than the Nile monitor, and is not seen as often. A good area to see it is Tsavo in Kenya.

Terrapin in Tarangire, Tanzania.

Tortoises, terrapins and turtles
Tortoises are sometimes seen during safaris. The leopard tortoise may be the one that is spotted most frequently. It's a large tortoise that lives on land in the bush, and observations seem to be more frequent after rains.

Terrapins mainly live in water, and may be seen in or around rivers and pools. There are also species that prefer smaller (and sometimes non-permanent) water bodies, where crocodiles are not present, such as puddles, waterholes and ditches.

The East African turtles live in the sea along the coast. Some of the species may get up to 1.2 m/4 ft long. They are mostly seen by divers, but are also spotted from boats now and then, and on beaches in some areas.

Leopard tortoise hiding under a jeep.

There are many snake species in the East African bush, but you rarely see them during normal wildlife safaris. To see more than the occasional snake, you have to look specifically for them. Most snake activity is seen during wet seasons, as the frogs, which are main prey to many snakes, are most active in the wet.

Most snakes are not poisonous, and are no threat to us humans. There are also highly poisonous snakes, such as mambas, cobras and adders, so you should keep an eye on where you walk while on foot, and use a flashlight when walking outdoors at night. Snakebites are very rare among tourist safari-goers, though.

The largest snake found in the region is the rock python, which may grow more than 6 m/20 ft long. It's not poisonous, but constricts its prey. Very large pythons may be dangerous to humans. Don't leave children unattended where there are pythons around.

When meeting snakes
Snakes don't bite because they are evil, but because they are frightened or feel threatened. For safety reasons, you should stay at least two snake lengths away from any snake that you can't identify as harmless. Not to disturb the animal, you should back away even further. Never try to handle a snake unless you know what you are doing. Seemingly dead snakes may not be dead at all, and should not be approached. And so on. In short, stay away from snakes.

Chamaeleo tavetanus – Mt. Kilimanjaro two-horned chameleon, in Arusha, Tanzania.

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Page updated 18 February 2009