The Serengeti eco-system is made up as follows :
Serengeti National Park 14,700 square kilometres
Maasai Mara 1,750 square kilometres
North Ngorongoro 2,800 square kilometres
Hunting areas 2,200 square kilometres
Village lands 3,550 square kilometres
Total area 25,000 square kilometres
There is a terrible misunderstanding about the Serengeti Plains, which needs to be sorted out immediately … The Serengeti Plains are not famous because they are incredible endless flat plains, the scale of which you will not find anywhere else. Actually the plains are quite small. You can drive right across them along their longest axis in less than two hours. The Serengeti Plains are famous because of a unique set of geological and meteorological circumstances that has caused a certain distinct seasonal pattern of grass growth, which in turn is the driving force behind a huge annual migration of grazing animals.
Each year over 1,200,000 wildebeests migrate up to 1000 kilometres around the Serengeti eco-system, driven by the ever-changing pattern of food and water supplies. The migration does not follow an ordered path throughout the year. Diagrams explaining the month by month movements are intended only as a simplistic rough guide.
A more honest description of the migration might be … As the dry season sets in the migrants move from the southern plains into the northern woodlands, where they remain for several months. When the rain starts again, the wildebeest return to the southern plains to calve. In this never-ending quest for good grazing, the route changes every year, sometimes sending them way out into the Western Corridor or outside the eastern boundaries of the park. On their journey, the animals pass through the three main habitats of the Serengeti – the southern grass plains (long & short), the northern woodlands and the riverine areas of Grumeti, Seronera and Mara. The details of each stage of this hazardous trek are covered in the following chapters dealing with the different areas of the eco-system.
If you stop your Landrover in the middle of the Serengeti Plains, switch off the engine and sit on the roof for a few minutes, you quickly become aware of the stark simplicity of this part of the eco-system. … soil to grass … … grass to large herbivore … … large herbivore to large carnivore … … large carnivore to soil … There are a few other little features along the way, but that is basically it. You are sitting out on a plain where just about the only living things are grass and large mammals. It is experiencing this simplicity for the first time that gets you to ask questions about how this place really works …
Eating grass is what it is all about and the real miracle of the Serengeti is not just the huge herds of wildebeest that trudge up and down the Serengeti each year, but the way in which all the different herbivores have dove-tailed their various grazing habits and techniques together to become, between them, the greatest lawnmower in history. All the grazers of the Serengeti are driven by three primary urges :
– To stay alive (avoid predation)
– To find the best grass year-round
– To reproduce
Looking at each of these, in turn, will greatly illuminate our understanding of this whole herbivore thing …
There are four techniques employed to avoid predation …
A pretty obvious way to defend yourself from predation is to be big and strong. Elephants are the obvious masters of this survival technique, but they do have to pay an enormous price for the privilege – having to consume enormous quantities of food to sustain their bulk for one. But there again, all the herbivores are pretty much pre-occupied by eating all day, so it does go with the territory. It is also worth noting though that all the grazers are protected to an extent by their size. Maybe an elephant can’t be taken by a lion, but nor can a buffalo be taken by a cheetah, nor a wildebeest by a serval, nor even can a little Thomson’s gazelle be taken down by a genet.
Being a fast runner is obviously an advantage when being hunted, but it is also clearly a contradictory requirement to being big, so the smaller the grazer, generally the more it relies on speed to getaway. The ability to turn quickly on the move is also a great asset.
Whether there is safety in numbers in being in a herd variable. Standing around in a herd does make you a bigger target for the predator, but it does also mean that your group is probably only on the territory of one pride of lion or pack of hyena. Perhaps only one of your group will be taken out that day and there is a reasonable chance it won’t be you. But if you are as big as a wildebeest or zebra, coming together as a herd becomes much more interesting, since you can begin to co-operate with your comrades to defend yourself.
Herbivores are not renowned for having good all-round senses. Most specialise in having one particularly acute sense and four rather dull ones. This seems to be a very poor showing when compared to their predators. Cats, for example, have a full set of highly tuned senses. Nevertheless, it obviously works from an evolutionary point of view. Wildebeest have a very acute sense of smell, which they use not only to sense predators but also to detect rain at great distances. Zebra, on the other hand, have excellent eyesight. Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles are renowned for their excellent hearing. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if you get one of each and stand them together, you get a pretty efficient early warning system … and this is exactly what the plains grazers do here in the Serengeti, mix in together and co-operate. One wonders whether any of them ever abuse the trust in this relationship to improve the chances of one of the others getting eaten rather than one of its own. (“Keep quiet … it’s going for one of them”.) The problem that does arise, is that those animals participating in this co-operation are suddenly thrown into competition for grazing. We will come back to that a bit later.
The next great herbivore pre-occupation is to find the best grazing. The grass is pretty poor food at the best of times and you need to get the best you can if you are to stay fit. Remember, the weakest herbivore gets eaten alive, so you really do need to get to that good grass.
The critical thing here is how to remove the chance element from the food search. Obviously grass growth is seasonal and there probably is a pattern that you need to follow throughout the year in order to benefit from the experience of last year .. if you could just evolve a memory good enough to remind you where and when you found the best grass last year … The various herbivores of the Serengeti have managed to develop this memory function to variable levels of success. Obviously elephants have been quite successful in this respect, with a reputation for achieving staggering feats of memory. Zebra are reputed to be quite good too. But wildebeest, as their look suggests, is not the brightest and seem to demonstrate a more goldfish-like approach to memory, which leads to another interesting area of co-operation between the herbivores here … It is said that the migration is navigated by a partnership between the wildebeest and the zebra, the first using its sense of smell to detect rain and hence initiate the movement and then by the zebra, who has some recollection of the route from the previous year. This seems to have been corroborated by observation last season when it all went terribly wrong with the failure of the November rains and the wildebeest and zebra finally ended their co-operation in mutual disgust. The zebra stood still and waited for the rain that could remember would come eventually, whilst the poor stupid wildebeest wandered endlessly this way and that across the plains, chasing every clap of thunder and fork of lightning.
T126.96.36.199 : To eat grass that other grazers leave behind
The other way to find the best grazing is to eat types of plant or parts of a plant that other animals don’t touch. This is an incredibly effective way of reducing the competitive element and making your life a little easier. The herbivore that takes this to extremes is the giraffe, which not only eats plants which are way out of range of most herbivores, but which also manages to graze from the acacia, whose long thorns would destroy the mouths of lesser specialists. Amongst the plains animals though, this specialisation is less obvious and perhaps a more elegant solution. It is a cycle which has become known as the grazing succession.
Actually the grazing succession starts not out on the plains but on the fringes of the woodland, where the largest of all the herbivores, the elephant, wreaks havoc with its grazing, pushing over saplings and trampling bushes and heavy grasses. When the elephant population is high, this heavy grazing pushes back the woodland zones and opens out the land to grass. Over the last few decades, this effect has been noticed in the Northern Corridor particularly, where the population of elephants has risen markedly, presumably caused by an influx of populations from unprotected areas outside the park, where poachers can get at them more easily.
Next in the grazing succession come buffalo and hippo, who eat and trample the heavy grasses, again on the periphery of woodland and rivers. Living in similar areas are the larger antelope such as topi, kongoni and impala, whose habits show the first indications of migration, as they move around these intermediate woodland and riverside areas, perhaps over a range of less than 100km in total, in search of water and grazing.
Only now do we get to the real dominant herbivores of the Serengeti – the wildebeest and the zebra. These guys are the main consumers. They have staked their claim to the middle market, the main bulk of the grass in the Serengeti and won due to their overall package of efficiency, including the specific grazing techniques that they employ. There are over 1,200,000 wildebeest and 200,000 Birchell’s zebra in the eco-system, the vast majority of which are migratory. In fact, the wildebeest and the zebra are very different in their grazing habits. The wildebeest is a ruminant and like a cow, prefers higher-quality grasses. The zebra, however, is more like a horse and can eat much lower quality grasses but in greater quantities. The zebra can consume twice the quantity of grass over the same period as a wildebeest. They also graze in a completely different way from each other, which also reduces their inter-competitiveness to an extent. The wildebeest tears grass by gripping it between the lower front teeth and a pad on their upper jaw, tearing and swallowing directly, taking time to regurgitate and chew the cud later. This technique allows the wildebeest to consume grass at a faster rate than any of the competing herbivores. Zebra cut the grass with their sharp upper and lower front teeth and chew it with their molars before swallowing. The down-side of being such voracious eaters is that pastures are quickly exhausted and the herds have to keep moving.
Next, come the smaller grazers, the Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles, whose smaller mouths enable them to specialise in the shorter grass that is left behind by the wildebeest and zebra. There are around 300,000 Thomson’s gazelles and 30,000 Grant’s gazelles migrating in this way.
The lead animals in this sequence, the wildebeest, have to do the most travelling to satisfy their appetites, but the further down you are down this grazing succession, the less distance you have to cover. So whilst the wildebeest cover around 1000km, the zebra cut the corners off to travel maybe 600km in a year. The little Thompson’s gazelle follows the herds around the plains, but then remains thereafter they have left, keeping their little migration down to perhaps 300km each year.
If you can sort out everything up to here, then you can get on to reproduction – the last piece in the jigsaw. Obviously all of the animals of the Serengeti manage to reproduce successfully, but it is the wildebeest who have really honed this to a fine art, co-ordinating their rutting and calving seasons precisely to the coming of the rain on the Short-Grass Plains (as described in the following chapter).
The main issue then for the predators is how to make the most of this huge mobile meat supply. The meat-eating league table goes like this …
Each of these carnivores employs a different strategy for taking advantage of the herds and interestingly, three of the five have evolved their traditional habits into behaviour patterns which are uniquely different from their relations outside the Serengeti. The hyena is undoubtedly the best hunter in the Serengeti and probably the most fascinating to study. There are detailed sections on each of these carnivores in the chapters that follow.
So when you do get to sitting out there on the roof of your Landrover in February in the middle of the Serengeti Plains, surrounded by these enormous herds, what you see is the result of all this specialisation and co-operation. In this starkly simple environment exists this incredibly heavy bio-mass of large herbivores and their attendant predators. It is so magnificently intense and efficient an illustration of the power of life that it makes other great parks of Africa seem like barren wastelands. But come back to the same spot in the dry season and you’ll find out what a wasteland really looks like.
The mistake that most people make when coming to the Serengeti is to become too obsessed with seeing the migration. The real fascination of the Serengeti is to see the whole system, migrational and non-migrational, evolving throughout the course of the year. Given that most people don’t have this luxury of time and are only able to see a snapshot of the year, then the best thing to do is firstly to establish a good understanding of how the whole system works and then to travel around the park, recognising how the various elements fit into the overview. Fitting things into context makes them far more interesting. At any one time, there is always great game-viewing to be had in several different locations in the Serengeti and the non-migrating resident game is good in many areas all year round, especially lion and leopard. To the well-informed visitor, even the barren wastelands of the southern plains in the dry season are fascinating, when you can get to examining the various survival strategies of the resident game.
The most part of this area, as far as Lake Ndutu and Naabi Hill, is actually inside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, rather than the Serengeti, but this is merely an administrative border. This land is an integral part of the Serengeti eco-system and is therefore considered here to be a part of the Serengeti. This area is known as the Short-Grass Plains. It is not only an area of extraordinary beauty and the backdrop for the wildebeest calving season, but it is also an area of diverse other interests, including the world-famous paleontological site at Olduvai and the extraordinary phenomenon of Shifting Sands …
Between 2 and 4 million years ago, the flatlands of the Serengeti were repeatedly showered by volcanic dust during eruptions of the oldest of the volcanoes of Ngorongoro, Sadiman and Kerimasi. This ash coated the ancient plains and as the rain fell, it turned into a hard, cement-like layer, known as hard-pan. Over the years, the upper layer of this hard-pan broke down to form a shallow but nutrient-rich layer of soil, which while being ideally suited for grasses, was to shallow for shrubs or trees, whose deeper root systems could not penetrate the tough sub-surface. It is the thickness of this thin soil stratum above the hard-pan that determines the types of grass that can subsist. The deeper the soil, the more sturdy the grasses. Here in the south, the layer of soil is very thin and the grass is short but tender and very high in nutrients.
Rain is in short supply for much of the year in this particular area. The prevailing easterly winds are not sufficiently strong to push past the barrier of the Ngorongoro Highlands, so whilst it may be pouring with rain on the eastern side of the hills, just 10 to 30 kilometres away, it remains completely dry over this side. Even the hills to the north get three or four times the rainfall as the Short-Grass Plains. Sitting at Olduvai in November and December, the dry air sucks the moisture from your lips and eyes, whilst the rain remains tantalisingly close up on the hills. When eventually the rain does come you can smell it an hour off and hear it for maybe five minutes before it actually arrives. It soaks immediately into the baked and crusted soil and within a matter of days, the first signs of fresh grass start to appear and slowly the desert starts to bloom. Within another week or so the migration herds start to flood out onto the plains from the north. So it is that the arrival of this rain is one of the main driving forces for the migration.
But here on the Short-Grass Plains where the soil layer is thin, the ability of the grass root system to retain moisture is limited and when the rains come to an end the dry season very quickly turns the whole area back into semi-desert. Even before this the migration herds have eaten most of the best grasses and are starting to move northwards to the longer, to where the hard-pan is deeper below the surface and the grasses are longer and less palatable.
Now that the dry season has arrived, most of the remaining populations clear out and leave the place almost devoid of animals … except for a few resident dry-season specialists.
Because these southern plains lie in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area rather than the park, they are inhabited by Maasai and it is in this area more than any other you get a real sense of these amazing people. Here, where you can actually see Maasai jogging through the heat haze across the dusty plains in classic Out-Of-Africa style, you really get the feeling that you are visiting somewhere very special indeed. Here the Maasai live life in the traditional manner, with their flocks and herds sharing the plains with the migratory animals and their attendant carnivores.
The Maasai do not hunt or eat wild animals. Instead, their traditions preach of harmony between man and nature. The only area where this system becomes less clearly defined is when the interests of the wildlife conflict dramatically with the interests of their herds. This is most sharply demonstrated by the presence of lion, which regularly take to hunting cattle and goats during the dry season when the migratory herds are elsewhere. The Maasai warriors do famously have a tradition of hunting lions in order to prove their manhood, but here in the parks, this occupation has long since been outlawed. It still remains possible for the Maasai to tag along with a hunt if they report to the NCA that there is a lion hunting their cattle and the rangers come down to exterminate the offending beast, but there are also many stories of the more traditional spear hunting still going on in this area. Either way, there certainly seem to be very few lions in the area up to the Serengeti Park border, but this might have as much to do with the unsuitability of the terrain as the presence of the Maasai.
Conservation alert … Obviously visitors to the area have a desire to meet and interact with these wonderful people, but this is a very difficult thing to do without inflicting damage on the culture itself. It is actually against park regulations to stop and take photographs of Maasai and definitely illegal to make a payment for being allowed to take some one’s photo. If you must visit a Maasai village, then go to one of the tourist bomas that have been set up to keep visitors out of the real villages. They will charge you $50 per vehicle, which is about half a small cow. Please settle for observing these people from a reasonable distance in this delicate and special area. If you want to visit Maasai villages then you should do it outside the parks where the volume of visitor traffic is low enough and the occasion so infrequent that you visit will have no adverse effect on the culture. If you really want to interface with the Maasai, then stay at Olduvai Camp, or go hiking in the hills with one of our Maasai guides.
Near to the base of the Ngorongoro hills, the main road crosses two small river beds. These are the two branches of the famous Olduvai Gorge, one of the most important paleontological sites in the world … for this area around Olduvai has proved to be very remarkable in the context of human evolution, with the spectacular archaeological finds made by the Leakey family.
3,500,000 years before present the volcanoes of Ngorongoro had not yet appeared, except for the two elder statesmen, Kerimasi and Sadiman. These volcanoes were very active, especially Sadiman, whose regular eruptions cloaked the landscape with thick layers of dust. Many of the animals that still inhabit the area now were present back then, as well as some which are now extinct, including the Hipparion, a three-toed horse. Then on one particular day, two ape-like hominids came walking across this landscape. They were shorter than us, perhaps 1.3m in height, but more importantly they were walking upright – the classic human mode of transport. We know this because after they had passed, their footprints were preserved in the rock by another shower of dust from Sadiman. These are the famous footprints of Australopithecus afarensis, found at Laetoli by Mary Leakey in 1976. This earliest evidence of upright human propulsion remains one of the most important fossil discoveries ever made.
Around two million years ago, a large eruption of the volcano Olmoti covered the area of what is now Olduvai Gorge with a layer of basalt lava. After the eruption, the area became a shallow soda lake, a little bit like Manyara is today and over the following million or more years this lake alternately contracted and expanded with periods of greater and lesser precipitation. Around the shores of this lake, the dust that plumed periodically out from the volcanoes above turned into mud, trapping and fossilising the bones of the animals and people as they came to water. With each successive eruption, a coat of dust-sealed this layer of mud, building up of the millennia into a superb fossil record, which can be easily dated by bed layer …
Bed 1 : 1,750,000 to 1,700,000 years before present: Two types of hominid : The hulking great Australopithecus boisei, with its small brain capacity (500cc), was probably a bit of a lumbering oaf. The smaller Homo habilis had a larger brain (around 600cc) and is thought to have developed the capacity to use basic tools. Also living at this time were a large sabre-toothed cat and the Sivatherium, which was a huge giraffe with sweeping horns.
Bed 2 : 1,700,000 to 1,100,000 years before present: The lumbering giant Boisei is still to be found in the lower parts of this level, but both he and Habilis disappear with the appearance of the more advanced Homo erectus, whose brain capacity had increased to 900cc. This hominid was able to make stone tools of some quality.
Bed 3 : 1,100,000 to 700,000 year before present: Homo erectus continues to develop his tool-making skills and in one location in the gorge a large hippo skeleton was discovered, surrounded by stone tools, suggesting a possible butchery site.
Bed 4 : 700,000 to 400,000 years before present: High-quality quartzite hand-axes are the most interesting relics to be found in this level. Upper beds: 400,000 to present About 100,000 years ago a phase of severing faulting took place in the area, with the foothills of Ngorongoro subsiding considerably, creating the gorge at Olduvai and exposing these beds to the surface.
One perhaps slightly facile anecdote that nevertheless goes to sharpen one’s wit to the importance of all this … it has been suggested that it was early mankind’s exposure here at Olduvai to these repeated periods of wet and dry that had an incredible effect on his appearance and that it was when we were adapting to a semi-aquatic lifestyle during these rainy periods that we first started to lose the hair from our bodies and develop hands and feet that are paddle-like, for swimming. This may or may not be true, but the importance of this site at Olduvai is overwhelming.
There is a small museum about 2km off the main track. It’s a pretty unprepossessing affair, but worth the stop. The more you know about it in advance, the more you will enjoy it. There are displays of genuine and cast copies of the famous finds from along the gorge here. It is possible to have a short talk and also to visit a number of the special dig locations in the gorge itself. Excavations continue to this day in the gorge and it is anticipated that there are plenty more fascinating finds still to be made. A visit will take between half an hour and two hours, depending on how keen you are.
Just a few kilometres from the museum at Olduvai is the bizarre phenomenon known as Shifting Sands. There are two of these isolated sand dunes, which migrate slowly around the flatlands of the Olduvai area with the wind. Their incredibly fine black volcanic sand is permanently on the move, the surfaces of the dunes constantly blowing and sliding. Year markers give some kind of idea of the movement of the dunes, which seems to be in the order of fifty metres per year. Very strange.
It’s hard to get a straight answer from the Maasai as to whether they attach any particular cultural significance to the shifting sands, other than the statement that God has placed them there as a place to focus their prayers and communicate with him.
strange sand dunes
Other interesting features are the remote Gol Mountains, with the impressive monolith known as Nasera Rock, the vulture eeries along Olkarien Gorge (see “vultures” below) and some very remote Maasai bomas.
The area around Ndutu is mainly covered by acacia scrub woodland, centred by two soda lakes. In the green season this the game loops here can be superb, but even in the dry season there tends to be enough around to keep one interested.
The game-viewing in this season is at its best. From January through to March the weather is usually pretty good and there are so many animals on these plains it is wonderful. The wildebeest tend to come into calf in February, the sweetness of these wobbly little creatures being tempered by the savageness with which they are captured and devoured by the carnivores. Lion, hyena and cheetah are all here in abundance.
When the rains come and the first grasses start to poke through, the animals of the migration are usually poised and ready to move onto this new pasture. At the first scent of rain back in November, the wildebeest lift their heads and start to head south from the Maasai Mara, down the Northern Corridor and across the Long-Grass Plains. They know that the pasture here on the Short-Grass Plains to the south is the tastiest and most nutritious available and here they will head for a season of plenty, during which they will drop their calves.
One of the real reasons behind the success of the wildebeest here in the Serengeti is the synchronisation of the birthing period, which usually lasts for around just three weeks in February. The female wildebeest needs three times as much energy after the birth of her calf when she has to start producing milk. By managing to coincide her birth with the growth of the new grass on these plains, she is able to obtain enough calories and nutrients. This synchronisation also helps to minimise predation by lion and hyena, since there is only a certain number of baby wildebeest you can eat in a day.
During this three week period up to 8000 wildebeest calves are born every morning. Born into a world of exposed danger, these wobbly little things are getting to their feet within around 7 minutes and are able to run at full speed within an hour. They also grow twenty times faster than human offspring. The slower predators such as lion and hyena lookout for these vulnerable newborns, whilst the cheetah and wild-dog can quite easily chase down the older calves. With so many wildebeest massed into herds, calves regularly get separated from their mothers. The strategy the wildebeest employ for reuniting is to exit the herds and trot around the outside bleating at each other. Whilst this does usually bring the mother and calf together eventually, it does also expose the youngsters to the predators and it is often these lost calves that the lions will be lying out there looking for.
By as early as the end of March the grazing on the short-grass plains is often beginning to run short. Both wildebeest and zebra need to drink about every three days as well to aid their digestion, so a lack of standing water may also force them to move on too. At this time a wildebeest may spend up to 18hrs a day grazing and chewing the cud. Slowly the herds start to drift up into the Long-Grass Plains.
Zebra are outnumbered by wildebeest in the Serengeti by about six to one, nevertheless, they remain very visible participants of the migration. They tend to move in quite large aggregations, which is made up of smaller family groups of perhaps a dozen females and one stallion. There are also bachelor herds of immature males. The zebra calving season is not so well synchronised, running from December through into the early dry season. The zebra is one of the few herbivores which successfully defends itself against predators, with groups of females especially ganging together to protect calves. As a result, both hyena and lion tend only to take zebra when hunting in a pack or pride, rather than individually. The stripes of a zebra are thought to be as an aid to individual identification and recognition at distance (since each zebra has a distinctive ‘fingerprint’ pattern). It may make them very visible during the day, but at night when most of the predation takes place, the stripes are surprisingly difficult to see.
It is impossible to visit the short-grass during the wet season without encountering huge numbers of vultures. They are statistically the greatest consumer of the great mobile meat supply.
The vulture has one specific advantage – that it uses less than 5% of the energy of its land-based competitors in covering the ground to reach the herds. This means not only that the vulture can travel huge distances to find the herds and its next square meal, but that it can actually afford to live in one place and commute to work.
Throughout the wet season, the cliff-nesting Ruppell’s Griffon vulture travels daily from its roost in the Okarien Gorge area of the Gol Mountains to the southern plains to feed – a round trip of up to 200km. This is a time of plenty for it too, with lots of wildebeest carcasses from which to scavenge. With each mating pair of vultures raising just one chick, the parents share the load of feeding by flying alternate missions over to the plains and back. This is a very successful way of life and the Griffon vultures of Olkarien enjoy a nearly 100% success rate in rearing their young.
Tidying up after the enormous dung-making machine that is the migration are great armies of recyclers. Flies, termite and worms. Thousands of different types of insects, all with their own specialist areas of waste management. The Dung Beetle There is also plenty of raw material available for the dung-beetle. If you stop at almost any mound of fresh dung you should be able to find these guys at work. They range in size from about 1cm to 7cm in length, with the dung balls that they roll up being about twice the beetle’s body-length in diameter. Some of these beetles bury their ball underneath the pile, whilst others roll it down a hole which it also excavates, to a depth of about 20cm. The female lays an egg at the centre of the ball and when the larvae hatch, they feed off the dung until they are ready to metamorphose into an adult beetle. There have been over 100 different species of dung-beetle identified on the plains alone, each specialising in a different type of dung … elephant, zebra, wildebeest etc. Real connoisseurs they are.
Also part of this re-cycling army are the termites. They are not usually so much interested in dung as raw plant material, which they carry back to their cities. A termite mound is an engineering masterpiece, full of specialist chambers, passageways and ducts. The tall towers act as chimneys, drawing cool, moist air from the soil to air-condition the lower layers of the nest. Deep in the bowels of the city, perhaps a metre below the surface, the queen pumps out 100 eggs per hour for perhaps 20 years. Never stopping, she might produce 175 million progeny, each of which has a pre-programmed professions as a nurse, soldier, cleaner, forager or builder. Only a few are reproductively active and will sprout wings and fly to start a new colony. Termites are unable to digest the raw plant matter that they gather and need help. To this end, they actually cultivate a specific fungus in gardens in the lower chambers of their mound. They then crop and distribute the disintegrated vegetable smatter from the garden as it become palatable to them. Cheetah and topi are particularly partial to using termite mounds as lookout stations.
During the dry season, from June through to November (and even right through into January some years), the short-grass plains are apparently devoid of life. Some specialists remain … Some Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelles remain in the area and are able to sustain themselves by living only off moisture drawn from the small plants they eat. The rarely sighted oryx, which occasionally comes down from the hills, is also adept at this same survival technique.
Other specialists which scrape a living in this harsh environment include aardwolves, aardvarks and pangolins all of which are nocturnal and rarely seen out of their burrows during the day. Around the Olduvai area, giraffes remain throughout the dry season, as do vervet monkeys. Cheetah too usually remains in the area, although may move off under extreme drought conditions. At Ndutu, elephants often come into Lake Masek in the very driest part of the season and there are also resident lion, leopard and cheetah, as well as giraffe and vervet monkeys.
We have started up this section by relating some of our own personal experiences of game-viewing in this particular area. Please send in accounts of your most interesting sightings for inclusion and be as detailed as you can on identifications, times, dates etc. We want to turn this into a genuinely useful and entertaining resource: email@example.com
One of the animal encounters that always sticks in the mind in this area are the genets which inhabit the lodges at both Olduvai and Ndutu. These cat-like mongooses easily become acclimatised to humans and have taken to visiting tables in search of tit-bits. Feeding wild animals is obviously not encouraged in the park, but it is hard to resist these cute little chaps. At Ndutu there are now around half a dozen animals regularly visiting. Early 2001 there was only one small female at Olduvai (named Jackson), but in March she turned up with a new boyfriend and in September guests were treated to the first public appearance of junior … Greg (ATR staff)
In June 2001, we were pulling into Olduvai Camp at last light when we came across a huge herd of giraffe. Somehow in the half-light, the whole scene suddenly seemed a bit like some kind of bad dream
… Nick (Tranquil Journeys staff)
In September 2001, we were driving across the short-grass near the Ndutu turnoff when we saw a couple of ears sticking up from the dry grass. As we came to a stop a large female hyena popped up, followed a few seconds later by a youngster of perhaps three months. As soon as the little one set eyes on us it jumped in the air and turned tail, running off at full speed. The tired old mother shouted for him to stop, but he was out of there and she watched very wistfully as he disappeared towards the horizon, perhaps two kilometres away. You could tell that this whole child-rearing thing was really starting to get her down … Tony (Tranquil Journeys staff)
In October 2001, after a recce trip from Olduvai to the Gol Mountains, we returned to find three cheetahs near the camp. This mother and her two nearly adult male offspring are well known to us, being resident in the Olduvai area, but we were nonetheless excited to see them again. We raced back into camp in order to tell the others, but when we got there we found everyone to be strangely disinterested. As it turned out, the safari that had been out all day in a big loop around central and southern Serengeti had seen over 100 lions, 6 leopards and 23 cheetahs. This must be some kind of record … made possible by the acute shortage of water driving all the cats to the rivers
… Greg (Tranquil Journeys staff)
By the end of November, the cheetah mother and her two offspring seemed to have disappeared and for six weeks there were no reported sightings. Despite her obvious good state of health, we were starting to get quite worried about her. Towards the end of December, we started to get reports of a similar cheetah group inside the crater, some 30km distant and we began to wonder if she had taken the youngsters up there to find food and to show them the location of the permanent water in the crater. Within days of the rain starting at Olduvai in January, she was back around camp. Unfortunately, none of the sightings in the crater had taken any details of her tail markings, so we were unable to confirm whether or not she had undertaken this unusual journey … Greg (Tranquil Journeys staff)
In February 2002 we received word that a Maasai from one of the villages in the Olduvai area had died of wounds sustained during a lion hunt. We were unable to corroborate this as such things are kept very secret since lion-hunting is banned by the government and the punishment for being caught is nearly as severe as the glory is great … Greg (ATR staff)
Also in February 2002 two of our guests staying at Olduvai Camp said that before they left their tent in the morning to go to breakfast they saw: wildebeest, zebra, tommies, hyrax, bushy-tailed mongoose, elephant, giraffe and cheetah … Lenny (Tranquil Journeys staff)
The short-grass plains give way to long-grass in the vicinity of the border between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park.
From here the landscape turns into the classic Serengeti scenery, with infinite flat grasslands disappearing off to the horizon, marked here and there with little outcrops of weather-beaten domed rocks, known as kopjes.
This long-grass is not particularly good for grazing and the animals of the migration much prefer the short-grass to the south, moving on to here only after the grazing there has been exhausted. This means that the migration tends to move through this area rather than stay here for a prolonged period, except in periods where there is no better grazing available elsewhere.
The long grass also makes the herbivores nervous as it provides excellent cover for predators.
Like the Short-Grass Plains to the south, the plains here are made up of a thin layer of soil lying on top of a tough, rock-like hard-pan. Here on the Long-Grass Plains, however, the soil is slightly thicker, meaning that longer, tougher grasses dominate. Additionally, the moisture retention is much better and the cover of grass is sustained all year round, although it does of course yellow greatly during the dry season.
Invariably described as “islands of rock in a sea of grass”, kopjes are the small, rounded rocky outcrops that litter the otherwise featureless plains. The kopjes are in fact more like “islands of rock in a sea of dust”, for these outcrops are actually the peaks of ranges of ancient crystalline hills, which were submerged by the layer upon layer of dust that was cast across the region by the volcanoes of Ngorongoro.
Whilst one can talk about the volcanoes of Ngorongoro and the rift fault being perhaps 3 or 4 million years old, the rock that forms these kopjes is more of the order of hundreds of millions of years old. The kopjes of the Serengeti are mostly made up of gneiss and granite, the remnants of ancient hills that are still eroding away. The heating and cooling of these exposed rocks by the weather makes them exfoliate or split off in concentric shells, producing these characteristically rounded forms.
The kopjes play an important part in the plains environment, providing a habitat for a range of small mammals and reptiles, as well as sustaining a variety of plant life. From the point of view of these kopje-dwelling species – life which would otherwise not exist on the plains – this is very much an island existance. Of course the main reason for keeping an eye on the kopjes is because there is a good chance that there is something up there keeping half an eye on you. Both lion and cheetah use these rocks as lookouts and as places to lie up during the heat of the day. Larger kopjes are also often used by lionesses to conceal their cubs. lioness who has concealed her cubs in a kopje
Amongst the plants of note is the wild sisal which grows around the base. A domestic version of this plant, which looks like a kind of giant, tough onion, is grown commercially for use in rope-making and used to be a huge industry before the invention of replacement man-made fibres. The Maasai name for this plant is “oldupai”, from which the gorge to the south gets its name.
The most conspicuous mammal on many kopjes is a little rat-like creature called a hyrax (also known as a dassie). There are two types here: the larger, browner one is the rock hyrax, whilst the bush hyrax is smaller and more grey in colour. The main claim to fame for the hyrax is that instead of being a rodent, as it appears, it is actually the closest living relative of the elephant and pretty close to a dugong. The two sub-species co-exist quite happily side by side but do not share their burrows, which are small enough to keep out leopards, jackals, servals and caracals, which are their main predators. There are also four types of mongoose that live around the kopjes: dwarf, white-tailed, banded and slender (black-tipped). Living amongst the rock crevices are deadly puff adders and spitting cobras, both of which will take prey as large as adult hyrax. The bright pink and blue agama lizard is also a common sight amongst the Serengeti kopjes.
Naabi is a small wooded hill which stands clear from the plains about 20km inside the park.
From across the plains, the mirages make it appear to float above the horizon. This is the location of the southern ranger post and the checkpoint for all traffic entering and leaving the park.
lone hyena with Naabi Hill beyond
About 15km to the north of Naabi on the main road are the Simba Kopjes. As their name suggests, these large monoliths are a regular haunt for lion.
Out to the eastern side of the long-grass plains are the remote Gol Kopjes. This is a famous area for cats, especially cheetah, who use the kopjes and lookouts for hunting. February is often an especially good time to head out this way to catch the cheetah tearing around after the gazelles, but really any time when the grass is not too high nor the plains too dry (see the section on cheetah below). Park regulations state that all vehicles must be accompanied by a ranger, who can be picked up at Seronera or Naabi (pay $20 direct to the ranger post). It is usually possible to pick up a ranger in Seronera and drop him back at Naabi, but not the other way round.
Lake Magadi is the only salt lake in the Serengeti and attracts flamingoes from time to time. There are also some small swamps in this area which are often visited by elephants during the wet season. The area around Moru is very beautiful and full of interest. There are some excellent campsites in this area, making it an ideal base during certain times of the year. In the vicinity, there are some ancient Maasai cave paintings and the strange Gong Rocks, which reverberate when hit with a small stone. the strange phenomenon that is “Gong Rocks”
The small track that leads south from Moru back towards Ndutu is known as Two Trees Road. This passes through the only area of the park in which there are known to be rhino. It was thought that the only rhino remaining in this part of Tanzania were the few in the crater, but these guys turned up the other year out of the blue. A rhino project is being run to protect them and it is hoped that it will soon be possible to bring some further animals from the captive breeding programme at Mkomazi to supplement their numbers. Whether you are permitted to enter and leave through the park border at this point seem to vary. There is a guard post at Ndutu where you can sometimes purchase park permits in both directions, but you should check up in advance as rules can change overnight.
One of the most impressive sights in the Serengeti comes at the beginning of the dry season in May or June when the herds make the trek from the plains up towards the woodland zones to the north. Huge columns of up to 50km in length develop as the wildebeest and zebra fall into line. This movement of the plains often coincides with the wildebeest rut (see Western Corridor section).
Spotted hyenas are the most numerous large carnivore in the Serengeti eco-system. They roam effortlessly for hours with their characteristic loping gait. Like vultures, spotted hyena have developed special ways to exploit the wildebeest and zebra migration throughout the year – the only large carnivore in the Serengeti eco-system to truly adapt their lifestyle to suit these unusual circumstances. They are not scavengers, as their reputation would have it, but efficient and deadly hunters. Serengeti spotted hyena clans defend permanent territories, signalling their location by calling, scent marking and fighting. As resident prey becomes thin on the ground within these territories, some clan members must leave to feed on the migratory herds. To do so, they may pass through potentially hostile hyena territories. By staying away from dens, commuting hyenas are allowed to lope undisturbed other territories. Travelling as much as 3-4 days on trips of 200km, this free pass is vital and ensures no unnecessary fighting. Hyena raises small families of 1 or 2 young. To care for their pups, hyena mothers travel up to three times the distance travelled by the wildebeest each year. Only the mother provides food for her young. When nursing mothers leave to feed on the distant herds, their cubs are left in the communal dens awaiting their return.
In 1998 hunting dog (African wild dog) were first reported to be back in the Serengeti after an absence of several decades. Sightings remain few and far between and should be reported to the park authorities. None of us have seen them ourselves in the Serengeti as yet, but we have heard intermittent reports from various drivers. The hunting dog is mongrel in appearance, with a mess of tan and white patches on a generally dark brown coat. It has prominent round ears. Usually living in groups of 10 to 20 animals, the hunting dog is one of the most efficient and savage hunters on the plains. They have enormous home ranges of 800 square kilometres or more and are famous for their stamina across a long distance. The pack usually hunts by simply running their prey to ground through sheer exhaustion. Unlike the hyena, the hunting dog does not leave its range to chase the migration, but instead, like the lion, it suffers a long lean season. Each pack has one breeding pair and up to 16 pups may be born in a single litter. The pups stay in the den for about 12 weeks, at which age they are able to follow the adults. Infant mortality is very high in this area as the dens often become flooded during the rainy season.
Although widely distributed throughout the park, the best location for viewing cheetah is often here on these Long-Grass Plains. Of course, the cheetah’s main weapon is its speed. Lying in ambush or slowly creeping up on prey, the cheetah will usually try to get within about 20 metres before making its move. Chases can exceed 100kph but are rarely sustained for more than about 300 metres because the cheetahs overheat at this level of activity. Because the critical element of the hunt is sheer speed, the cheetah prefers to operate during the day, when it can make the most of this advantage. They tend to hunt alone rather than in packs and as a result often end up losing their kills to hyena and lion. Unusually for cheetah, those in this part of the Serengeti do not have fixed home territories. Instead, they move with the Thompson’s gazelle, their favourite prey, back and forth between the plains (in the wet season) and the central river valleys (in the dry season). This has been a very successful move for the cheetah and the density of population in this area is the highest in Africa. As well as hunting Grant’s gazelle, a cheetah will supplement its diet with hare and impala, as well as adolescent wildebeest and topi. The females tend to be solitary, whereas the males may hang around together in groups of two or three. The young are born in a secluded nest site in litters of up to six kittens and at about six weeks old they start to accompany the mother, remaining with her for around 15 months. If you see a group of cheetah where one is larger than the rest, then this is usually a mother with almost mature offspring. The cheetah’s strategy is a high risk one and even here life is tough for them. As few as one in twenty cubs live to reach maturity, which is the lowest proportion of any large mammal in the Serengeti.
A classic sighting here on the plains, the ostrich is well-adapted to the harsh conditions of the dry season. Instead of using up valuable water in evaporative cooling cools itself out on the sun-baked plains by using its great wings to catch the breeze. Additionally, to conserve water it excretes a thick paste instead of urinating.
The ostrich is the largest bird in the world and the only flightless bird in Africa. It is a very fast runner, with a sharp change of direction and is easily able to outpace lion and hyena. The male defends a large territory out on the plains, trying to lure in a group of wandering females. The male makes a roughly scrapped nest on the ground, into which all the females lay their huge eggs. The first hen to lay then shares the incubation duties, with she taking the daytime shift and he the night. There can be over 100 eggs in one nest and any that cannot be covered by the brooders, roll off to the side an are spoiled. The eggs themelves have a shell which is extremely strong and are of a size too large for any predator to fit their jaw around to crack them. The eggs usually hatch in December or January, when flocks of up to 60 chicks can be seen being herded together by the adults.
The secretary bird, who is so-named because of the quill pens it apparently has tucked behind its ears, roams the plains in search of snakes and other reptiles, which it kills with a powerful stamp of its foot. It also eats large insects such as locusts and the eggs of ground-nesting birds.
The kori bustard is also present in large numbers.
Topi and Kongoni Antelopes: Two very similar beasts, the topi (50,000) and the kongoni (15,000) are large antelope in the hartebeest mould. They are very characteristic of the stretch of plains north from Naabi Hill and into the intermediate woodland zones. The topi are synonymous with termite mounds, which they love to stand on to see and be seen. These two antelope enjoy their success by living in the intermediate zones and intermediate times, thus avoiding direct conflict of interest with the migratory animals. Basically they just get out of the way.
Grant’s and Thomson’s Gazelles: These two gazelles migrate only around the plains. As their main form of defence is their speed, they prefer to stay out in the open. The Grant’s gazelle is the larger of the two and numbers around 30,000 in the park. The Thomson’s gazelle or “tommie” numbers 250,000, making it the second most numerous large mammal in the park after the wilderness. Both these guys master on nibbling the little stuff that other grazers leave behind and both of them can get by without needing to drink. Personal sightings We have started up this section by relating some of our own personal experiences of game-viewing in this particular area.
Please send in accounts of your most interesting sightings for inclusion and be as detailed as you can on identifications, times, dates etc. We want to turn this into a genuinely useful and entertaining resource: firstname.lastname@example.org
Two of our safaris in January 2002 reported sightings of caracal about 8km south of Naabi Hill on the main road. This extremely elusive cat is very similar in appearance to an American puma or mountain lion, but is considerably smaller, reaching only 45cm at the shoulder. It has very long tufts on its ears, like a lynx. Discussing this later around the campfire we discovered that from a combined experience of nearly 100 years on safari we only had one caracal sighting between us and that was in Zambia nearly twenty years ago. A straw poll around the driver-guides next day indicated about one sighting per Landrover per year, mainly in the Naabi, Moru, Ndutu and Lobo areas. A couple of days later we drove up and down that stretch in search of the elusive caracal, but he was nowhere to be seen … Greg (Tranquil Journeys staff)
In February 2002 we were driving north along the main road when under a solitary tree we noticed two young male lion. These were obviously two youngsters who had teamed up after being kicked out of their prides. Without a patch of their own, these homeless young males are the only lion you would expect to find out here on the plains in the dry season. Nevertheless, they looked healthy and were pretty much fast asleep, paying us little attention as we pulled off the road to take a closer look. That was until we accidentally stalled the engine. Suddenly their ears pricked up and they lolloped slowly to their feet. We sat for a moment, keen for them to approach if they wanted to, but after a while, one of them flopped back down, so we decided to head off. Needless to say, our Landy had decided we should stay on for a bit. There was nothing from the ignition but gentle tutting, which served to revitalise the lions’ interest in us and they wandered over to sniff us out. Looking a lion straight in the eye at arm’s length is a frightening thing to do, even when there is a pane of glass in between and we were pleased to see another vehicle on the horizon after a nervy ten minutes. The other driver knew exactly what to do and with no fuss, drove round to the front of us and pushed us unceremoniously back onto the road, where we bump-started in reverse before waving our thanks. As we headed off, the lion had retired back to their position in the shade, obviously a lot less put out by the little experience than we were … Greg (Tranquil Journeys staff)
The gently undulating landscape of the Seronera Valleys forms the centre of the great Serengeti eco-system. The area is the transition zone between the plains to the south and the woodland to the north. There are also several small rivers that run through these gentle valleys, lined with palms, acacia and sausage trees. The landscape of the area is in itself quite unspectacular, but it does play a vital part in the eco-system of the park as a whole, which means there are times of the year when the game-viewing is second to none, especially during the dry season. The animals of the Serengeti which migrate almost all tend to use this Central region as a kind of refuge when conditions in their preferred location become adverse. The wildebeest, for example, pass through here at least twice each year, in transit between the plain and the woodland. Around June and December Seronera can be heaving with these huge herds. The lesser migrants, including topi, and kongoni, tend to move in towards Seronera from the plains during the dry season in search of permanent water, accompanied by cheetahs, who start to find prey a too thin on the ground on the plains after July. With all the plains cheetah coming into this small area, the population density becomes higher than anywhere else in Africa. Meanwhile, also during the dry season, elephant, giraffe and buffalo come in from the woodland zone, also in search of water. With all this coming and going, added to a good complement of the resident game including warthog and impala, this is perfect territory for lion. Seronera is famous for its lion. There are around 20 good-sized prides in the area, numbering about 400 animals in total. The area is also renowned for leopard, which are numerous and relatively easily sighted.
Actually, despite all these animal highlights, Seronera is not our favourite part of the Serengeti. The primary reason for this is visitor traffic. Seronera contains the lion’s share of the accommodation within the park, with two big hotel lodges and numerous campsites. As a result, the game-viewing loops can get very busy, especially in peak seasons. There are ways to counter this, but visits during the peaks seasons need to be carefully planned.
The other reason is that there is too much building at Seronera, with over 500 residents, there are research facilities, compounds with the rusting hulks of graders and trucks, football pitches etc. Not exactly what we had in mind for our wildlife experience.
Once again, a trip to the visitor centre is not really our idea of a wilderness trip either, but we have to be realistic and accept that a park of the stature of the Serengeti must have such a facility. Actually (thanks to the Frankfurt Zoological Society) it is extremely good and some of the displays serve well to illustrate some of the contents of this guide, especially the paleontological exhibits and the cross-section of a termite mound.
Enter through the path on the right, or you will end up doing the whole thing backwards like we did first time. The section on park management helps to explain what some of those 500 people down the road are up to … it’s a hell of a job managing a park this size.
The area to the south of Seronera, down by the airstrip, is the main plains transition zone, where the plains animals retreat during the dry season in July to December. There are two small rivers, the Seronera and the Ngare Nanyuki and a number of kopje groups, notably the Maasai and Boma Kopjes. These areas are often packed with wildlife especially cats, during this season. During other parts of the year, when the migrants have moved back to the plains, the lion and other resident game remain, but become increasingly difficult to find as the grass gets longer.
Beyond this to the south-east are the Barafu and Gol Kopjes, which are described in the section on the Long-Grass Plains. This is where you need to go for cheetah during the wet season.
Beyond Seronera the landscape becomes hilly and lightly wooded. This is the woodland transition zone and the place to see buffalo, elephant and giraffe during the dry season. It is also one of the locations to look for the migration if the rains fail in November and the herds go missing in December. Also in this area is the Retima hippo pool, which is only worth visiting if you are not going to the Grumeti River at some stage, where you should get much better quality hippo sightings.
Unlike other predators in the Serengeti, lions have not adapted their normal territorial habits to take account of the migration. The lions do not migrate at all but remain on their patch, which they defend vehemently from intrusion by adjacent prides. Unlike the hyena, who grant free passage to others of their kind so long as they do not pose a threat, a lion cannot move out of its territory without encountering a serious challenge. This means that the lion of the Serengeti live through an annual cycle of times of plenty (when the migration is on their patch) and times of paucity (when it isn’t). During these lean times, lions survive on a diet consisting mainly of buffalo, warthog and impala.
This pattern means that the places where the lions do best are those locations where the migration lingers longest, coupled with the good resident game for the remainder of the year and permanent water. The place that best answers this description is the Seronera Valley and here the lion do so well that this area has the highest lion population density in the world. The more prised the area, the more vehemently the lion fight to protect it, the smaller each territory becomes – packing the lion together cheek by jowl.
The territorial aspect of lion life is a little more complicated than most animals. The prides are matriarchal groups, consisting of up to 30 animals, with the adults all being female – sisters, cousins, daughters and aunts of the matriarch. The pride has its own territory for catching prey and raising young. The females often coincide their pregnancies so that cubs come through in age groups together and cubs can suckle from any of the lactating females. If one of the lionesses dies, her cubs will be raised by the other females of the group. A lioness can have up to six cubs in a litter, but 6 from every 10 will die in the first year. The males, on the other hand, lead a less sociable life, either alone or ganged up with one or two other males. Young males are kicked out of the pride before they reach sexual maturity and can spend several years in a wandering existence, during which time they head out into the undisputed territory of the barren plains. Only once they have reached full maturity do they become powerful enough to challenge for territory. The male territories are much larger and may include several pride territories. The male will defend his right to mate with receptive females in all of the prides on his patch.
The leopard is one of the most elusive of all animals and here in Seronera is one of the few places in Africa where you can say that there is a genuinely good chance that you will see one during the hours of daylight. The leopard is a solitary creature, which guards its territory alone. It is predominantly nocturnal and is a stealth hunter. Most leopard will not go for prey unless they are within 5 metres and to get this close they need to operate under the cover of darkness. The reason you may spot a leopard here is that they tend to hang out during the day amongst the branches of the yellow-barked acacia and sausage trees along the rivers. Look out for the dangling curve of the tail. The leopard here are well accustomed to being approached by vehicles and will often allow you to get quite close, but it remains dangerous to approach a female with cubs or a mature male, which have been known to jump into vehicles to attack the occupants. If you see more than one leopard together then they are either a mating pair or a mother with siblings. A mother can have up to four cubs in a litter.
Please send in accounts of your most interesting sightings for inclusion and be as detailed as you can on identifications, times, dates etc. We want to turn this into a genuinely useful and entertaining resource: email@example.com
One of our top driver-guides, Gerry, has many good safari stories, which he is more than happy to tell around the campfire. Recently however another driver told us of a story that Gerry has been keeping a little closer to his chest … Back in September 2000, Gerry was at Seronera Public Campsite, sharing a tent with another driver and two cooks. Sometime after midnight, they woke to find the tent shaking and a high whimpering sound coming from just outside. Carefully peeling back the window canvas, they were horrified to discover that a lion cub had caught its paw in a guy rope and was struggling to free itself. The mother had heard its calls and was padding her way over. With no choice available, the four inside stood up and clustered together in the middle of the little dome tent, watching and listening as the mother got to grips with the rope. If she jerked the rope too hard it might rip the tent and leave them all standing there in their underwear. And there they stood for some hours whilst the lions struggled, played and roared immediately outside the tent. It was only later after the lions had departed when Hassan noticed that Gerry had taken his t-shirt off and was holding it by his crotch … wet. Gerry now says that he was forced to resort to this last-ditch toilet simply because they had to stand there for so long and needed to go. Surely one of our best driver-guides would not wet himself just because of a silly old lion. On another occasion in a Seronera Campsite, a big male lion walked right up to a shower block and started roaring. Gerry took his Landrover over and pushed the lion back until the passenger door was adjacent to the entrance to the shower block and called for the guests to get into the car. It was only after he had driven some distance away and parked up that Gerry noticed that some of them were sitting in the back “completely naked”.
The Western Corridor area is the long sliver of the Serengeti which stretches from Seronera out towards Lake Victoria to the West. It is generally quite an open area, with ranges of naked hills and broad plains, with patches of woodland around the bases of the hills and along the Grumeti River, which runs along the corridor for most of its length.
The Western Corridor is a remote part of the park and with just two small lodges and half a dozen campsites, you can really enjoy the solitude of the bush out here for much of the year. The exception to this is during the annual northern passage of the migration in May and June when there is often little peace and quiet to be had, as the herds grunt and rut their way through. The crossing of the Grumeti River by the migration at this time is considered to be one of the game-viewing highlights of the year in the park. It is certainly a highlight for the crocodiles.
The wildebeest leave the plains by the end of the wet season, usually in the last two weeks in May. There is not enough moisture in the soil to allow the grass to put on new growth and so the lawnmower must move on. This is by no means an orderly departure, with the herds splitting off in all directions towards the woodland transition zones. Many head up into the central Seronera area and turn the corner onto the plains of the Western Corridor, whilst others take a shortcut through the hills, following the Mbalageti River up to the far end of the Western Corridor at Grumeti. It is those herds that pass along this latter route which generally form the famous 40km tail-backs. This is the migration of visitors’ preconception. The herds are grazing all the way, wherever they can find adequate grass. This means that the front-runners, who are walking onto new pasture, can take weeks to make this passage, whereas the back-markers follow on rather faster because they are finding so little to eat. All this adds up to a bit of a traffic jam, especially when the herds hit the barrier of the Grumeti River. It should be pointed out that in a dry year the migration might skip the western corridor completely in an attempt to reach the woodland zones more quickly
Whilst this great march is underway, the annual wildebeest rut takes place. This is a spectacular display of the behaviour. The idea for both sexes is to copulate with as many partners as possible and when you have nearly a million wildebeest in this frame of mind at the same time, you cannot begin to imagine the mayhem. There can be up to 280 mobile mating territories per square kilometre. The males make a heck of a racket, calling out as they frantically gallop around, herding, chasing and mating receptive females. They vigorously defend their territories, which are about half the size of a football field, fighting head to head with their competitors. Ready to mate for less than one day, females actively seek out as many males as possible. During this short but exhausting three week period, over 90% of the cows are covered. The sights and sounds of the rut are something to behold.
When the front-runners reach the river, they do not want to cross. Typically they will turn and start to wander along the banks, usually back towards Seronera, until the southern bank of the Grumeti starts to become amassed. The crossing usually starts where another herd comes in at an angle to one of these bank-walking herds and in the ensuing collision, the first wildebeest are pushed off the edge and slip down the muddy banks into the water. Once they are in they start to swim. The pressure of the crowds from behind continues to grow and more and more wildebeest follow until they are piling into the river in a torrent. The whole thing is a terribly disorganised panic and many of them are injured or killed in the mad, trashing, trampling mess. That’s before they even get on to the crocodiles, which lunge and snap as the wildebeest cross. Also taking advantage of the confusion, hyena and lion attack the calves separated from the herds, or take those clambering up the steep muddy river banks. And as if that weren’t enough, flash floods sometimes carry away many thousands of struggling animals. The crossing takes place in many locations along the Grumeti River, both here in the Western Corridor, outside the park in the area of Fort Ikoma and right the way up into the Northern Corridor. It usually starts in the more southerly areas in late May and runs through into early July in the north, with the reluctant wildebeest having to take the plunge somewhere along the course of the river.
As if that weren’t enough peril for the poor wildebeest, those which cross in the more south-westerly locations now have a long distance to travel outside the park boundaries, before re-entering the Northern Corridor and in this area, they are under threat from hunters from the local villages. The area is quite densely populated and the villagers have to make the most of this once a year opportunity. Poachers and hunters kill tens of thousands of wildebeest each year. Little do the wildebeest realise that more torment is still to come, with the crossing of the Mara River in the Northern Corridor.
If they had a better memory, maybe they would call it a day and stop doing this migration thing altogether.
The Northern Corridor of the Serengeti runs from Park Headquarters at Seronera up to Klein’s Gate and the border with the Maasai Mara. This is no longer the Serengeti of infinite plains, but is instead a generally undulating landscape of bush and thicket, with some more open areas of black cotton soil. Around half way to the Kenyan border, the landscape opens up and the corridor becomes more apparent, with hills rising on the eastern flank.
The riverine areas around Lobo are especially beautiful and good for game-viewing. As its name implies, this area acts as a corridor for the wildebeest passing between their two main grazing areas to the north and south. The great thing about this corner of the park is that there is a good resident game all year round, mainly thanks to the presence of the Grumeti River, which rarely runs dry. There are good herds of elephant and buffalo, as well as lion, leopard and cheetah to be found. Hippo and crocodile are present along the river and there is a wide range of antelope especially topi and giraffe.
There is no cross-border access to Kenya for vehicles, so the 6km trip to the Mara from Klein’s Gate becomes a 500km round trip via Arusha and Nairobi. This is great news because the Northern Corridor remains a remote and rarely visited area. We estimate that less than 4% of visitors to the Serengeti make it up into this area of the park, which gives the place a totally different atmosphere. Here you can find yourself game-driving around the Lobo loops during the peak Christmas season and be the only car for miles around. The downside is that it is a long way to come from Arusha. The round trip amounts to about 1300km, of which 1150km is on rough roads. To do a full round-trip safari as far out as this really requires at least seven or eight days, which can start to get expensive. Most people tend to come up this way at the end of their safari, relax in one of the two good lodges and then fly back to Arusha from Lobo airstrip.
Once past Seronera, the road quickly reduces to a single track. Crossing the Orangi river, it then passes through undulating acacia woodland before passing the Kimasi Kopjes and out across the Togora Plain. The hills in this area are made up of incredibly ancient rock – between 2 and 3 thousand million years old – which contains are plenty of interesting minerals. Gold mines existed here inside the park right up until 1966. In truth it is a pretty dull drive for an hour and a half up to Lobo.
It is only as the road approaches the Lobo area that the hills close in on either side and the corridor becomes apparent. The landscape opens out to give stunning views across well-watered valleys, dotted with some of the largest kopjes in the Serengeti. The area is centred around an enormous and impressive kopje, into which is built the rather less impressive Lobo Lodge. There are several good game loops around this riverine area, which easily warrant a couple of days of game-viewing, especially in November and December.
The world “Lobo” means “solitary man” in Maasai and it is said that the area was inhabited many years ago by a single ageing warrior, who lived in the small cave on the side of the Lobo Kopje.
There is evidence of habitation in the cave, but no conclusive evidence to support the story.
Immediately to the north of Lobo, the Grumeti River runs from east to west, cutting the park in two. There are additional game loops along the river as far as Migration Camp to the west. North towards the Mara Beyond, the Grumeti are areas that are unbelievably little-visited considering that this is the border zone between two of Africa’s greatest parks. More amazing still is the realisation that this area of the Serengeti contains as much of the Mara River as the Maasai Mara itself – only this side of the border you will have the whole place to yourself, as opposed to sharing it with up to 10,000 other visitors.
Passing north from the Grumeti up to and beyond Bolongonja Gate, parts of the migration herds can usually be seen even during the peak of the dry season when tradition has it that they are all on the Kenyan side. The problem with this extreme north-western sector is that there is a problem with poaching and the park authorities do not always permit access, but those who make the effort and are successful may be well rewarded.
Following on from the descriptions of the crossing of the Grumeti River in the Western Corridor, the longer the wildebeest delay crossing the river, the further they progress in a north-easterly course along the southern bank. Eventually, the river turns due east to cut across the corridor and the wildebeest are forced to cross if they are to continue northwards. The crossing of the Grumeti River normally takes place in the area around Migration Camp towards the end of June and can last for several weeks. The southward wildebeest migration a pair of surprised zebra The southerly movement of the herds usually starts with a real flourish. As soon as the wildebeest detect the slightest rain to the south, they up sticks and head off. This is usually around the first week in November, at which time the Lobo Valley can become utterly choked with animals.
It is what happens next that is usually much more confused, because as the herds progress southwards, often the rain fails to materialise. This was certainly the case in the 2001/2 movement, when some of the herds got as far south as the plains, only to find that there was no grazing available and had to retreat. Others stopped short in the area between Lobo and Central Serengeti, preferring to weather out the lean spell in the woodland zones, where at least they could find some poor quality grazing. As the rain continued to fail to arrive, times got tougher and tougher for the wildebeest, with the young and the old starting to become sick and die. Some of the herds turned completely and headed back into the Lobo area and by the first week of January – after 9 weeks of confusion – some were even seen heading back towards Kenya. We stood on the roof of our Landrover and tried to wave them back, but it was futile. The net result was superb game-viewing at Lobo (notwithstanding the fact that the wildebeest were having a pretty tough time) and the very next week the rain broke in the south and the herds were quickly on the move again.
At last half of the total Serengeti, elephant population live in this northern section of the park and they can usually be found here along the rivers in good numbers.
In fact, the populations here have increased dramatically in recent years, as herds have moved in from less well-protected areas outside the park. This may become a serious management issue in the near future as the elephant start to have a more pronounced effect on the fauna of the park, mowing down the peripheral woodland and turning it into the savannah.
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One of my earliest and fondest memories of the Serengeti is from my first trip there back in January 1991, when up out on the Lobo South Loop we came across a pride of lion with young cubs. It was about 16.00hrs and we parked up to take a closer look. The pride was obviously starting to slowly wake up after a long day’s sleep and the youngsters were waking a great deal faster than the mothers. Soon they came bouncing over to check us out and with the mother looking on they proceeded to sniff and scratch our tyres and eventually to start to climb all over the car. One little one put his front paws right up on the door and stared me straight in the face … Tracey (Tranquil Journeys staff)
One of my greatest ever safari experiences happened in December 2001, when a group of us had the privilege of being able to look down into a python’s nest. The mother, which had been previously estimated at 5 to 6 metres in length, had given birth to what appeared to be around 50 youngsters, although it was extremely difficult to count them as they wriggled and squirmed all over each other. This photo was taken by holding a video-camera switched to night vision shoulder-deep into the nest – only after the event did we wonder what would have happened if she had decided to grab on to my arm and pull … Greg (Tranquil Journeys staff)
Also in December, we had the less pleasant sight of a young giraffe with a poacher’s noose around its neck, constricting its breathing. We reported it to the park rangers at Lobo, who assured us that they would be able to dart it and remove the wire … Greg (Tranquil Journeys staff)