Safari: Part IV – Ngorogoro: a natural wildlife enclosure

Two to three million years ago, a giant Volcano – probably higher than any peak remaining on the African continent – exploded.

The human mind can surely barely fathom the catastrophic nature of such destructive force. Rock in many forms (lava, boulders, and dust measured in the millions of tons) would have been scattered for hundreds of kilometres.

The earth, underneath what had been the volcano, imploded forming a caldera (or crater-like cauldron) 610 metres deep, 19 kilometres in diameter and 260 square kilometres in area…

The steep caldera walls are twice the size of the highest cliffs in Britain (Hangman Cliffs in Devon in case you were wondering), which means that sizeable proportions of the animals that get in to the Ngorogoro Crater will never leave: this has had the effect of creating a natural wildlife enclosure.

We visited just before the rains and so unfortunately the giant salt lake inside the crater was dry and the Flamingoes were still weeks away from arriving. Nevertheless we saw large herds of Wildebeest, Common Zebra, Thompson’s Gazelle and many other species grazing the flat plains.

Most of the caldera is flat grassland, sometimes appearing bleak and deserted or just policed by an Ostrich…

The puffed-up male on the right is chasing the trespasser off his territory. We watched them run (they can reach speeds in excess of 70kph!) for a couple of kilometres or so until the victorious incumbent was satisfied that the pretender was far enough off his patch of nondescript territory and into another.

We also watched a female Thompson’s Gazelle watch us nervously with her newly-born youngster in the middle of the plains…

But much of the interesting wildlife is found around the edges where there is more varied vegetation and tree cover. As well as rare animals such as Bat-eared Fox and Serval, that I blogged about before, we saw Cheetah (rare in the caldera), and Elephants standing in the shade and giving themselves dust-showers to keep cool…

… as well asBlack-faced Vervet Monkey…

The Ngoitokitok Spring feeds an enormous swamp on the eastern side of the caldera which remains lush all year round. The black and white speck in the tree on the left in the photo below is actually an African Fish Eagle (I will show you a closer picture in a later blog)…

In the photo below, taken on the fringes of the swamp seen as a green scar on the dry yellow grassland, there are literally hundreds of living creatures including (I studied under zoom): Wildebeest, Common Zebra, African Buffalo, Thompson’s Gazelle, Warthog, Ostrich, and Coke’s Hartebeest:

There are many great species to see in the caldera, although the steep descent and lack of trees mean that Giraffe are missing (along with some other antelope such as Impala and Topi).

Such concentrated collections of ungulates (hoofed creatures including dainty gazelle and mighty elephant) inevitably attract predators. The Ngorogoro Crater is believed to have the highest concentration of large mammal predators anywhere in Africa (and I would guess, possibly, on earth). But the contained nature of the ecosystem is also a cause of problems, particularly for Lions. The Lions in the caldera have grown, and now evolved, larger than their cousins from outside of the caldera due to the plentiful supply of meat.

When a wandering male makes his way down the steep slopes to challenge the existing Ngorogoro males, the chances are he will lose any fight and be scared off back out of the caldera. Now the gene pool is becoming dangerously limited as the 80 or so Lions of the caldera are increasingly in-bred. We watched the lone female below eating from a Common Zebra carcass. Perhaps she is elderly or injured as the pride were not with her and probably hunt better without her slowing them down:

The Ngorogoro is a truly incredible wild place, but we should not be fooled into thinking that all is completely well in what may appear to be a natural Eden.

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