Early humans evolved over 3.6 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge ("Oldupai" = Masai for sisal, an aloe-like plant used for its tough fibers), NW of Ngorongoro; the Masai have roamed the Serengeti area with their herds of cattle since about 1800, when they swept down the Rift Valley from Ethiopia. 'Serengeti' comes from the Masai word 'Siring' meaning endless plain. It is certainly that.
White hunters showed up with powerful weapons and excellent organizational skills starting around 1900. Teddy Roosevelt went on an 11-month safari after leaving the White House in 1909. He is said to have bagged over 4,000 animals. Teddy was the great Conservationist President who established America's National Parks to help preserve the American wilderness and the animals in it. You can imagine how the other hunters behaved.
The Serengeti National Park was established as a game preserve in 1921 after hunting had all but wiped out the lions. It covers some 5,700 sq. mi., 3,648,000 acres. Hunting is still allowed on the periphery. The Masai have been driven out of the Serengeti and now are restricted to the Ngorongoro Crater, allowing the Serengeti to return to its original state.
The Serengeti, with its sister park to the north in Kenya - the Masai Mara, is the only remaining place in Africa where the vast animal migrations still take place. Over a million wildebeest and a quarter million zebra and gazelle move into the southern plains for the short rains every October and November, and then swirl west and north after the long rains in April, May and June. So strong is the instinct to move that no drought, gorge or crocodile-infested river can hold them back.
Images of wildebeest crossing the Mara River give the impression of a concentrated mass of animals rushing from one place to another. The "migration", however, is much more of a lifestyle ... it is constantly happening. In February, the wildebeest give birth nearly simultaneously to reduce predation: 8,000 wildebeest calves are born every day for a three-week period. Most antelope hide their young immediately after birth, but wildebeest calves are on their feet in minutes and within two days can keep up with the herd. 25% survive to maturity; the rest keep the lions fed.
No picture that I took succeeded in capturing the vastness of the migration. We drove in through the Naabi gate in the south and within minutes were surrounded by animals. Imagine a flat, dusty but green prairie with short grass stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions (a radius of 5 miles or so, standing 15 feet high in your Land Rover; say, 80 square miles).
Spread across this landscape are wildebeest everywhere: up close they are right next to you on the dirt track; further away they become smaller and smaller dots. Zebra and gazelle share the pasture in a ratio of about 5:1. You can drive about 20 - 30 mph, and the scene barely changes for an hour: except for an occasional acacia tree popping up, there is nothing but animals grazing; everywhere.
The effect of the weather on the grass drives this behavior. In the south, Ngorongoro and its volcanic neighbors of the Rift Valley faults threw up minerals that support lactation. But the grass is only watered effectively by the short rains at the end of the year; plus, so many animals quickly eat up most of the grass in any particular area. The woodland vegetation up north is less nutritious, but more lush during the dry seasons. And so, round and round the animals go, searching for food.
In general, the predators are territorial and pretty much stay put throughout their lives. But their primary food is constantly on the move. Reptiles, crocodiles and pythons, can survive for nearly a year on a single meal, storing up a special, high-calorie fat. Lions, on the other hand, have to eat much more regularly; so, once the migration moves on, they are forced to take on much more difficult prey such as Cape Buffalo, giraffe or if really desperate perhaps a baby elephant.
Everyone comes on safari expecting to see animals, and animals there are in great profusion, but what comes as a surprise is the birds. East Africa is the destination of the migration of many species of European and Siberian birds and, of course, there are plenty of indigenous birds that stay put. And they are all putting on a display: one example is the Starling ... North America has Starlings, glimmering black, but the "Superb Starling" of Africa puts any other Starling to shame.
Plus ... Flamingos, Storks, Eagles, Pelicans, Secretary Birds, Vultures, Griffons, Ibis, Saddlebills, Weavers, Ox Peckers, Kingfishers, Sunbirds, Ravens, Cranes, Hornbills, Herons, Egrets, Ostrich, Grebes, Geese, Stilts, Bustards, Hammerkops, and on and on ... After a couple of dozen elephants, you get jaded to more elephants unless they have exceptional tusks, but the birds are always new.
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© George Fisher 1994-2004