Between the Ngorongoro Highlands, Lake Victoria and Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya stretches one of the world’s last great wildlife refuges, the Serengeti. The name comes from the Maasai word siringet, meaning “endless plains”. The Serengeti’s 14,763 square kilometres contains about three million large animals, most taking part in seasonal migrations, which remain unparalleled in nature.
Twice a year, triggered by the rains, 1.4 million wildebeest, 300,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle gather to undertake the long trek to their new grazing lands. The migration of the herbivores roughly defines the boundaries of Serengeti National Park, which is the central zone of the Serengeti ecosystem.This ecosystem also includes Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Maswa Game Reserve to the west. Within these 25,900 square kilometres of varied landscape live thirty-five species of plains game and 500 species of bird. The endless plains of the Serengeti lie 330 kilometres northwest of Arusha.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers 8288 square kilometres and encompasses the volcanic area around the Ngorongoro Crater including the still active volcano of Oldonyo Lengai and the famous Olduvai Gorge. The area’s centerpiece, the Ngorongoro Crater, is the largest unbroken caldera in the world and it is truly breathtaking. The floor of the crater is only 100 square miles but it delineates a microcosm that is home to around 30,000 animals including a high concentration of predators.
The crater supports up to 25,000 large mammals and grazers dominate: the zebra, wildebeest (accounting for almost half the animals) gazelle, buffalo, eland, hartebeest and wart hog. Giraffe, however, stay away because there is insufficient food at tree level and topi antelope do because they compete directly with wildebeest. An odd feature of the crater elephants is that they are almost exclusively bulls. Breeding herds (a large numbers of females and young with a few attendant older males) are probably unable to find sufficient quality food in the crater.
Ngorongoro has carnivores in quantity, drawn by the large herds of prey animals. It has an extremely high density of large predators: mainly lion (about 100) and more than 400 spotted hyena living in eight clans of up to eighty individuals. Both lions and hyenas will scavenge from each other depending on weight of numbers and of course, hunger. Most of the bird wildlife in Ngorongoro is seasonal. Also influencing the variety of bird species on display is the ratio of soda water to fresh water – soda water has the largest expanse of water on the crater floor, Lake Magadi. The lake is alkaline due to deposits of volcanic ash thrown out by surrounding volcanoes.
Lake Manyara National Park is one of the smallest but also one of the most ecologically diverse game reserves in Tanzania. In many ways the tall trees surounding the ground forest resembles a tropical rainforest with its verdant foliage and variety of bird life. The difference here is that these trees are supported by a water supply from underneath rather than by abundant rainfall. Following the formation of the Rift Valley, streams cascaded down its rocky walls and because there was no outlet a lake was formed. Manyara was at its largest about a quarter of a million years ago and today the average area of the lake is around 390 square kilometres; it varies from year to year.
The lake harbours abundant aquatic life ranging from pink flamingos to elegant pelicans. The hippos are commandingly noticeable in the inlets of various rivers and streams that feed the lake with fresh water. At the far southern end of the park are some hot springs, remnants of the vulcanicity the region went through, about a million years ago. The tree-climbing lions of Manyara are extremely popular and they are known to take up their positions particularly during the dry season, on the low-lying branches of the dominant umbrella acacias.
Tarangire National Park lies about 120 kilometers south of Arusha and is one of Africa’s unknown gems. At 2,600 square kilometres, the park is hardly the biggest in Tanzania but it is easy to access and has some of the greatest concentrations of game in Tanzania – second only to the Ngorongoro Crater. Tarangire’s open plains dotted with thousands of baobab trees truly makes for an incomparable landscape. Another attractive aspect is that there are not nearly as many tourists here as in other Tanzanian parks.
Game viewing in Tarangire is largely affected by the presence of water so during the dry season many animals congregate at the Tarangire River, the park’s permanent source of water. Tarangire is also the best place in Tanzania to see large herds of elephant (up to 300 at a time) and buffalo. In fact, the game numbers overall are staggering: 30,000 zebra, 25,000 wildebeest, 5,000 buffalo, 3,000 elephant, 2,500 Maasai giraffe and over 1,000 fringe-eared oryx (gemsbok). Predators include lion (prone to tree-climbing just like their Lake Manyara cousins), cheetah and leopard. The park is also known for its great avian diversity, in which it is surpassed only by the bird life at Lake Manyara. Birders will want to look out for the endemic ashy starling, rufous-tailed weaver and black-collared lovebird.
Located in the centre of the historic triangle of Bagamoyo, Pangani and Zanzibar, Saadani National Park covers 1100 km2. It is the only wildlife sanctuary in Tanzania bordering the sea. The climate is coastal, hot and humid. It offers a unique combination of both marine and mainland flora and fauna in a culturally fascinating setting. About 30 species of larger mammals are present as well as numerous reptiles and birds. Besides many species of fish, Green turtles, Humpback whales (nyangumi) and dolphins (pomboo) also occur in the ocean nearby.
Gazetted in 2005, it encompasses a preserved ecosystem including the former Saadani game reserve, the former Mkwaja ranch area, the Wami River as well as the Zaraninge Forest. Many villages exist around the boundaries of the Park. In 1969, when Saadani Game Reserve was officially created, Saadani village elders were consulted and the loss of cultivated land was compensated for. Before being included in the national park, the Zaraninge Forest was managed by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) whose goal was to preserve the extremely high botanical diversity of one of the last coastal rain forests remaining in Tanzania. The Mkwaja area is the reminder of a large cattle ranch which has been run from 1952 to 2000. The presence of many dams and paddocks attest to the former existence of the ranch.
Embracing 54,000 square kilometres of south-western Tanzania, it is the largest protected wilderness reserve on the continent, three times larger than the Serengeti and twice the size of Belgium. Named after the legendary 19th century explorer and hunter Frederick Courtenay Selous, the reserve was founded by the German colonial administration in 1905. It was later expanded to include traditional elephant migration routes and accommodate the vast herds of buffalo that roam this remote, untouched corner of Africa. Here one can explore the sheer diversity of the landscape; from hot volcanic springs, placid lagoons and the many channels from the Great Ruaha and Rufiji Rivers which bisect the reserve, making the Selous a unique area in which to observe the full panoply of African wildlife. Most of Africa’s mammal species, from the largest to the smallest to the rarest, thrive here.
In addition there are some 440 species of birds and more than 2,000 recorded varieties of plants (with many more still to be discovered). There is no other region in which visitors can experience the pristine splendour and beauty – as well as the sense of adventure in Africa – than those like Selous enjoyed. The Selous Game Reserve has been declared a World Heritage Site, one of three in Tanzania.
For anyone seeking a true African wilderness experience, a visit to Ruaha National Park is essential. Although the second largest in Tanzania, the reserve is perhaps the least well-known and yet to connoisseurs it is without doubt one of the most spectacular in Africa.
Covering a conservation area of 10,300 square kilometers in the south west of the country, Ruaha sprawls within and along the Great Rift Valley, covering a unique transition zone where the Eastern and Southern species of both fauna and flora meet against a dramatic topographical backdrop. This is also one of the few Tanzanian parks where sightings of the rarer antelope, such as the Sable, the Roan and both Lesser & Greater Kudu, are a probability rather than a possibility. The proliferation of plains game in the park also ensures that the larger predators – leopard and large prides of lion – are unusually active. The bird life, too, is unparalleled with some 530 species recorded.
The smallest of all Tanzania’s National Parks, measuring 52 sq kilometers, Gombe Stream is a thin strip of ancient forest set in the mountains and steep valleys on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, made famous by the pioneering British researcher Jane Goodall, who spent many years observing the park’s chimpanzees. The chimpanzees are the main attraction at Gombe Stream, these remarkable mammals are as individually unique as humans and the opportunity to observe them going about their daily lives in their natural habitat is certainly an experience not to be missed.
Although the majority of wildlife to be found at Gombe Stream is primates, in addition to the famous chimpanzees, you may see olive baboons as well as vervet, blue and red-tail monkeys. Leopard and bushbuck are also residents in the dense forest, along with fish eagles and palm-nut vultures that are often seen flying overhead. Gombe Stream is the perfect place for a walking safari, allowing you to cool off along the way with a dip in one of the many streams that criss-cross the park.
Set deep in the heart of the African interior, inaccessible by road, Mahale Mountains, like its northerly neighbour Gombe Stream, is home to some of Africa’s last remaining wild chimpanzees: a population of roughly 800, habituated to human visitors by a Japanese research project founded in the 1960s. Trekking the chimps of Mahale is a magical experience.
The area of 1,613 sq kilometers is also known as Nkungwe, after the park’s largest mountain, held sacred by the local Tongwe people, and at 2,460 metres (8,069 ft) the highest of the six prominent points that make up the Mahale Range. And while chimpanzees are the star attraction, the slopes support a diverse forest fauna, including readily observed troops of red colobus, red-tailed and blue monkeys, and a kaleidoscopic array of colourful forest birds. You can trace the Tongwe people’s ancient pilgrimage to the mountain spirits, hiking through the montane rainforest belt – home to an endemic race of Angola colobus monkey – to high grassy ridges chequered with alpine bamboo. Then bathe in the impossibly clear waters of the world’s longest, second-deepest and least polluted freshwater lake – harbouring an estimated 1,000 fish species – before returning as you came, by boat.