Ngorongoro – Ark of Africa (2015)

Ngorongoro – Ark of Africa (2015)

Ngorongoro seems like another version of Noah’s ark. It teems with all kinds of creatures although there is no sea for a few hundred miles in any direction and the ark itself is nothing but a collapsed crater. This crater is the planet’s largest inactive, intact, unfilled caldera formed by a volcanic explosion millions of years ago.  The Ngorongoro volcano is believed to have been taller than Mt.Kilimanjaro. Today, the crater is a hospitable habitat for the thousands of wild animals and birds that have made it their permanent home. Nutrient rich soil, abundant grass and water bodies, drained by adequate streams, all situated deep inside a 2000 feet crater which forms a natural shelter make up the ideal environment for wildlife to go forth and multiply. Of course where there is prey, there are also predators, but both have learnt to live with each other, guided by the delicate balancing act of Mother Nature.

This spectacular depression sprawls across 20 square kilometres and is home to almost all species of African animals and birds, making it a natural laboratory for studying African wildlife. Ngorongoro Conservation Area  includes not only the crater, but also the famous Olduvai Gorge.


We arrive at the crater in the evening, having spent a few days at Serengeti. Our camp site is on the crater rim with a spectacular view of the caldera.  Shayo, our tour guide has already pitched our tent alongside a dozen others on a grassy knoll while Suvale, our cook gets busy in the cookhouse to rustle up those magical meals, apparently out of nowhere. Ngorongoro Conservation Area is on the highlands of the Savannah and the climate is salubrious, reminding me of Ooty.  As I begin my exploration around the campsite, there is all-round excitement. An elephant has made its way to the camp to drink water from the plastic tank.  It yanks the lid off and drinks in deep draughts.

For those of us from India used to seeing domesticated elephants, the excitement is a little difficult to comprehend.  It is only when Shayo tells me that this is a wild elephant – in fact, in Africa, elephants have never been domesticated – that I realise the piquancy of the situation. This tusker has strayed out of the crater in search of succulent leaves and water and is in no hurry to get back. He wanders around tasting a shrub here or checking out the ropes of a tent there. He seems to have quite a following;  most of us are stalking him with our cameras. Perhaps  he is enjoying all the attention.  It is indeed a magical moment of serendipitous proximity with a wild creature, the magic heightened by a blazing western sky dripping ochre all over the horizon .


The next morning, Shayo drives us to the floor of the caldera, reached easily by a winding road. From this height, there is hardly a hint of the profusion of wildlife that roams the crater.  However, all along the way down, every tree seems to host a nest or two and most have fledglings cared for lovingly by parents. A marsh eagle sits with her back to the sun, the patterns on her wings so captivating that they would put a couturier to shame.  A couple of bald eagles are busy feeding a rodent to their ravenous young.   A kite is returning to its nest with a small fish in its beak.

At the bottom of the crater, we drive along a pond full of what seem like black rocks. These are the backs of the hippopotamuses which cluster around in large groups.  Egrets and lapwings perch on their backs, feeding on the ticks and fleas that torment them. Perhaps these are the only creatures that approach a hippopotamus without fear. For, hippos are known to be the most unpredictable and  dangerous animals which can charge in an instant. But the hippo is not at his strongest on land. His spindly legs are made for swimming.

Just then, my hat flies off in a gust of wind. We have a whole day in the relentless African sun before we return to our camp in the evening.  In Tanzania’s national parks, no one is allowed to alight from the vehicle under any circumstances.  Ingenious Suvale, however, has a solution. He fetches an umbrella, stretches and almost hangs out of the vehicle in an attempt to retrieve the hat with the crook of the brolly.  A worried mother hippo ambles out of the water with her junior sprinting behind her, their pink underbellies gleaming in the morning sun.  Her body language makes her intentions abundantly clear.  We abandon the hat and drive off hastily.

Shayo tells us that the only animal in the savannah even more dangerous than the hippo is the inscrutable water buffalo. He may look placid and much like our domesticated version so much so that it is easy to drop your guard,  but beware, he can charge without any provocation.  Masais live amidst wildlife, but fear buffalo the most. Lions take out their cattle, but buffaloes stomp into their hamlets and gore humans for no rhyme or reason.  We drive past herds of water buffalos grazing contentedly.  Every now and then we cross buffalo skulls that have been picked clean by the vultures. Nothing goes waste in the crater.

Wary Warthogs

The grass on the crater floor is tall enough to hide a whole lot of creatures until you are actually upon them.

A startled pair of jackals darts across your path.

Warthogs scatter at the sight of the vehicle and watch you warily until you are out of sight. They have impressive curved horns on their snouts.

Spotted hyenas soak in the muddy puddles, and reluctantly rise and hobble out of sight. Hyenas are often opportunistic hunters. A pack can easily scare away even a cheetah from a prey it has just hunted.  Zebras and wildebeest are skittish as ever, kicking up dust and bounding off at the approach of humans.

Ngorongoro used to be farmed by two German brothers – Adolph and Frederich Siedentopf in the early 20th century. Their cottage in the crater used to be a star attraction for hunting parties during the administration of east Africa by Germany. In 1921, just before the administration of Tanganyika passed into British hands once again, an ordinance was issued to preserve the crater as a game park.  Masai settlements inside the crater have since been moved elsewhere and the crater itself was converted into a National Park in 1948. In 1979, it was nominated World Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO. The walls of the Great Rift Valley prevent the animals from moving out of the crater.

Thus wildebeest and zebra as well as Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles which migrate in search of water in the Serengeti stay put in the crater. There are around 25000 large ungulates and over 60 lions in the crater, but they are in-bred.

In-breeding is inevitable in a crater like Ngorongoro inaccessible to the savannah animals. Even when an occasional lion strays into the crater, the resident males chase them out.  No wonder the crater lions are not as healthy as those in Serengeti.  Paul tells us that the crater lions have been struck by deadly diseases. During droughts, the lions here have to deal with bloodsucking stable flies which cause painful sores and decimate their population. Canine distemper is also another cause of drop in lion population within the crater.

Yawn, Yawn

The crater is surrounded by hills and its perimeter is thickly wooded. As we zigzag through the floor of the crater, we spot a couple of lions under a shrub. Their prey being captive, they seem to have all the leisure in the world to sprawl and snooze.  A cheetah climbs down from its perch on a small knoll and goes in search of its lunch. We are told there are leopards about too, but don’t spot any. The midday heat is beating down on us mercilessly, but Paul is relentless, determined to show us the best of the crater wildlife. We crest a hill in search of black rhino but all we see are herds of elephants and waterbuck which resemble rodents.

The Lerai forest which occupies one side of the crater is a favourite haunt of all herbivores. There are many tall fig trees which make them attractive to birds as well. This part of the crater is also home to hartebeest, tohe and several variations of the species which resemble Neelgai, but have distinctive colouration on their limbs. Giraffes prefer the open savannah where the acacia abound, but zebras and wildebeest seem content enough to breed here in the crater.

Some of the avian population in the crater is also captive since these are large terrestrial birds. Ostriches and giant Secretary birds roam the crater.  Endemic to Africa, Secretary birds are large terrestrial creatures which take their name from quill like feathers in the crest which are likened to the pens tucked behind the ears of a secretary in times past.  We stand mesmerized as an ostrich couple shepherds no less than nine chicks to safety across our path. The crater is also teeming with majestic African bustards.

But the dandy of the crater is the crested crane which struts its stuff and lends a festive air to the atmosphere.  Yonder, there is a neat line of flemingos on the shoreline. This is the Magadi lake, a salt lake into which the Munge stream drains its alkaline waters. We watch from a distance as a fox makes an unsuccessful attempt to catch one of the birds. Guinea fowl saunter in groups and scatterat the sight of the vehicle.

Microcosm of Wildlife

We spot some Masai herdsmen who, in recent times, have been allowed to bring their cattle into the crater for grazing, but they have to exit before nightfall.  But the Masai rarely venture into the crater floor, content to graze their cattle on the slopes. After all, the tall grass can hide wild dogs and spotted hyenas which hunt in packs and can decimate an entire herd in a matter of minutes.

Ngorongoro crater is indeed a microcosm of African wildlife where almost every species found elsewhere on this vast continent are found within a confined area without human intervention. Only a few exceptions like the African gorilla and chimpanzees which prefer rainforest habitats are absent here. Yet, the very fecundity of the wildlife here can turn into its own nemesis since over the decades, inbreeding has stunted the gene pool of the creatures that live here.

The Olduvai gorge adjacent to Ngorongoro is a remarkable paleoarcheological site where fossilized human footprints have been found, implying that humans became bipeds several million years ago. The artifacts found in the gorge cover a time span from about 2.1 million years to 15000 years ago. The fossils found here provide the most continuous record of human evolution during the past two million years. They range from remnants of Australopiths  to Homo Habilis, Homo Erectus and Homo Sapiens. Ngorongoro crater itself has yielded artifacts which point to the transition of humans from stone tools to iron tools. This part of East Africa seems to have been a laboratory for life on our planet from time immemorial and continues to be so even today.

(Published in Frontline dated June 25, 2015)


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