The Serengeti National Park, in northern Tanzania, is an amazing natural resource that is, not surprisingly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Park occupies nearly 15,000 square kilometres that comprise treeless savannah plains and the magnificent Ngorongoro Crater (which has a diameter of 27 kilometres). At the eastern edge of the Serengeti is the Olduvai Gorge where Louis and Mary Leakey made some important discoveries of early hominid remains in the 1950s and 1960s. The name Serengeti means “wide land” in the Masai language.
The stars of the show in the Serengeti are the animals. The population includes a million wildebeest, 150,000 Thompson’s gazelles, 1,000 elephants, 7,000 giraffes and 3,000 lions, as well as 500 different bird species.
The days of big game hunting are fortunately long gone in the Serengeti, although there have been problems associated with illegal poaching of elephants and rhinos. Instead, safari tourism is now a vital source of revenue for Tanzania. The Serengeti has also been a happy hunting ground for makers of wildlife documentaries who have been able to bring to TV screens all over the world their vivid portrayals of African big cats hunting their prey, jackals and vultures performing their clean-up operations, and the lifecycles of elephants, hippos and many other species.
Much has been learned over the years about the behaviour of species because it has been possible to study them in an environment that is both natural and protected. It is now on record, for example, that hippos spend much of the day in water to protect their skins from the hot sun, but emerge at night to feed and may travel as much as ten kilometres to find suitable grazing.
Similarly, the movements of elephants have been studied closely as they migrate in family groups in search of food and water. Given that a fully grown elephant needs to eat around half a ton of vegetation every day, they can cover enormous distances in their travels, especially during the dry season.
As mentioned above, the Serengeti has not been without its problems. Economic crises during the 1970s, coupled with an increasing demand (especially in Asia) for elephant ivory and rhino horn, led to poaching on an almost industrial scale. It was estimated that at one time there were only 100 elephants left in the whole of the Serengeti, and only two rhinoceroses. Fortunately, the situation has improved since then and the populations of these two iconic species have recovered. That said, the problem has not disappeared and park rangers still need to maintain constant vigilance.
It is to be hoped that this wildlife paradise will continue for the foreseeable future to offer sanctuary to its many animal and bird species, some of which have been driven to extinction elsewhere.