The Great Migration in Tanzania

If you haven’t already, check out my previous post about Kenya.

Of all the countries in Africa that I have visited, Tanzania has to be my favorite for wildlife viewing. This is not only because of the high populations of many different species of animals, but also because of the relatively low tourist numbers in comparison to countries like Kenya and South Africa. In the latter two countries, whenever we spotting something interesting like a lion or leopard, there would usually be at least a dozen other trucks packed with tourists in the same spot, which took a little something away from the natural experience. However, in Tanzania (and especially in the Serengeti), our truck would often be alone with a lion or leopard or huge herd of elephants for long periods at a time. So even though the wildlife in Kenya is pretty comparable to that in Tanzania, my experience in Tanzania was more enjoyable because of the greater tranquility and the smaller human presence.

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Antelope on his tip-toes

Our first destination in Tanzania was the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is a World Heritage site and the largest volcanic caldera in the world. Formed by a huge eruption several million years ago,the Ngorongoro crater (which was supposedly named after the sound a cowbell makes) is now home to a healthy population of wildlife, including lions, rhinos, wildebeest, and zebras. One of the things that makes the Ngorongoro Conservation Area unique is that it is one of the few protected areas in Africa where humans (specifically the Maasai tribe) and animals cohabitate.

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The Ngorongoro Crater, the largest volcanic caldera in the world

Another unique feature of the Ngorongoro crater is that it is one of the best places on the world to spot the African black rhino. With only about 2500 left in the world, the black rhino is in critical danger of extinction. On our day exploring the Ngorongoro crater, we we lucky enough to spot one only about 100 yards away. Although 100 yards is generally not considered to be very close for most animals, it is for the black rhino, who is typically a very shy animal. I was able to get a good look at him using my binoculars (and my camera’s 30x zoom came in handy as well), and we stopped to watch him graze for around 30 minutes or so.

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The endangered African black rhino

After moving on from the rhino, we stopped to have lunch by a pretty lake that was infested with hippos. Usually completely submerged, every once in a while their heads would appear just above the surface as they came up for oxygen. I watched them from the shore of the lake, being careful not to fall in as I would most likely be eaten. After lunch, we spotted a pride of lions that were resting lazily under the sun. At one point, a female lion rolled over onto her back, looking very much like she wanted a belly rub. I was tempted to give her one but decided it was probably best if I stayed in the truck.

After leaving the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we took a short drive to the Serengeti National Park, which is the second largest national park in Tanzania and another World Heritage Site. The Serengeti is essentially an extension of the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya (and vice-versa), and the two combine to form the setting for the annual Great Migration of wildebeest. The Serengeti has a large population of many different kinds of animals, but in particular is known for having the highest population of lions in Africa. We definitely saw our share of lions when I visited, with a number hovering close to three dozen!

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Sunrise over the Serengeti plains

I knew that we were in for a special experience, as just a few short minutes after entering the park we spotted a rare jackal (one of two that we would see in the park). This was my first jackal sighting in Africa. Jackals are one of several species of scavengers in the Serengeti (others include hyenas and vultures), and are somewhat similar in appearance to a coyote or wolf.

Another interesting feature of the Serengeti is its prevalence of kopjes, large sedimentary rocks that were exposed from erosion of the volcanic surface rock covering much of the Serengeti. The significance of kopjes is they provide a great vantage point for predators like lions. So whenever you see a kopje, there’s a good chance that a lion might be lurking nearby. Sure enough, when passing by one of the first kopjes that we came across, there was a male lion with a beautiful mane sitting on top, scoping out his surroundings. There we no other vehicles in sight, and we sat and admired him for a long time.

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A male lion perched on top of a kopje

After finally departing from the kopje, we soon came across a large bull elephant blocking the road. He didn’t seem to be terribly thrilled with our presence, and we certainly weren’t going to mess with him. He made a few threatening sounds, which was a little bit scary since the only means of escape was going in reverse, and elephants can move surprisingly fast for their size. After a few minutes though, he turned around and went on his way. Just a few minutes later, we happened across another amazing find: a male and female lion in the middle of a mating session! They had just finished mating when we spotted them; however, mating sessions for lions tend to involve several short (i.e., 15 to 30 seconds) periods of mating, with a few minutes of rest in between. So we sat and watched while they rested, hoping they would soon be ready for another go. Sure enough, within a few minutes the male lion got up and mounted the female. Just a few seconds later, the male, apparently satisfied, yawned and walked away. It appeared their mating session was over, and least for today.

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A bull elephant blocking the road

There were still plenty of more surprises in store for us, however. After driving around searching for animals for a short while, we came across a female cheetah. But this was not just any cheetah; she was pregnant, which you could clearly see from her protruding belly. We watched as she wandered a few yards over to where her mate was resting, and she plopped down in the grass to join him.

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A pregnant cheetah

Later that day I was finally able to check off the last and most elusive member of the Big 5: the leopard. Leopards are very difficult to spot, as they are solitary animals, and rely on stealth and camouflage to catch their prey (unlike cheetahs, who can easily outrun them with their speed). This one happened to be resting high up in a tree, with a belly looking like he had recently eaten. Although he was a little bit away from the road, our driver kindly drove up close so we could get a better view. Although we only had a couple of minutes to watch (since technically you are not supposed to drive off the road in the national parks), he was a beautiful and majestic animal. At one point he used his hind paw to scratch behind his ear, which I thought was adorable and reminded me of a house cat (except much much larger). This was the only leopard that we would see on this trip (although I had seen one previously in Botswana), so I’m definitely glad that we were able to spot him.

After driving away from the leopard, I spotted a much smaller cat (just barely bigger than a regular house cat) prowling stealthily in the tall grass. This was another animal that I hadn’t seen (or heard of) before. It turned out to be a serval cat, which are very difficult to spot because of their small size and solitary nature. This one had apparently spotted something in the grass, because it stopped and sat there silently for a few seconds, watching its prey. Then suddenly it pounced, and when it came back up, it had a mouse in its mouth. Amazing! I wish I had gotten some photos or video of the kill, but it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have a chance.

Speaking of small and adorable animals, we happened across several mongoose when spotting for animals. Mongoose are very shy and easily frightened, so every time we got close to them they would run away. Also, because they move so quickly and suddenly, it’s difficult to get a good photo of them that isn’t blurry (especially with my compact point-and-shoot camera). However, at one point a few of them did stay still long enough for me to get a few good shots in.

Our first day in the Serengeti was completely action-packed and would be tough to top. However, we saw some pretty cool stuff on our second day in the park as well. Shortly after starting our first game drive of the day, we came across a pride of four lions who had just finished off a wildebeest. You could see its fresh carcass in plain sight, with the family of lions happily resting around it, their bellies full. They were clearly content, as at one point one of the female lions rolled over onto her back, wanting nothing more than to bask in the shade, and possibly have her belly rubbed (I didn’t oblige this time either of course).

Later on that day we happened to spot another lion in a tree, like we had seen previously in the Maasai Mara in Kenya. This one was a little better hidden, with only its butt showing clearly. We also saw our fair share of hyenas (at least a dozen), which seemed be out in full force this trip (unlike my previous visit to southern Africa). At one point we came across a vervet monkey, who was curiously watching us as we watched him. Finally, we spotted an adorable newborn antelope, who was trotting closely behind its mother. At one point they both stopped so that the baby could suckle some milk, and then they continued on their way. To close out an unforgettable two-day visit, we witnessed a gorgeous sunset over the vast plains of the Serengeti.

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Sunset over the Serengeti

It was sad to be leaving the Serengeti, which is probably my favorite national park in Africa. But we were headed to another (much smaller) national park, Lake Manyara, which is home to a very interesting species of monkey called the blue monkey. Although I had previously seen baboons and vervet monkeys, I had never seen (or heard of) blue monkeys before visiting Lake Manyara National Park. Blueish-grey in color, they have puffy cheeks and are somewhat shy (especially compared with baboons!). They tend to keep to themselves and do not interact with the other species of monkeys in the park. Lake Manyara is also known for its different species of large birds like egrets and storks. There were literally thousands of these birds hanging out on the lake when we visited the park. After spending a couple of hours at this small park, we headed toward our camp, which offered a fantastic view overlooking the lake.

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View over Lake Manyara

The last park that we visited in Tanzania was Tarangire National Park, known for its large population of elephants. Its reputation is well deserved; we witnessed elephants en masse during our visit, sometimes spotting herds with as many as 30 elephants at a time! As always, I enjoyed watching the baby elephants playing and rolling around in the mud. There was also one adult male elephant who seemed to really enjoy scratching his butt on the trunk of a tree! He would literally do this for minutes at a time, giving me ample time to take plenty of amusing photos and video.

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Huge herd of elephants at Tarangire National Park

At one point, there was some commotion by a swimming hole when a lion hanging out in a tree descended and came fairly close to a herd of elephants. It was interesting watching how all the adult elephants in the herd crowded around and surrounded the baby elephants to protect them from harm. While lions do not pose a threat to adult elephants, they can possibly kill a baby elephant if it is not guarded, so the adults did all they could to make sure no harm would come to their young. As the lion started to walk away from the herd, it noticed a monitor lizard hanging out by the swimming hole. As soon as the lion began to walk its way, the monitor lizard freaked out and went careening into the water!

Aside from the many elephants and the tree-climbing lions, I saw a few other interesting sights at Tarangire. First, there were two pairs of adorable love birds that looked like they were kissing in the branch of a tree. The second was the unusual looking baobab trees, which the park is also famous for. Although the trees were bare because it was the dry season when I visited, baobabs are known for having fairly short trunks and branches that spread out horizontally in order to maximize the amount of water the leaves can absorb. Finally, there were the enormous human-sized termite mounds!

As we were leaving the park on our last night, we saw one final lion sitting by the side of the road. He looked at us and then let out an enormous yawn as if to say goodbye and good night. When we arrived at our camp, we were promptly greeted by a huge wild elephant right by the entrance! He was happily thrashing around a cardboard box that someone had left there, the contents of which were long gone (or eaten). He couldn’t have been more than 50 feet away from us, which is probably the closest that I’ve been to an elephant without being inside the safety of a vehicle. At our campsite, we saw hundreds of small pudgy rodent-like creatures running around everywhere we looked. Although they vaguely resembled squirrels, these were actually hyraxes, and believe it or not, their closest relative is none other than the elephant! It’s hard to believe given the extreme difference in size, but I’m not one to argue with the taxonomist community. At any rate, these animals are very cute, and are yet another species that I was unfamiliar with prior to my visit to East Africa.

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Nap time!

The following day I would depart to Entebbe in Uganda, but the week that I spent in Tanzania was an unforgettable experience. All of the incredible nature and wildlife that I was able to witness during my brief time there make it my favorite country in Africa and one of my favorites in the world, and I didn’t even get to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. Oh well, at least I left something to experience for my return visit.

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