Where else can you see 50 hippos packed into a small, dung-filled watering hole? They swish that smelly muck onto themselves to keep cool. Where else will you see a leopard lounging on the stout branch of an acacia tree, flicking its tail to keep the bugs at bay? Or a lioness chasing away the vultures and storks from a downed zebra, trying to keep a big meal for herself and her pride?
At this time last year, we saw it all as part of a trip to the Serengeti Plain – one of the natural wonders of the world – in the East African nation of Tanzania. The 3.5 million-acre national park is largely grassland with long, peaceful vistas. The Serengeti’s location, climate and disease-carrying organisms prevented homo sapiens from establishing permanent settlements there. The absence of people allowed scores of distinctive large grazing animals (and their predators) to reign in the plain.
As a result there are more than 2 million grazing animals, such as wildebeests, zebras and various antelopes, migrating through the plains in search of suitable food. As they travel along their time-tested migration routes, they pass through the territories of their predators: lions, leopards, cheetahs. Looking for leftovers from the predators’ kills are winged scavengers such as vultures and hornbills. The grazing animals are also attracted to lakes, rivers and streams, which are home to hippopotamuses, crocodiles, ibises, flamingos and other fascinating creatures.
These animals, so common to us from all the children’s books, coffee table books, television and movies, are really all there – not in some writer’s imagination or photographer’s trick. What was a bit unexpected was to see so many different animals from one observation point.
We traveled through the Serengeti and other parks and game reserves in a Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop-up top to provide unobstructed vistas. We were watching a family of elephants when a group of giraffes casually walked by followed by a herd of zebras while a flock of sacred ibises flew overhead. Which way to look and point the camera is a real problem.
Pesa, a former teacher and soccer coach with a degree in wildlife biology, served as our guide. Radio communication with other guides enabled the sharing of information about unusual sightings. This allowed us to see many animals and events that we otherwise would not have seen. Pesa’s skilled, trained eyes found owls perched in trees 100 yards away as well as snakes high in the ubiquitous acacia trees. This knowledgeable guide’s love of the park and its wild inhabitants was apparent and enriched our experience of the Serengeti.
In order to keep humans safe and to reduce disruption of the wildlife, park regulations require visitors to stay in the vehicles at all times. It was only at the lodges, campsites and a very few special places that visitors can leave the confines of the vehicle.
As a result, the animals pay little attention to the vehicles in their midst. They are just a “given” in their environment. On many occasions hyenas, giraffes, antelopes and elephants walked right past us without acknowledging our intrusion into their territory. Since there is no hunting in the park and in previous times some of the animals such as the lions were fed, much of their behavior appears to be unaffected by the traffic along the park’s roads (most of which follow old elephant trails).
On several occasions, we were within 20 feet of a pride of lions as they rested in the highly coveted shade. When our driver started the engine and slowly drove away, there was not so much as a twitching of their ears.
But all is not well in this living diorama.
This idyllic setting belies the problems that this magnificent region of the world faces. Many tribes still have rights to graze their domesticated animals on the preserves. The rapid increase in the human populations in this area commits more land for agriculture and development.
Many traditional wildlife feeding grounds are now fenced agricultural land. Poaching still occurs in many areas. Diseases spread from domestic to wild animals and back again. Crucial water sources have many demands on them.
In addition, Tanzania is a very poor country trying to keep up with the rest of the world. Tourist dollars are vital for its economy and the tourist industry is still suffering from the large decrease in the number of people traveling since Sept. 11, 2001.
Seeing the Serengeti Plains and all its zebras, wildebeests and gazelles and their predators in plain view is the thrill of a lifetime for a naturalist. It’s sobering to reflect upon the problems of the Serengeti, but it is also good to reflect on how the money spent as a tourist helps both the people and the wildlife.
Dixmont resident Dick Andren taught biology and environmental studies for just over three decades at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pa.