A million wildebeest… each one driven by the same ancient rhythm, fulfilling its instinctive role in the inescapable cycle of life: a frenzied three-week bout of territorial conquests and mating; survival of the fittest as 40km (25 mile) long columns plunge through crocodile-infested waters on the annual exodus north; replenishing the species in a brief population explosion that produces more than 8,000 calves daily before the 1,000 km (600 mile) pilgrimage begins again.
Tanzania’s oldest and most popular national park, also a world heritage site and recently proclaimed a 7th world wide wonder, the Serengeti is famed for its annual migration, when some six million hooves pound the open plains, as more than 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle join the wildebeest’s trek for fresh grazing. Yet even when the migration is quiet, the Serengeti offers arguably the most scintillating game-viewing in Africa: great herds of buffalo, smaller groups of elephant and giraffe, and thousands upon thousands of eland, topi, kongoni, impala and Grant’s gazelle.
The spectacle of predator versus prey dominates Tanzania’s greatest park. Golden-maned lion prides feast on the abundance of plain grazers. Solitary leopards haunt the acacia trees lining the Seronera River, while a high density of cheetahs prowls the southeastern plains. Almost uniquely, all three African jackal species occur here, alongside the spotted hyena and a host of more elusive small predators, ranging from the insectivorous aardwolf to the beautiful serval cat.
But there is more to Serengeti than large mammals. Gaudy agama lizards and rock hyraxes scuffle around the surfaces of the park’s isolated granite koppies. A full 100 varieties of dung beetle have been recorded, as have 500-plus bird species, ranging from the outsized ostrich and bizarre secretary bird of the open grassland, to the black eagles that soar effortlessly above the Lobo Hills.
The Maasai people had been grazing their livestock in the open plains for around 200 years when the first European explorers visited the area. German geographer and explorer Dr. Oscar Baumann entered the area in 1892. The first Brit to enter the Serengeti, Stewart Edward White, recorded his explorations in the northern Serengeti in 1913.
Because the hunting of lions made them so scarce, the British decided to make a partial game reserve of 800 acres (3.2 square km) in the area in 1921 and a full one in 1929. These actions became the basis for Serengeti National Park, which was established in 1951.
The Serengeti gained more fame after the initial work of Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael in the 1950s. Together they produced the book and film “Serengeti Shall Not Die,” an early nature conservation documentary.
As part of the creation of the park and in order to preserve its wildlife, the Maasai were relocated to the Ngorongoro highlands, a move that still elicits much controversy.
In addition to the migration of ungulates, the park is well known for its healthy stock of other resident wildlife, particularly the “big five”, named for the five most prized trophies taken by hunters:
Masai lion – the Serengeti is believed to hold the largest population of lions in Africa due in part to the abundance of prey species. More than 3,000 lions live in this ecosystem.
African leopard – these reclusive predators are commonly seen in the Seronera region but are present throughout the national park with the population at around 1,000.
African bush elephant – the herds are recovering from population lows in the 1980s caused by poaching and are largely located in the northern regions of the park.
Eastern black rhinoceros – mainly found around the kopjes in the centre of the park, very few individuals remain due to rampant poaching. Individuals from the Masai Mara Reserve cross the park border and enter Serengeti from the northern section at times.
African buffalo – still abundant and present in healthy numbers.
An impala in the park
This park also supports many other species, including the Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle, wildebeest, topi, eland, waterbuck, spotted hyena, striped hyena, baboon, impala, East African wild dog, and Masai giraffe. It also boasts about 500 bird species, including ostriches, secretary bird, kori bustards, crowned cranes, marabou storks, martial eagles, lovebirds, and many species of vultures.
Scheduled and charter flights from Arusha, Lake Manyara and Mwanza. Or Drive from Arusha, Lake Manyara, Tarangire or Ngorongoro Crater.
What to do
Hot air balloon safaris, walking safari, picnicking, game drives, bush lunch/dinner can be arranged with hotels/tour operators. Maasai rock paintings and musical rocks.
Visit neighbouring Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano and Lake Natron’s flamingos.
When to go
To follow the wildebeest migration, December-July. To see predators, June-October
Four lodges, six luxury tented camps and camp sites scattered through the park; one new lodge will be opened next season (Bilila Lodge); one luxury camp, a lodge and two tented camps just outside.