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Serengeti Ecosystem

If you approach the Serengeti from the south as the majority of tourists do, passing through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, you first encounter the short grass plains, which is where the name Serengeti is derived, being the Maasai word serenget, meaning endless plains. It is an apt description, a vast area with few trees. In the dry season it can appear barren and desolate, scattered with hardy gazelles under a merciless sun. However once the first rains arrive it is instantly transformed into a carpet of nutritious green grass. It is this mineral rich grass which makes the Serengeti ecosystem unique. These vast meadows of fast growing grasses, created from volcanic soil , are able to support the huge number of herbivores which return to the area around December ( depending on the rainfall) and it is here that
1 . 52 . 0 million wildebeest gather and females will give birth. An estimated 8,000 calves per day are born over a 3 to 4 week period, a true natural  spectacle.

As you head north towards central Serengeti , the short grass plains abruptly give way to the long grass plains and are dominated by rocky outcrops known as Kopjes, another feature of the Serengeti landscape.

The Seronera river is the main feature of central Serengeti and the landscape takes on a gentler feel, characterised by Acacia trees and woodlands. It is a wildlife hotspot of wide diversity with great game viewing opportunities, particularly Lion and Leopard. The river and smaller tributaries host hippos and crocodiles.

To the west are the woodlands surrounding the Grumeti river, renowned for it’s population of very large crocodiles who seasonally feast on the migrating herds as they make their journey north.

Northern Serengeti has two areas of note, Lobo on the eastern side has a beautiful landscape of rolling parkland, whilst the western side is dominated by the Mara river which flows from Kenya to Lake Victoria another obstacle faced by the migrating herds. Spectacular river crossings can be observed at certain times of year.

The Maasai Mara is the most northern part of the Serengeti ecosystem where the migration spend a couple of months, because the rain falls at slightly different times and offers the herds good grazing for a brief period before they again head for ‘home’.

Because of the topographical variety of the Serengeti ecosystem, it supports a staggering diversity of wildlife, from the obvious larger, well known African animals and birds to the myriad of smaller creatures, reptiles and insects, the trees and the grasses, all are interdependent.

Without the nutrition filled short grass plains, the huge population of herbivores could not survive, they in turn support the larger carnivores, Lion, Leopard, cheetah, hyena and hunting dogs. Then come the recyclers, from the vultures to the humble dung beetle, without whom the whole place would be a disease ridden wasteland.

Understanding and appreciating the contribution of all these creatures to the sustainability of the ecosystem is an enduring fascination.

With the global population increasing at an alarming rate the Serengeti is an important refuge where nature is the dominant force, it is beautiful, peaceful, brutal and uncompromising, it is unforgettable!

Ngorongoro Crater

Within the Serengeti ecosystem is the world famous Ngorongoro Crater, a caldera formed by the collapsed walls of an extinct volcano. On the crater floor different habitats ( Savannah, Soda lake, swamps and forest) create an Africa in miniature. It is one of the few places where you will find the severely endangered Black Rhino along with much of Africa’s wildlife. Most of the animals spend their entire lives here though some will leave and others enter. The crater walls form a stunning backdrop to your photographs. A visit to the crater will enhance your safari experience

The Wildlife

Because of it’s sheer size and different habitats , the Serengeti ecosystem supports a diverse range of wildlife. Here I will mention just some of the animals you may well encounter.

Mammals

The predators

The Serengeti is one of the best places for sighting the big cats. Lions of course are the easiest to find, they are extremely tolerant of vehicles despite being completely wild. Serengeti has the densest population of Lions to be found anywhere on Earth. The only cat that is truly social, big prides can often by observed. They are the iconic apex predator of the Serengeti.

Leopard are also here in good numbers, particularly throughout the Seronera valley. They are however more, solitary, shy and elusive than lion, most often seen lying on the branches of trees where they also stash their kills to avoid confrontation with other predators. Probably the most beautiful of cats.

Cheetah, the third of the ‘big cats’ are also here in good numbers. Longer legged and of sleeker build than the leopard, they are built for speed, out sprinting their prey, usually gazelles.

Smaller, lesser known cats also thrive here such as Serval cat, Caracal and African wild cat to name but three.

The next predator and the most successful of the ecosystem is the spotted hyena. Reviled as a scavenger, they are in fact hunters in their own right. Their distinctive calling is usually heard after dark and is one of the most evocative sounds of the African bush. In lesser numbers, the striped hyena and Aardwolf are also found here.

African hunting dogs were once a relatively common sight until their numbers were decimated by disease. In recent years however they are making a comeback due to conservation efforts.

Several species of Jackal can be easily spotted, often seen around lion kills.

There are numerous other smaller predators, including Honey badger, Bat eared fox, Genet, mongoose and more.

Ungulates

The Serengeti is home to huge populations of herbivores, dominated by the sheer numbers of Wildebeest ( at least 1.5 million )and Zebra ( at least 200,000) who because they do not compete for the same grasses, happily coexist. Zebra have better eyesight, whilst wildebeest have a better sense of smell. This cooperation helps avoid predation. Such large

populations are unique to the Serengeti and until seen the numbers are hard to comprehend.

Many species of antelope and gazelles are here in good numbers including; Eland (the largest0, hartebeest, topi, impala, waterbuck, steenbok, klipspringer, reedbuck, bushbuck and Dik Dik.

The Thomsons and Grants gazelles are numerically strong with many of the Thomsons joining the wildebeest and zebra on the annual migration.

African buffalo are evident in large herds,  providing lions with an alternative food source, particularly when the migrating animals are far away, though they are both difficult and dangerous to catch.

Other larger mammals include the African elephant, giraffe, Black Rhino, Hippo and Warthog. Of the primates, Olive Baboon and Vervet monkeys are prevalent . In the Grumeti region black and white Colobus can be seen and also in the western corridor an isolated population of Colobus  , unique to the Serengeti reside. Bush babies are also common but being nocturnal are hard to spot. Smaller mammals include Porcupine, Aardvark, Hyrax, Spring Hare and many more.

Birdlife

Serengeti hosts a large variety of bird species;
Ostrich, the worlds largest flightless bird can be seen on the open plains.
The Kori bustard, the worlds heaviest flying bird also favours the plains.

The Secretary bird, with it’s distinctive plume of feathers searching for snakes and lizards can be seen.

There are large number of eagles including: Tawny, Martial, Crown, Crested, Fish, Snake, Batuleur,  as well as Buzzards, Hawks, Falcons and Owls.

The vultures dominate the skies, there are several species in Serengeti. The lappet faced vulture is the largest, Ruppels griffon and white backed vultures are numerically strong. The other species are the white headed, hooded and Egyptian vultures. All species are responsible for recycling  carcasses which would otherwise litter the savannah.

Wading birds are abundant, including Flamingo and Storks.

Other species include:  Guinea Fowl, Francolin, Hoopoe, Rollers, Kingfishers, Shrikes, Turacos, Weavers, Plovers, Finches, Sunbirds, Starlings, Hornbills, Hammerkopf, Ducks and Geese.

Bee Eaters after finches and after Ducks and geese add … and many more

Reptiles and Amphibians.

The largest reptile is the formidable Nile crocodile, found in large numbers particularly at the various river crossing points used by the migration.

Monitor lizards are also frequently observed.

The flamboyant Agama lizard can be seen sunning themselves on rocks

Snakes are in abundance, but surprisingly difficult to spot. From large Python who constrict their prey to the highly venomous Cobras and Mambas, puff adders and Boomslang, care must be taken when on foot.

A lovely creature you may encounter is the leopard tortoise, so named because of it’s beautifully patterned shell, it is the largest of the African tortoises, mature specimens can reach over two feet in length.

At the opposite end of the scale the pancake tortoise has a ‘squashed flat’ appearance which enables it to exist in rock crevices.

Small lizards, frogs, turtles are also in abundance.

Insects and Invertebrates

As one might expect a host of insects thrive in the ecosystem, their importance as recyclers often overlooked.

The Dung beetle is amusing to observe, rolling balls of dung to a suitable burial place. The balls which are many times larger than they themselves, illustrate the determination and hardworking nature of these beetles who are vital to the sustainability of the ecosystem.

Another creature which exhibits hard work and incredible feats of natural engineering are termites. These industrious insects live in large colonies, constructing massive structures complete with air conditioning, gardens and brooding chambers. They are an important food source for many and their homes often commandeered by other animals, particularly mongoose. Cheetah regularly use termite mounds as lookout posts and resting places.

The Flora

The landscape of Serengeti is as stunningly beautiful as it’s wildlife. From the open plains and rocky outcrops to the wooded valleys dominated by several species of Acacia trees from golden grasses to flowered meadows it has a timeless quality and evocative atmosphere.

Another iconic feature of the Serengeti landscape are the granite rocky   outcrops ( known as Kopjes). These erupt from the treeless grasslands and provide a refuge for wildlife. Much favoured by lions, who can often be observed lying on the warm rocks during the day

The Serengeti ecosystem is a delicate balance of interdependency, the role of each creature readily explained. It is one of the last remaining wildernesses on Earth, where nature is the dominant force. It is a privilege to visit and immerse yourself in it’s atmosphere and beauty and help preserve it for generations to come.