Africa’s ark

Published : Jun 10, 2015 12:30 IST

The crested crown crane, the dandy of the crater.

The crested crown crane, the dandy of the crater.

Ngorongoro seems like another version of Noah’s ark. It teems with all kinds of creatures although there is no sea for a few hundred miles in any direction and the ark itself is nothing but a collapsed crater. This crater is the planet’s largest inactive, intact, unfilled caldera, formed by a volcanic explosion millions of years ago. The Ngorongoro volcano is believed to have been taller than Mt Kilimanjaro. Today, the crater is a hospitable habitat for the thousands of wild animals and birds that have made it their permanent home. Nutrient rich soil, abundant grass, and waterbodies drained by adequate streams, all situated deep inside a 2,000-foot crater which forms a natural shelter, make up the ideal environment for wildlife to go forth and multiply. Of course, where there is prey, there are also predators, but both have learnt to live with each other, guided by the delicate balancing act of Mother Nature.

This spectacular depression spread over 20 square kilometres is home to almost all species of African animals and birds, making it a natural laboratory for studying African wildlife. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area includes not only the crater but also the famous Olduvai Gorge.

We arrive at the crater in the evening, having spent a few days in Serengeti. Our campsite is on the crater rim, with a spectacular view of the caldera. Paul Roberts Shayo, our tour guide, has already pitched our tent alongside a dozen others on a grassy knoll while Suvale, our cook, gets busy in the cookhouse to rustle up those magical meals, apparently out of nowhere. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is on the highlands of the savannah and the climate is salubrious, reminding me of Ooty. As I begin my exploration around the campsite, there is all-round excitement. An elephant has made its way to the camp to drink water from the plastic tank. It yanks the lid off and drinks in deep draughts.

For those of us from India used to seeing domesticated elephants, the excitement is a little difficult to comprehend. It is only when Shayo tells me that this is a wild elephant—in fact, in Africa, elephants have never been domesticated—that I realise the piquancy of the situation. This tusker has strayed out of the crater in search of succulent leaves and water and is in no hurry to get back. He wanders around tasting a shrub here or checking out the ropes of a tent there. He seems to have quite a following; most of us are stalking him with our cameras. Perhaps he is enjoying all the attention. It is indeed a magical moment of serendipitous proximity to a wild creature, the magic heightened by a blazing western sky dripping ochre all over the horizon.

The next morning, Shayo drives us to the floor of the caldera, reached easily by a winding road. From this height, there is hardly any hint of the profusion of wildlife that roams the crater. However, all along the way down, every tree seems to host a nest or two and most of the nests have fledglings cared for lovingly by parents. A marsh eagle sits with her back to the sun, the patterns on her wings so captivating that they would put a couturier to shame. A couple of bald eagles are busy feeding a rodent to their ravenous young. A kite is returning to its nest with a small fish in its beak.

At the bottom of the crater, we drive along a pond full of what seem like black rocks. These are the backs of hippopotamuses which cluster around in large groups. Egrets and lapwings perch on their backs, feeding on the ticks and fleas that torment them. Perhaps these are the only creatures that approach a hippopotamus without fear. For, hippos are known to be the most unpredictable and dangerous animals which can charge in an instant. But the hippo is not at its strongest on land. Its spindly legs are made for swimming.

Just then, my hat flies off in a gust of wind. We have a whole day in the relentless African sun before we return to our camp in the evening. In Tanzania’s national parks, no one is allowed to alight from the vehicle under any circumstances. Ingenious Suvale, however, has a solution. He fetches an umbrella, stretches and almost hangs out of the vehicle in an attempt to retrieve the hat with the crook of the brolly. A worried mother hippo ambles out of the water with her junior sprinting behind her, their pink underbellies gleaming in the morning sun. Her body language makes her intentions abundantly clear. We abandon the hat and drive off hastily.

Shayo tells us that the only animal in the savannah even more dangerous than the hippo is the inscrutable water buffalo. It may, much like our domesticated version, look so placid that it is easy to drop your guard, but beware, it can charge without provocation. The Masais fear the buffalo the most. Lions take out their cattle but buffaloes stomp into their hamlets and gore humans for no rhyme or reason. We drive past herds of water buffaloes grazing contentedly. Every now and then, we cross buffalo skulls that have been picked clean by vultures. Nothing goes waste in the crater.

The grass on the crater floor is tall enough to hide a whole lot of creatures until you are actually upon them. A startled pair of jackals darts across your path. Warthogs scatter at the sight of the vehicle and watch you warily until you are out of sight. They have impressive curved horns on their snouts. Spotted hyenas soak in the muddy puddles and reluctantly rise and hobble out of sight. Hyenas are often opportunistic hunters. A pack can easily scare away even a cheetah from a prey it has just hunted. Zebras and wildebeest are skittish as ever, kicking up dust and bounding off at the approach of humans.

Ngorongoro used to be farmed by two German brothers, Adolph and Friedrich Siedentopf, in the early 20th century. Their cottage in the crater used to be a star attraction for hunting parties when East Africa was administered by Germany. In 1921, just before the administration of Tanganyika passed into British hands once again, an ordinance was issued to preserve the crater as a game park. Masai settlements inside the crater were moved elsewhere, and the crater itself was converted into a National Park in 1948. In 1979, it was nominated as a World Natural Heritage Site by Unesco. The walls of the East African Rift prevent animals from moving out of the crater. Thus, wildebeests, zebras, and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, which migrate in search of water in Serengeti, stay put in the crater. There are around 25,000 large ungulates and over 60 lions in the crater, but they are inbred.

Inbreeding is inevitable in a crater like Ngorongoro, which is inaccessible to the savannah animals. Even when an occasional lion strays into the crater, the resident males chase it out. No wonder the crater lions are not as healthy as those in Serengeti. Shayo tells us that the crater lions have been struck by deadly diseases. During droughts, the lions here have to deal with bloodsucking stable flies, which cause painful sores and decimate their population. Canine distemper (a viral disease) is also another cause for the drop in the lion population within the crater.

The crater is surrounded by hills and its perimeter is thickly wooded. As we zigzag through the floor of the crater, we spot a couple of lions under a shrub. Their prey being captive, they seem to have all the time in the world to sprawl and snooze. A cheetah climbs down from its perch on a knoll and goes in search of its lunch. We are told there are leopards too but do not spot any. The midday heat is beating down on us mercilessly, but Shayo is relentless, determined to show us the best of the crater wildlife. We crest a hill in search of the black rhino, but all we see are herds of elephants and waterbucks which resemble rodents.

The Lerai forest on one side of the crater is a favourite haunt of all herbivores. There are many tall fig trees in the forest which make it attractive to birds as well. This part of the crater is also home to the hartebeest, the tohe and several variations of the species which resemble Neelgai, but have distinctive colouration on their limbs. Giraffes prefer the open savannah where acacia abound, but zebras and wildebeests seem content to breed in the crater.

Some of the avian population in the crater is also captive since these are large terrestrial birds, among them the ostrich and the giant secretary bird. Endemic to Africa, the secretary bird is a large terrestrial creature which takes its name from the quill-like feathers in its crest, which are likened to the pens tucked behind the ears of secretaries in times past. We stand mesmerised as an ostrich couple shepherd their nine chicks to safety across our path. The crater is also teeming with majestic African bustards. But the dandy of the crater is the crested crane, which struts its stuff and lends a festive air to the atmosphere. Yonder, there is a neat line of flamingos on the shoreline of the Magadi lake, a salt lake into which the Munge stream drains its alkaline waters. We watch from a distance as a fox makes an unsuccessful attempt to catch one of the birds. Guinea fowl saunter in groups and scatter at the sight of the vehicle.

We spot some Masai herdsmen, who, in recent times, have been allowed to bring their cattle into the crater for grazing, but they have to exit before nightfall. But the Masai rarely venture into the crater floor, content to graze their cattle on the slopes. After all, the tall grass can hide wild dogs and spotted hyenas, which hunt in packs and can decimate an entire herd in a matter of minutes.

The Ngorongoro crater is indeed a microcosm of African wildlife where almost every species of this vast continent can be found within its confined area. Only a few animals, like the African gorilla and the chimpanzee which prefer rainforest habitats, are absent here. Yet, the very fecundity can turn into a nemesis since, over the decades, inbreeding has stunted the gene pool of the creatures that live here.

The Olduvai gorge adjacent to Ngorongoro is a remarkable paleoarchaeological site where fossilised human footprints have been found, implying that humans became bipeds several million years ago. The artefacts found in the gorge date back to about 2.1 million years to 15,000 years. The fossils found here provide a continuous record of human evolution during the past two million years. They range from remnants of Australopithecus to Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. The Ngorongoro crater itself has yielded artefacts which point to humans making the transition to iron tools from stone tools. This part of East Africa seems to have been a laboratory for life on our planet from time immemorial and continues to be one even today.

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