Teeming Wildlife in a Volcanic Crater
By “Awake!” correspondent in Zambia
WE GAZED from our lodge on the rim of Tanzania’s volcanic Ngorongoro Crater, at 7,600 feet above sea level. Our vision ended abruptly in a wall of mist. Our disappointment at the thought of having made a journey to this extraordinary crater to be faced with a fog was soon dispelled by our guide, Joseph. He assured us that the scene would be different when we ‘dropped down.’
To ‘drop down’ was Joseph’s way of describing a 2,000-foot descent to the volcanic crater floor. As we descended in a Land-Rover, a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the blanket of mist cleared. The sun-bathed crater lay like a huge bowl with a diameter ranging between ten and twelve miles. We were now in the midst of herds of frolicsome zebras and cavorting wildebeests. “A small herd of about 400 wildebeests,” explained Joseph. Although this was a wonder to our eyes, it was really only a small representation of the 10,000 head of wildebeests estimated to teem on the crater floor.
Grazing with the zebras and wildebeests in almost equally vast numbers were the Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles. ‘Tommies,’ as the former are affectionately called, are about the size of a goat. They have strongly marked black lateral side stripes, with tails that never seem still. Both types of gazelles provide the greater part of the meat diet of predators such as lion, leopard and cheetah, as well as of hyena, jackal and wild dog. But observing them in such profusion, one is not given the idea that they live in constant fear of the predators. In fact, we soon observed a lioness intently selecting her next meal from among a nearby herd of gazelles. The ‘tommies’ were aware of her presence, Joseph told us, as could be seen from their unusual alertness while grazing. Yet there was no sign of panic in their midst.
Our visit to this crater of wildlife gave our fourteen-year-old son a new view of that slinky animal, the hyena. As we roamed the crater floor we came upon several families of hyenas, and they had the cuddliest cubs. They were not dragging bones and bits of carcasses around, but were just basking in the sun in small family groups.
Hippos, Buffalo, Lions, Elephants
We swung down toward Lake Makat, a lake that had been adopted as the new home of a herd of fifteen hippos. When strangers approach, hippos seem to feel more comfortable in water. We were able to observe the antics of one new member of the herd only a few months old.
I can still feel the steely stare of the buffalo when I think of our visit to this crater. Large herds roam the crater floor, and a visitor may come close to them. The approach of our Land-Rover attracted their attention, and we were conscious of icy stares as they remained apparently motionless until we moved on. Weighing up to 1,500 pounds, each with massive horns, they look formidable indeed, appearing to have nothing to fear. However, four buffalo were recently reported killed by lions. Usually when lions are bold enough to approach a herd, the bulls form a ring with the cows and calves in the center and drive the king of beasts away.
Our visit to the crater would not have been complete had we not seen the king of beasts in his natural habitat. We were not disappointed. We saw lions aplenty, but they appeared to be the epitome of laziness. They seldom even roll over at the approach of a vehicle. The lions in the crater are of the black-maned variety. They are sleek and beautifully conditioned. As they hunt mostly at night and make a kill only every third day or so, the casual visitor to the crater rarely observes the lion in action.
We soon approached Lerai forest, the haunt of over two hundred elephants. In many ways the African bull elephant seems to be more deserving of the title king of beasts than the lion, from whom the healthy elephant has little to fear. However as we observed the tiny calves striding along under the lumbering body of the female, it could be appreciated that the little fellows would not survive long were it not for the aggressive adult female guardian.
Birds and People
The bird life of this crater is no less spectacular than its mammal life. In fact, few places in East Africa display such diversity and abundance of birds. Around the lake and the marshes the visitor is gratified by the sign of pelicans, ibis, egrets, herons, storks, spoonbills, bustards, secretary birds, crested cranes and flamingos. We were most interested in observing the flamingos, which obligingly take to the wing with a flamboyant display of bright pink and white feathers in response to a clap of the hands.
Wild creatures do not have the area entirely to themselves, as there are many families of the Masai tribe living in and around the crater. The Masai are pastoralists, having made the rearing and caring of their cattle their whole way of life. They seldom, if ever, hunt the game of the crater, except perhaps to protect their herds from predators.
But young Masai warriors who want to marry have been known to impress their girl friends by hunting lions with only spears. In reply to my wife’s comment about the dangers of living and raising cattle in an area so heavily populated by lions, Joseph said: “The Masai do not fear the lions; the lions fear the Masai and run away at the sight of Masai warriors armed only with spears.”
A day in Ngorongoro Crater is indeed a rewarding experience, if only to enjoy the fleeting pleasure of closeness in peaceful surroundings with these magnificent animal specimens of Jehovah’s creation.