The Serengeti ecosystem is a geographical region in Africa. It is located in north Tanzania and extends to south-western Kenyabetween latitudes 1 and 3 S and longitudes 34 and 36 E. It spans some 30,000 km2 (12,000 sq mi). The Kenyan part of the Serengeti is known as Maasai (Masai) Mara.
The Serengeti hosts the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, which helps secure it as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world. The Serengeti is also renowned for its large lion population and is one of the best places to observe prides in their natural environment. The region contains the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and several game reserves.
Approximately 70 larger mammal and some 500 avifauna species are found there. This high diversity in terms of species is a function of diverse habitats ranging from riverine forests, swamps, kopjes, grasslands and woodlands. Blue wildebeests, gazelles, zebras and buffalos are some of the commonly found large mammals in the region.
Currently there is controversy surrounding a proposed road that is to be built through the Serengeti. Serengeti is derived from the Maasai language, Maa; specifically, “Serengit” meaning “Endless Plains”.
Much of the Serengeti was known to outsiders as Maasailand. The Maasai are known as fierce warriors, and live alongside most wild animals with an aversion to eating game and birds, subsisting exclusively on their cattle. Historically, their strength and reputation kept the newly arrived Europeans from exploiting the animals and resources of most of their land. A rinderpest epidemic and drought during the 1890s greatly reduced the numbers of both Maasai and animal populations. The Tanzanian government later in the 20th century re-settled the Maasai around the Ngorongoro Crater. Poaching and the absence of fires, which had been the result of human activity, set the stage for the development of dense woodlands and thickets over the next 30–50 years. Tsetse flypopulations now prevented any significant human settlement in the area.
By the mid-1970s wildebeest and the Cape buffalo populations had recovered, and were increasingly cropping the grass, reducing the amount of fuel available for fires. The reduced intensity of fires has allowed Acacia to once again become established.
The Great Migration
Each year around the same time the circular great wildebeest migration begins in the Ngorongoro area of the southern Serengeti of Tanzania. A natural phenomenon determined by the availability of grazing. It is January to March when the calving season begins. A time when there is plenty of rain ripened grass available for the 750,000 zebra that precede 1.2 million wildebeest and the following hundreds of thousands of other plains game.
During February the wildebeest spend their time on the short grass plains of the south eastern part of the ecosystem, grazing and giving birth to approximately 500,000 calves within a 2 to 3 week period: a remarkably synchronized event. Few calves are born ahead of time and of these, hardly any will survive. (Estes 1992) The main reason for this being that very young calves are more noticeable to predators when mixed with older calves from earlier in the previous year, and so are easier prey. As the rains end in May the animals start moving north west, into the areas around the Grumeti River, where they typically remain until late June. July sees the main migration of wildebeest, zebra and eland heading north, arriving on the Kenyan border late July / August for the remainder of the dry season (theThomson’s and Grant’s Gazelles move only east/west). In early November with the start of the short rains the migration starts moving south again, to the short grass plains of the south east, usually arriving in December in plenty of time for calving in February.
Some 250,000 wildebeest die during the journey from Tanzania to Maasai Mara Reserve in lower Kenya, a total of 800 kilometres (500 mi). Death is usually from thirst, hunger, exhaustion, or predation. The migration is chronicled in the 1994 documentary film, Africa: The Serengeti. The second-largest is the South Sudan animal migration.
Maasailand has East Africa’s finest game areas. The governments of Tanzania and Kenya maintain a number of Protected Areas: parks, conservation areas, game reserves, etc. that give legal protection to over 80% of the Serengeti.
Ol Doinyo Lengai, the only active volcano in the area of the Serengeti, is the only volcano that still ejects carbonatite lavas. This material, upon exposure to air, changes from black to white and resembles washing soda. A thick layer of ash can turn into a calcium rich hardpan as tough as cement after being rained upon. OL Doinyo Lengai is also a Maasai holy site.
The southeastern area lies in the rain shadow of the Ngorongoro highlands and is composed of shortgrass treeless plains with abundant small dicots. Soils are high in nutrients, overlying a shallow calcareous hardpan. A gradient of soil depth northwestward across the plains results in changes in the herbaceous community and taller grass. Some 70 km (43 mi) west, Acacia woodlands appear suddenly and stretch west to Lake Victoria and north to the Loita Plains, north of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. The 16 Acacia species vary over this range, their distribution determined by edaphic conditions and soil depth. Near Lake Victoria there are flood plains developed from ancient lakebeds. In the far northwest, Acacia woodlands are replaced by broadleaved Terminalia-Combretum woodlands, determined by a change in geology.
This area has the highest rainfall in the system and forms a refuge for the migrating ungulates at the end of the dry season.
Altitudes in the Serengeti range from 920 to 1,850 metres (3,020 to 6,070 ft) with mean temperatures varying from 15 to 25 degrees Celsius. Although the climate is usually warm and dry, rainfall occurs in two rainy seasons: March to May, and a shorter season in October and November. Rainfall amounts vary from a low of 508 mm (20 in) in the lee of the Ngorongoro Highlands to a high of 1,200 mm (47 in) on the shores of Lake Victoria. The highlands, which are considerably cooler than the plains and are covered by montane forest, mark the eastern border of the basin in which the Serengeti lies.
The Serengeti plain is punctuated by granite and gneiss outcroppings known as kopjes. These outcroppings are the result of volcanic activity. Kopjes provide a microhabitat for non-plains wildlife. One kopje likely to be seen by visitors to the Serengeti is the Simba Kopje (Lion Kopje). The Serengeti was used as inspiration for the animated Disney feature film The Lion King and subsequent theatrical production.
The area is also home to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which contains the Olduvai Gorge, where some of the oldest hominid fossils are found, as well as the Ngorongoro Crater.