Serengeti National Park

One of the stunning spectacles of the natural world takes place in Serengeti National Park every year when the largest group of migratory animals in the world, some 1.5 million wildebeest, trek here in search of fresh grass and water. They line up in columns up to 25 miles (40 km) long, six to 10 abreast, sometimes so close together they seem to cover the ground, leaving only the far horizon in view.

They move westward and then northward to Kenya, then back to the Serengeti again in late winter when rains return bringing water and new grass—a roughly triangular route of almost 500 miles (800 km). Here they give birth to their young. Little wildebeest are all born at almost the same time, thousands on a single morning, tottering to their feet, able to follow their mothers within a few minutes, able by midday to run after them at speeds of 30 miles an hour (50 kph).

They must not lose contact with their mothers. Only their own mothers will accept them, and numerous predators—lions, leopards, and cheetahs—are following closely to prey on orphans, laggards, and weaklings. Around the edges are groups of hyenas and wild dogs. Behind them looking for scraps and pouncing on smaller prey such as rodents, birds’ eggs, and squirrel-sized hyrax (closest relatives to the elephants) are jackals, honey badgers, and bat-eared foxes. Keeping an eye on all these are tawny eagles, huge vultures, and marabou storks (looking, as often remarked, like undertakers).

This is but a sampling of the huge ecosystem of which this U.N. World Heritage Site is a part and which includes as well several adjoining conservation areas and game reserves, notably NGOROGORO CONSERVATION AREA, Maswa Game Reserve to the southwest and Kenya’s MAASAI MARA, adjoining on the north.

Other statistics of this most famous and largest African national park, whose name in Maasai means “endless plains,” are equally impressive. There are an estimated 250,000 Thomson’s gazelles, 200,000 zebras, 1,500 to 3,000 lions, 70,000 impalas, 70,000 topis, 30,000 Grant’s gazelles, 20,000 buffalo, 9,000 elands, 8,000 giraffes, and over 350 species ofbirds. The largest cheetah population in Africa is here. In the water are massive hippos and 18-foot (5.5-m) crocodiles.

It is not without problems, from poaching for elephant tusks, rhino horns, even lion claws (for trophy and medicinal purposes) to population growth around the edges that would usurp land for domestic grazing and agriculture (the country’s overall population growth is 3.3 percent a year). A railroad has been proposed that would cut across migration routes. Black rhinos in 1970 numbered 500. Now their extinction here is feared. Elephant numbers are down to a few thousand.

But the spectacle remains overwhelming. Seeing it is to feel something of what the earth may have been before humans were here, with the overwhelming force, power, and beauty of nature operating separately from human plans and machinations.


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