On Safari: But in the Wild?

On Safari: But in the Wild?

birdonmaxWhy did the rufous-tailed weaver perch on Max’s head? Why did we see 14 black rhinos together? Why were we pinned in the crater’s only forest by over 100 elephant?

The crater has always been outside the wild. This unbelievable natural structure, the remnants of what was once the world’s highest structure ended by what must have been the most catastrophic volcanic event in the history of the planet, has always defied natural balance.

Here was where the British authorities first placed restrictions on how you could hunt. The animals were just too tame, it seemed in he 1950s. It was just too easy to shoot them.

Several times yesterday I had to contain myself from slapping the behind of a zebra, and that ridiculous opportunity has presented itself every one of the hundred times I’ve been to the crater over the last forty years.

Yet when that same zebra walks over the Senego trail out of the crater onto the Olduvai plains, it won’t let us get anywhere near him.

Wild animal behavior, like the mystical micro-climate that dances around the 1800-foot high 37-mile crater rim, defies logic in the crater. Researchers have stopped studying animals in the crater; they just don’t act normally.

But I think that’s presumptive, frankly. What I see from the crater is the more profound fact that nature is no longer in balance and hasn’t been for a long time.

When the Gibb’s guide Pascali took the kids on a forest walk a few days ago, they asked him about the elephants and school houses. He was discreet. He said yes we love the elephants, but we also have to go to school.

The last of the rare lehai, by Dan Peron.
The last of the rare lehai, by Dan Peron.
When I asked Isabelle what a farmer should do when an ele walks over his fields, and when I asked Peter and Max what a school teacher should do when an elephant destroyed his school room, their first immediate response was to “relocate the elephant.”

It’s pretty easy to explain that won’t work. Then, like the rest of the world’s scientists, politicians and lovers of animals, even these American school kids and lovers of animals throw up their hands and ask me, “So what do you do?”

Hybridization of the golden and black-backed jackal probably began here. The last of the world’s greatest elephant with tusks like they’re supposed to be, stretching from a 12-foot high eye down to the ground, will die with the last of the giant tembo in the crater.

The crater is like a wormhole into the future of wilderness. While many casual visitors see the field scientist’s Elysian Fields, it is in fact one of the most stressful places of any wilderness on earth. It’s a moment by moment documentary of the ending of wilderness.

What should we do? Do we shoo the weaver off Max’s head or give it a piece of breakfast muffin? Do we cull the elephants or let them plow down the very last of the beautiful acacia lehai, a tree like none other doomed to extinction?

Do we separate the golden and black-backed jackal the way the Bronx Zoo separates its unintended bird hybrids in the zoo?

Do we add more ranger cars to protect the “wild” black rhino, that would never have dared to stand next to another rhino except to breed but today clusters in “packs” of more than a dozen?

Do we consider, as grandpa Mort suggested in an email he sent around today, that we get rid of all the zoos?

What is to become of the wild?

I really, really don’t know. But I know in this dynamic, stressful and indescribably beautiful crater, there’s a clue. I just don’t get it, yet.

The last of the big tuskers by Steve Taylor.
The last of the big tuskers by Steve Taylor.

On Safari: Old Men Star!

On Safari: Old Men Star!

giant tuskerOf the many animal attractions in Ngorongoro Crater, to me the most precious are the giant old tuskers who will soon be gone.

We saw several of them yesterday and today during our game drives. These are very old men, likely well into their sixties, who descended into the crater during the horrible years of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s.

They came down for the natural protection that the crater afforded them from the well organized and well mechanized corporate poaching of the times that decimated Tanzania’s elephant population in less than a decade.

At the time they were no different than all the rest of the elephant; depending upon how you see it, they were the cowards or the geniuses.

In those horrible years of poaching large helicopters flew over the veld at night with spotlights and bazooka launchers. I would watch them with binoculars from my lodge balcony.

Isabelle & Max watch lions in the crater.
Isabelle & Max watch lions in the crater.
The spots would fall on the veld and a decision would be made that there were enough big tuskers, or not enough. If not enough, the spot went off and the helicopter moved off. If enough, the bazookas were fired, the nets lowered, and the ivory harvested.

It was so regular and routine that in a short time only elephants with no tusks or small tusks were left in the population. Except for the several dozen that went into the crater.

The crater isn’t a good habitat for elephant: there aren’t enough trees and bushes, it’s mostly grass. But over the years the big tuskers learned to survive on that and well after the years of horrible poaching ended, they remained down in the crater.

When finally the poaching had been controlled, other elephants began to descend into the crater as the elephant population rebounded at the same time that their habitat was diminishing.

But, unfortunately, the old men were no longer interested in the females that came down. Their genes weren’t propagated.

Most of the old men have died off, now. Only a few of the sort we were fortunate enough to see remain.

Of course our game drives in the crater included much more than these old guys. We saw a couple dozen lion and lots of cubs, dozens of hyaena, thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle; plus eland, hartebeest, baboon and many birds. A lot of the European migrants have yet to leave.

The crater never fails!

Let the Safari Begin!

Let the Safari Begin!

The safari calendar in East Africa resets each year at the end of November, and the news that has poured in from our safaris just keeps getting better and better. 2014 may be an exceptionally outstanding year for safaris!

The latest bit came from safari traveler Loren Smith traveling on a safari EWT arranged for the Cleveland Zoological Society. You can see Loren’s fabulous video above.

The first is the only disturbing one: there continue to be too many elephants, but let me get that single negative out quickly. I’ve been warning of a growing elephant conflict for more than a decade in East Africa. My blogs are replete with the problems and endless attempts at solutions.

The “elephant problem” has become a political problem in East Africa. Candidates for political office in both Kenya and Tanzania now often have planks in their platform regarding what to do about elephants.

My concern is that there will be overreach. And as I’ve often written, the exaggeration and bad analysis of the elephant poaching problem in the west isn’t helping.

But I can assure you that on safari the effect is nothing less than exhilarating as you can tell from Loren’s video. I show minute:second time points below in the video corresponding to my remarks:

Loren traveled in the last half of February, which over the last forty years of good climate statistics suggests should be much drier than shown in his first shots in Arusha National Park.

Typically the entire first half of the year is a wet season in northern Tanzania, but in February the precipitation abates at times almost completely. If you were planning your trip strictly by statistics, Loren’s video would have had little green in it.

Global warming has been changing this steadily for almost a decade, and as you can see by the green bushes, it’s not dry.

It’s hard for animals to be affected negatively by too much rain. But it definitely affects people, and that’s been one of the continuing stories in the equatorial regions of the planet as global warming progresses.

Tarangire is bit drier, which is always the case. Arusha is the wilderness around Africa’s 5th highest mountain and when it’s wet, it’s always wetter there. Tarangire is actually an ecosystem more similar to southern Africa than East Africa and is the only northern Tanzanian wilderness defined by a sand river ecology.

This lady has just eaten and washed herself off, which is why she is so close to the water in Silale Swamp. We can speculate about the three new lacerations on her hide. Two are just above her left hip and if you watch closely you’ll actually see a larger one on the far backside, middle of her left hip.

Lions gorge themselves when eating. Their very inferior molars are almost useless. They don’t chew much. They tear and swallow huge hunks of meat. A 400-pound male lion can easily chow down 70 pounds in a sitting. That extends the belly and makes it droop and is often confused in females as being pregnant.

So what caused the problem? We can only speculate but I think she was in a tussle with hyaenas, and the lacerations are the hyaena nips. In this area of the Silale Swamp there are four very grand males and for some reason they aren’t very welcoming of females. It could also have been a fight with the males.

Tarangire is actually where I think the best elephant experiences should be had, but Loren obviously had a fabulous one at nearby Lake Manyara National Park!

Notice the small tusks on this elephant, the legacy of the horrible years of elephant poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. As the video progresses we’ll see some better and longer tusks, because the elephant population is definitely on the increase and growing healthier.

Manyara was where the very first substantial elephant research was carried out in the 1950s by the famous Ian Douglas Hamilton. In those days there was no place on earth with as many and as healthy elephants as Manyara.

Junior here has a short branch in the back of his mouth. Elephant get a new set of molars about every ten years and like all good kids, he’s got to massage those tender gums!

What we see in Loren’s video is a large mass of transitory elephants: they’re moving through Manyara. They don’t live here as Hamilton’s elephants did in the last century. You can tell this by the way many multiple families are grouped together.

In a totally calm and balanced system, elephant families tend not to group. But when they’re on the move they do.

Tarangire provides a massive corridor to elephants south into central Tanzania’s great wildernesses of Ruaha and Rukwa. They move northwest from Tarangire into Manyara, and from Manyara they moved in very narrow corridors into Ngorongoro where they can then spread out widely into the Serengeti and Mara.

It isn’t that elephant are breeding so rapidly that their numbers are bulging. Poaching has been on the increase and the growth rate of the population is not high. But human encroachment is on a rapid increase, so their habitat is shrinking.

And more than ever, they have to move. Loren’s video is a magnificent documentary of this.

Until recently Ngorongoro Crater had the highest density of lion in Africa, but we need new studies since the rapid decline in lion was documented a few years ago. Even so, it is probably still one of the best places on earth to see lion.

These are two juvenile males, and despite their bravado they’re having a hard time. Look at their bellies and then look at their muddy feet. Lion like cats all over hate water.

Something was in the marsh that seemed like easy pickings, but they even missed that.

In a balanced population in the wild there are many fewer males than female lions. This is because so many young juveniles like these die of starvation. Unlike the sisters in their litter, they aren’t taught to hunt by the mothers.

But also unlike their sisters who usually remain with the mothers, the males are kicked out before they’re fully mature. A fully mature male is 50% bigger than a female, and nature’s way among lions to avoid inbreeding is to kick out the teenage males before they get as big as mom.

They have to teach themselves to hunt. Obviously enough learn, but these kids don’t seem to be doing so well. You might think what a pretty mane the one has. What I notice is their ribs and boney haunches. When the one starts to call, I think that’s a real hunger pain or possibly a pointless message to Mom for help.

The video ends in the central Serengeti and notice how wet the track is. Good for the critters to be sure. Not so good for the farmers.

Thanks Loren for an outstanding quick story of Tanzania’s wilderness in 2014!

On Safari: Obama & The Crater

On Safari: Obama & The Crater

LCinCrater.655.jun13Only a few hours before Obama arrived to cheering throngs in Dar-es-Salaam, a fast cavalcade of fancy SUVs with American diplomatic plates preceded by Tanzanian police vehicles tore through the gates at Ngorongoro where we were waiting to enter.

Nobody tears through the main gate the NCA (Ngorongoro Conservation Authority). At least not until today.

There were literally dozens of people milling around, visiting the interpretative center and the bathrooms, and 20 or more vehicles parked as their drivers were methodically processing entry in the inimical Tanzanian way, which is for far too long.

And then, whiz wham! It happened so fast I can’t even remember how many vehicles there were, but at least 4 American cars and at least as many official Tanzanian ones.

Immediately the entry gate to NCA was all abuzz:

‘No, Obama hasn’t yet arrived!’
‘Maybe it’s Bush, he’s coming too!’
‘I bet it’s Michelle!’

The best we could discern was that it is an advance team for someone. Obama has publically said he won’t be going on safari, but maybe one of the 800 other people in his entourage (almost all except aids and high government officials paying for themselves) will be. Maybe it will be Bush.

I haven’t seen such happy excitement in Tanzania for a long time. Everyone – no matter what their political persuasion – is on cloud nine as the President of the United States, and the first black one at that, visits the country.

I also happened coincidentally to be here when Bush came, and when Hillary and Chelsea actually visited the crater. Nowhere near the excitement of today’s.

It was a surprise for the Felsenthal Family safari, to be sure! I was worried they might close down the crater, which was our objective today, but my head driver assured me they wouldn’t. And then as the rumors settled into something more akin to wild speculation, the notion was that America’s Secretary of Commerce, John Bryson, would be coming in the next few days with his own larger entourage.

All I know is that someone important is coming to the crater.

We had a wonderful day in the crater, although it was disappointing as far as lions go. I usually see 20 or more lions, and we saw only 5. Luck of the wild, of course. But we did see some special things:

Baby hyaena denned rather boldly in a culvert right on the road hardly stirred as we watched them from a few feet away, except to occasionally play with a piece of grass. It’s absolutely amazing how instinct prevails overwhelmingly with the young animal that it wasn’t the least bit disturbed by our vehicles and cameras.

Baby gazelle act often similarly, and baby zebra sleep so soundly you can practically touch them.

We encountered lots of wildebeest and after thinking about it for some time it seemed to me that they were mostly mothers with yearlings … no current babies. That’s rather strange, unless they were late births last year.

Late births might not be strong enough to migrate as the rains end, so they have little options except to remain with their mothers and hope the rains are good enough even in the dry season to provide enough grass.

kidsbuyingcurio.655.jun13The rains last year were good enough, and there seem to be as many yearlings as you would expect to survive from an overall herd the size we saw today in the crater. And of course they would have no current babies because they wouldn’t have participated in last year’s rut.

We also got a glimpse of one of the literally handful of great tuskers still alive on the crater floor. Several dozen of them migrated into the crater during the years of heavy poaching and stayed here for the natural protection afforded by the crater.

The tusks we saw were long enough for the tips to cross each other, a truly amazing elephant of days gone bye. Each time I come to the crater I see fewer and fewer of them. Today, only this one.

On our way back Abby and Jake bartered with a street vendor in Karatu for some bracelets and wooden animal sculptures. The vendor had a smile that could light the heavens, and a genius way of portraying his wares.

Wearing a backpack in reverse, he stuffed the pockets with all sorts of things and walked around with everything at his fingertips!

Now onto the Serengeti! Stay tuned!

On Safari: Animal Paradise

On Safari: Animal Paradise

Mark Zmijewski & Jennifer Jones in front of a hippo pool where we had our lunch in Ngorongoro Crater.
Our game drives in Ngorongoro Crater were exceptional, but in the course of my career they always seem to be. It’s an absolute wildlife paradise.

We actually visited the park twice, because our game drive to Lake Manyara was prevented by terrible floods. But the crater although beautifully green had wonderful roads and tracks and we had no difficulty on two consecutive days.

I get very upset when I hear people say they shouldn’t come to East Africa during the rains. That’s when they should come! The first half of the year is the wet season in northern Tanzania, and this is when the migration is most easily seen, when all the baby animals are being born, and when the veld is most beautiful.

And we lucked out in spades this time. On our first day we saw 7 free-ranging black rhino, and on the second day we saw two, but on the second day we saw them up close and personal!

We saw dozens of lion. The crater has among the highest density of lion of any wilderness in Africa, probably around 100 for the 102 sq. mile wilderness.

We saw the giant eland, probably thousands of zebra and wildebeest, and likely more than a thousand buffalo.

But I was specially pleased with how close we got to some of the last big tuskers that exist on earth.

During the horrible years of elephant poaching in the 1970s and early 1980s, a group of young males with very large tusks entered the crater for protection. The geology of the crater made the corporate poaching of those years virtually impossible.

The crater isn’t a good habitat for elephant. Elephant are browsers that prefer leaves and branches and bushes, but the crater has little of that – it’s almost all grass.

But they adapted and adjusted to eating grass. And so they were saved while their cousins and siblings were decimated by poachers.

During those poaching years small tusks, or no-tusk elephants were passed over as the professionals sought the elephants with the largest tusks. Soon the global population of elephant was reduced to small tusked animals.

But the guys in the crater survived. They’re dying off, now, since they’re well into the 60s. And unfortunately, even after poaching ended, they didn’t leave the crater to mix with global herds, and the few females that now enter the crater don’t seem to interest them!

So it looks like these magnificent tusks will die when they do.

Ripped Off Paradise

Ripped Off Paradise

Paradise is being abandoned. Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, its greatest single tourist attraction and one of the most pristine areas on earth, is in the midst of a political crisis that threatens normal tourism there.

Officialdom in Tanzania is rarely much more than organized crime, but even that can be better than the mayhem currently being reported in and around the crater.

Tuesday one of the “good” committees in Tanzania’s mostly corrupt parliament called on the government for “urgent action” to resolve a crisis that jeopardizes tourism and the environment in ways we’ve seen before, and in ways that are getting tiring and tedious.

There are no principal government officials left at Ngorongoro Crater National Park. The Director, Conservator of the National Park, the Chief of Security and many important chairman of various committees have all … left. This was prompted last month when the Tourism Minister basically told them to scram:

In a diatribe reminiscent of Mitt Romney’s disavowal of Massachusetts Heath Care, tourism minister Khamis Kagasheki warned last month that Ngorongoro officials would all be sacked.

So instead of waiting to get the boot, they left with the entire wardrobe.

Two immediate problems are likely. The first is that collection of fees is turning dirty. Many driver/guides will have more trouble getting in and out of the crater without excessive bribing. The second is that the local Maasai – stressed by a couple years of near drought – will flood the crater floor with cattle and the rangers – absent of a master – will do little about this illegal action.

If the trend isn’t stopped, then it will ultimately develop into a third more serious affront to this beautiful place: Poaching. Whenever the crater loses its shawl of organization, poaching skyrockets and often organized by the rangers.

This all started several years ago when Tanzania’s president organized several NGOs to look into helping the Maasai at the crater organize their cattle farming in a better way.

Suggesting something similar to a giant co-op, the President’s plan was grand on mission and scant on details. The mission was OK: vets and stockades and abattoirs and everything else that modern cattle farming needs.

And a ton of money was thrown at the project. And it has all evaporated.

This is nothing new in Tanzania, of course, and last month’s diatribe by Minister Kagasheki suggests there’s a still in his pocket. But it’s quite unusual that such an important tourist destination would be left completely rudderless, and this is Tanzania’s main tourist destination!

It’s another woeful sign that while many of Tanzania’s African neighbors are moving steadfastly towards more modern, transparent governments, that Tanzania is still stuck in the mud of a crater rainy season.

“Paradise Lost” is not something the casual tourists visiting Ngorongoro, today, will notice. Tanzania has been so corrupt for so long that somehow it moves on in spite of it, and tourist professionals know better than any how to manage the system.

But the need for careful ecological management of the crater is real and right now is MIA. This means over time the biomass will suffer.

It’s one thing when we conservationists in Africa deal with the daunting problems of human/wildlife and wilderness/development conflicts. These are tough, real issues. It’s quite another to have to deal with the Keystone Cops in control of Ft. Knox.

War in Ngorongoro?

War in Ngorongoro?

WhoseSideEducation is fine if you’ve got something to do with it. Is there going to be war in Ngorongoro?

The great experiment known as the “NCA” in what ABC’s Good Morning America christened one of the world’s Natural Wonders is coming apart.

Most tourists know it as “The Crater.” But Ngorongoro Crater National Park is just a tiny 100 sq. mile circular caldera sunk into a much larger wilderness area twenty times as big, officially known as the NCA (Ngorongoro Conservation Area).

The crater’s unique ecology collects more water than virtually any other part of the NCA, and its deep flat sedimentary and volcanic substrata – like the Serengeti – creates areas of grassland plains perfect for Africa’s great herbivores.

So the crater itself attracts a larger concentration of animals than the surrounding NCA. But there’s plenty out there in the NCA, too, on the gorgeous highland hills that ultimately descend onto the Serengeti’s prairies. And if wildlife couldn’t flow between the sunken crater, the NCA and the Serengeti, there wouldn’t be any wildlife in the crater.

Yesterday, the Parliamentary Committee in Dar assigned to the area began moves to forcibly evict Maasai from the NCA.

It spells trouble.

Committee member Dr Raphael Chegeni claimed there were now more than 60,000 Maasai living in the NCA with “unsustainable” numbers of cattle. This is well beyond the 25,000 Maasai Parliament authorized as sustainable.

You see it was presumed that as Tanzania developed, so would Maasai, and that they would choose to abandon traditional lifestyles for modern opportunities, and so while technically their population would grow, they would leave the wilderness.

And to its credit, the Tanzanian government, Italian NGOs and even the American Peace Corps have spent years building schools and dispensaries to get Maasai healthy and educated and ready to be a bank clerk.

But graduating from primary school in Ngorongoro didn’t turn out to be the magic wand intended. There aren’t any jobs for fresh school leavers. Modern Tanzanian bank managers don’t like Maasai kids.

Tanzania is an increasingly corrupt society, its superficial democracy immune from ethnic troubles but dominated by a small cadre of rich and educated.

Maasai in the main are neither rich or educated.

Recently, actually, things looked promising. Several years ago Tanzania’s Prime Minister was Maasai, and he was a fabulous Ben Nelson! But alas, he got implicated in several huge corruption scandals and lost his job and his clout. He’s headed for jail.

Before foreign hunters or tourists there were Maasai. Maasai and wild animals have always lived together just fine. And this is the heart of Maasailand. But over the years (starting in 1921) the Maasai have been squeezed into smaller and smaller areas, reserving larger and larger areas for foreign hunters and tourists which bring in much more revenue than hut taxes.

Besides, who in their right mind would want to spend their lives in a straw hut? Chief Blackhawk was last photographed in a suit talking to President Grant!

In 1972 Maasai were bumped entirely out of what is now the Serengeti, and theoretically, out of the 100 sq. mile crater.

It was a contentious act, and the “treaty” with the Maasai allowed them to continue to live in the NCA provided they didn’t alter their lifestyles from traditional herding into, for example, planting sweet potatoes (which is exactly what many do, today). Another caveat in the treaty allowed them to bring their livestock down into the crater during times of drought.

Those concessions were clearly humane, but they have led to uninterrupted tension between the Ngorongoro Maasai and park authorities ever since 1972.

To begin with, who was going to define a drought?

Jim with Edward, 1993.
Jim with Edward, 1993.

I became quite good friends with a really sharp Ngorongoro Maasai in the 1980s who was the third most important son of the most important Maasai headman near Olmoti. When his two elder brothers died, he became the chief area spokesman.

There were several droughts during those years, and tension grew as the Maasai brought more cattle into the area. Rangers tried to evict them. Maasai are great spear throwers, but they turned out to be terrific rifle shooters, too.

Rangers and Maasai were killed in these gun battles. I remember camping with a group in Lemata on the crater rim when we were awakened by this gunfire in 1993.

My friend negotiated an end to the battles in the mid 1990s. Several Maasai, including him, were trained then hired as rangers. It was a brilliant move. Until he was killed in a war when he and other rangers were trying to evict Somali from the eastern Serengeti.

And since then, the area’s Maasai population has more than doubled.

Tanzania has some fabulous crusaders for human rights which have tried in the past to mediate between the government and the Maasai.

The Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team is among the best. But they tried and failed to mediate a dispute with Maasai in the northeast Serengeti last August, and they are now overwhelmed with work in the areas of Tanzania’s new gold mines and seem uninterested in the current dispute.

The conflict between animals and people is not the only conflict in the wilderness. The more important, and deadly, is the conflict between people and people.

Dave’s Winning Video

Dave’s Winning Video

I am sent hundreds of hours of video and thousands of photos every year, and I love watching them all. But this takes the prize!

The prize winner is by one of the nicest guys I’ve ever guided on safari, Cleveland veterinarian, Dave Koncal. He is not a photographer or cinematographer by trade, but he has acquired a necessary skill that the vast majority of travelers don’t have: patience.

Dave doesn’t take 2-3 second clips then swerve the camera around. He’s not counting the megabytes clicking through his camera chip. He stays… focused and patient and I imagine he has hundreds of hours of video that he discards.

This is one clip that’s been passed around YouTube and throughout the universe of wildlife lovers. It’s definitely one that won’t be discarded!

We were in the crater at dawn. We’d just come down from Sopa Lodge and the sun was just rising. We had hardly reached the floor and had taken a right after the ranger’s hill before coming upon this night-time kill. The lions were gone, and the birds and hyaenas were having a heyday. Obviously, the lions had gone down to the Muigie River to drink, which they have to do after gorging themselves.

Nothing particularly unusual yet. This was a Cleveland Zoo safari, and by the end of the safari we would have seen nearly 120 lions and four kills.

But Dave was… patient! And as everyone else was starting to yawn:

Lions hate birds, hyaenas and everything else that disturbs their dominion over meat. But I had never seen, and probably never will again, a scene like this!

Here’s another fabulous Dave clip. It was around 8:30a and we’d been in Tarangire since dawn, traveling the east river road down from Sopa. We saw some lions along the river and a fabulous collection of elephant where the river swings out of the swamp near the broken bridge, and it had been pretty good game viewing all around.

We were hungry for breakfast, but had to get down to the south end of the swamp before turning up along the swamp edge to the picnic site at the north end, so we had a bit of a ways to go.

I don’t think I was alone in contemplating danishes, boiled eggs, bacon, sausage, cheeses, honey and marmalades, scrumptious Parker rolls, sizzling hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate, yoghurt, lots of fresh fruit… well, you get the picture.

We were in the lead car when our track was blocked by a humongous ele. I knew that if we didn’t do something, she’d just stay there all day proving her dominance. She was just not going to move. Her youngster had just moved in front of her into the bush, and she was a proud lady. Well, as you can see, we finally made a move:

It was one of the few times on safari that Dave stopped filming! So I guess I’ll finish the story:

We forgot about the danishes.

Crater Surprise

Crater Surprise

It’s dryer than normal, and this is the driest time of the dry season. Normally, there would be around 4000 animals in the crater. Was I surprised!

The Cleveland Zoo safari went from the Serengeti to Ngorongoro, via Olduvai Gorge and Shifting Sands. We had two game drives in the crater, and they were absolutely fabulous.

I had been worried. In July the crater was already dustbowling, and we just didn’t see very much. When we flew into Ndutu for this safari, we flew right over the crater and from the sky it didn’t look promising.

Our first afternoon began at the bottom of the down road with our picnic in a lush swampy area with great birding, including grossbeak weavers and the somewhat rare crimson-rumped waxbill. We then hit the western lake track and immediately encountered quite a few wilde. I’d told the zoo director, Steve Taylor, not to expect more than 2,000 wilde. Fortunately there was a kiosk selling humble pie.

We found lion, hyaena, jackal and all the other usual suspects in numbers I hadn’t expected. But the constant numbers of wildebeest, which grew even greater the second day, was truly surprising. I studied these guys very hard and I hope I’m not just hedging my mistake, but I do think they’re 60-70 pounds underweight. What I wonder is if the crater, like Ndutu with its unseasonable although very light rains, staved the drought.

That would have kept the wilde there with the new grass. Then, as things truly did dry out completely, they would have met the real desert we saw around Olduvai Gorge, and that might have sent them back into the crater.

In any case, the highlight of the day came at the hippo pool. We were watching the big collection of hippo with relish when in the distance one of the crater’s famous tuskers could be seen in the horizon ambling towards us.

Years ago during the height of the poaching, some of the largest tusked elephant in Africa descended the crater and stayed there, despite the crater being a poor habitat for elephant. But it saved them from being poached, and today they represent some of the finest tusked elephants on the continent.

They’re very old now, of course, and dying quickly. But probably a dozen or two remain. So we watched the ele I call “Righty” come straight towards the hippo pool. He gets his name because while he sports two great tusks, the right one is much bigger.

It was a blast. Righty trounced into the pool scattering the hippo helter-skelter and starting a vocalization that was incredibly comic. When a hippo didn’t move, old Righty stuck him in the bun with his tusk. That’s all that was needed to clear a path to the delectable watercress Righty was headed for.

Gene Antonacci was in the closest vehicle, looking right over Righty. Multiple times he turned away from the incredible scene towards our vehicle, dropped his jaw and mouthed what was an unmistakable, “Wow!”

And the next morning Dave Koncal topped that! We were hardly a few minutes on the crater floor when we came upon a lion kill that had only recently been abandoned to the hyaena, jackals and vultures. We stayed long enough to watch several lionesses return, and Dave was filming it all. He has captured one of the most incredible videos I’ve ever seen on safari.

As the lionesses returned, the birds exploded off the carcass. Then, as shown on Dave’s video, one of the lioness leaped into the air. (There is great debate as to whether she leaped five feet or ten feet; I’ll say seven and a half.) She then literally wrapped the vulture under her belly and plummeted to the ground. Amazing!

All in all I figure there was around 8,000 wilde, and a total animal population approaching 10,000, or roughly half of when the crater is at its peak in March and April. That’s remarkable. Why it’s so much better now than it was hardly 8 weeks ago, I can only speculate must have something to do with erratic rains. I must have last visited the crater as many of the wilde had just left, and they’ve returned.

They don’t look so bad. They aren’t at their prime, but it’s a pretty good situation. And for us, it was remarkably wonderful!

Crater of Cats

Crater of Cats

This is not the best time to visit Ngorongoro, because so many of the animals have left during the dry season. And that meant for us, lots of cats!

Travel brochure description is a communication form that is often low on truth. And economies often motivate the travel companies to use the same description of a place – like Ngorongoro Crater – regardless of when during the year a visit might occur.

That might be understandable, given Americans penchant for exhaustive competition for the best price in travel, but once unmasked the reaction is often just as wrong. You can’t go on safari at any time of the year in East Africa and be visiting the many places you should each at their own best times.

Ngorongoro and the Serengeti have their lowest animal concentrations in the last half of the year, during northern Tanzania’s single one long dry season. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad time to go. If you also visit the places that are at their best when you go (as we did in the Mara), you’ll find that even the less-than-best times elsewhere can be lots of fun!

Many animals don’t leave. Like the cats. Our visit to Ngorongoro started as we drove up the driveway to our lodge, Sopa, on the west side of the crater. We were greeted by two young male lions walking down!

Their bellies were empty and they looked a bit disgruntled. Their new manes were yet to color, so they had an appearance almost of being angel lions! Clearly, they had been recently kicked out of their pride, and they apparently were contemplating becoming the new pridemasters of Sopa Lodge!

Our game viewing in the crater was truly wonderful. It was cat dominated, although we did see several rhinos, many resident wildebeest and had a beautiful picnic breakfast beside a lake filled with hippo. In fact, the lake was so beautifully filled with hippo that Bill tried to capture the whole scene by stepping further and further away until we had to corral him back.

Even as we ate breakfast, a cat hunt unfolded within view! We watched several females who may have been hunting zebra and buffalo that were hardly 150 meters away.

We also found one of the big tuskers near the forest, which I regret to report is diminishing so quickly that I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s gone in just a few years.

And the scenery of the crater, of course, never gives up its premier position in our memories. Chris is a painter, and her sketchbook start to fill with several pages of beautiful crater landscapes.

But the cats abound! Males on kills, females with cubs, disgruntled youngsters… it was truly a crater of cats.

Dream Crater

Dream Crater

The crater just never fails. Even now when drier than normal, we had the game drive of our lives!

As usual, we were first down. Which is a substantial effort, especially now in the cold season when three sweaters and gloves barely keeps you warm. The rim was shrouded in thick cloud and there was mist.

When we got down on the floor and headed towards the Mugie River before the ranger mound, it was still pretty dark.

I saw a lot of hyaena. Too many hyaena for there not to be a kill nearby. We moved further down the road, and hardly 100 meters of the road were nine lion in a food feast.

They had killed a young wildebeest and were dispatching it with great efficiency. One female had had her fill and walked away with blood on her chops. She got another 100m away and started to call for her cubs, who seemed to pop out of the tall grass. She took them further away.

But the remaining eight went at it with vigor. A yearling wildebeest is not enough for a pride this size, so they ate much more of the kill than they might normally. Before it was over, younger cubs were taking legs away.

Towards the end of the feast, we saw a magnificent male with a huge mane appear from the Mugie River and start towards the kill. The lions on the kill seemed nervous, and the male stopped several times, as if he were being very cautious about approaching.

At first I thought it was one of the brothers who live together near the river. If so, there would be, as Ari put it, a “rumble in the jungle.” We all got very excited, and the cubs seemed to move away from the kill as he approached.

But I was wrong. His belly was full and he must only have gone down to drink before returning. There were some grumbles, but he was licked by the youngsters that he would have killed had he not sired.

That was only the beginning of a fabulous crater game drive! I was with Nicky and Ezra. Ezra went nuts at the kill and Nicky went nuts later counting wildebeest! We saw a lot of wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, another lion with very young week-old cubs, two big tuskers and a cheetah!

The crater just never seems to fail. It’s drier than usual, as everything is, but there are good fresh water streams into the central lake. Despite it being very small, there were still flamingoes.

Our experience in Tarangire, Manyara and Ngorongoro, suggests that there were heavier than usual and later than usual rains, but that there is a still a serious deficit of rainfall over the last several years. Let’s hope it improves.

Crater Experience

Crater Experience

Good Morning America named the crater one of the natural wonders of the world, which it is without doubt. But the fulsome experience includes much more than just this indescribable beauty.

I’ve heard several experts refer to the ancient Ngorongoro volcano as the world’s tallest structure, greater than Everest. I don’t know if this is science or valid extrapolation from the awesome mountain that remains for everyone to see, today.

Now seven smaller, six dormant volcanoes, Ngorongoro’s largest imploded caldera is the national park. The 7k drive from the gate to the viewpoint is often in deep fog, but we were fortunate as it was completely clear, the afternoon light deepening the forest colors.

The crater sits like a nearly perfectly round cup in a highland rain forest salad of towering trees draped with lianas, thick flowering bushes and radiantly green vines. Some of the most precious plants on earth, including the beautiful acacia lehai (which I call the bonsai acacia) decorate the rim. Even before we stopped at the viewpoint to peer 1800′ into the crater national park, we knew we had a glimpse of the Garden of Eden.

The next morning we descended before dawn. African dawns and sunsets are equatorially unique, and I wasn’t about to have my family miss them. The crater was still lush, with pockets of water across its veld, although drying slightly right to schedule from my last visit a few weeks before.

The caldera was packed with animals. We are at the edge of the prime season, and there were probably still 17 or 18 thousand of the peak 20,000 animals found here in February and March when the wildebeest normally calve. Most of these are wildebeest and zebra, but there are eland, hartebeest, hippo, and virtually all the predators, although at last count only one leopard. That’s because the single great yellow-barked acacia forest is dwindling fast. Each time I come, the forest is thinner.

We saw four (of the estimated 18-20) black rhino, 3 (of the estimated 9) lion families, and my favorite several (of the who knows how many) big tuskers unique to the crater. During the horrible years of poaching, some of the largest tusked elephant on earth descended for its natural protection, and they’ve remained despite the containment of poaching that now exists. The crater isn’t good elephant habitat, but it was secure, and even now they won’t leave. We saw at close range one of the great masters, his turned in tusks nearly touching the ground.

Scenery and animals are the primary component of an East African vacation, I concede. But despite my clients’ protestations, so is the lodging. I do everything possible to avoid revealing component costs, because it’s a turnoff to be sure when my potential client learns that a night at Crater Lodge can cost $1000 per person.

Is it worth it? I’m not one to err on the side of a feather bed, but I’ve learned through numerous safaris that if I just bury the costs in the overall safari, that a stay at Crater Lodge becomes one of the main highlights. It was truly for my family, young and old alike. Erin Barnard, my son’s significant other, has an expressive face that beams joy with the slightest smile. I asked her why she was smiling as she walked with Brad from her “cabin.” “This is over the top,” she exclaimed.

We guides often refer to Crater Lodge as “Maasai Versailles.” It is over the top. It is over priced. The architecture is wild and uncontained. But the staff is the finest in Africa, the food and chefs probably the finest, and there’s no question as you laze in your oversize Victorian bath above which hangs a gargantuan chandelier as you look out your floor to (18′) ceiling window over the crater, that it is the perfect complement to this “over the top” natural wonder.

Fabulous Crater

Fabulous Crater

The crater never seems to fail me. But client patience made it better than ever.

We left Crater Lodge at 6 a.m. having cajoled our butlers to wake us shortly after 5 a.m. with hot drinks and the cookies of the day. It was dark until we reached the down-road gate around 6:30a.

Even on the rim road we saw game, as our Landcruisers had to stop several times for buffalo. But I could tell as we began the descent that it was going to be a good day.

The crater was beautifully green. The central lake was large and there were pockets of water all over the veld reflecting sunrise. When we got to the floor I noticed a new road into the forest and reckoned correctly that it was the newly opened bathrooms. Never pass a bathroom!

But what we found was a lot more exciting than new state-of-the-art choos. Not 20 yards away were two of the crater’s finest tuskers, one with a truly massive pair that turned back inwards like a pincer. Many of the largest tusked elephants wandered into the crater during the horrible years of poaching and never left. They found protection and today may be the largest tusked elephants left in Africa.

We immediately encountered hundreds of wildebeest, female herds with an equal number of calves and mothers. Umbilical chords shown on just a few, so I figured the birthing took place right on schedule at the end of February. Later in the day we would watch a distressed mother blarting wildly and running about as she tried to find a lost calf.

Hyaena were everywhere and many of my clients are so surprised when they see the randomly wandering hyaena, looking for everything like a simple dog on a walk. But that’s actually the way hyaenas usually behave: individually randomly walking across the veld, hoping to come upon something.

But it wasn’t too long afterwards that we saw the other side of hyaenas. Along the Mungi River we saw 8 lions on an eland kill. Now an eland weighs up to 1400 pounds. There were four mature females and four 6-month old lion cubs. It is remarkable how much meat a lion can chow down, but at most I figured the pride could consumer about 300 pounds maximum.

From the looks of the kill it had happened the day before. The lions had collapsed helter skelter with their big bellies in the grass, but one female wouldn’t leave the kill. She obviously couldn’t eat another bite, but she wouldn’t leave it to the jackals, birds and hyaenas that were circling.

They weren’t far from the river, and I’m sure they had already watered. Lions have to follow their chow-down with gallons of water in order to prime digestion. If they hadn’t, their faces would still have been bloody, and they weren’t. So clearly they had been down to the river, but returned to fend off the scavengers.

Finally, the cubs began to moan and started to walk towards the river with its abundant shade on their own. Three mature females followed, but the one stayed on the kill, now capable only of licking it.

Soon the hyaena were whooping. Two hyaena became three then four and they began circling the lion. I’m sure she could have chased them away, but perhaps the hassle was just to much. She got up, hyperventilating like all lions with recently filled bellies, and sauntered with the rest to the trees over the river.

The jackals went in immediately. Of course, they can get out just as quickly. It’s virtually impossible for a jackal to be touched by a lion. The hyaena were more cautious. Stretching upright in the grass, they looked around as if a fifth mature lion were waiting for them in the grass.

Then they moved in, and the food feast began. Blood squirted, pieces of meat and skin were thrown about, and the hyaena dug into the eland as if it were a dirt pile. Moments later, vultures came cruising in, which was remarkable in itself since we saw no trees except along the river, and these birds seemed to have come from the opposite direction.

Some safaris just luck out, and for certain this one did. But it takes more than luck to experience something like this. We were there for nearly 70 minutes. During the time our silent vehicles watched the event, another 8 vehicles came and went, spending just a few minutes it seemed. I’m always a bit worried that I push my clients too far, so at one point I asked if they were ready to leave.

Bryan Hassell said forcibly, “Let’s just wait a few minutes.” And sure enough, it was in those few minutes that the persistent female guard gave up, and the next chapter of the event began, something very precious to see.

I understand completely people who “want to see everything.” But I think it goes without saying that those who rush from place to place might be able to tick off a number of animals, but will likely never get to know them the way we did, today, in the crater.

Later we’d see more lion, serval, cheetah and enjoy a beautiful picnic breakfast by a lake with 14 hippo. Maybe, we could have seen even more, but I don’t think anyone would have traded in that hour plus at the lion kill for anything!