A good safari is an adventure, and an adventure takes effort. I keep thinking of the phrase, “No Pain – No Gain.” Sure, we can end the day at an unbelievably luxurious place with bubble bath and champagne. But just take a look at a successful safari traveler stepping out of her vehicle at the end of the day:
It was hot and we’d been on the road for nearly eight hours. The numbers of elephant and giraffe and other animals we’d seen in Tarangire was stunning but we were almost at camp and it was time to hit the showers and go for sundowners when…
…Tumaini hit the brakes and dust flew all around us like an explosion. When it settled, hardly ten meters away was the biggest lion I think I’ve ever seen.
Tarangire is the last place on earth for really big and wild elephants. We had amazing encounters.
We stayed in the southern part of the park where there are accommodations for only a few tourists. The vast majority stay to the north of Tarangire Hill.There are plenty of elephant in the north, but most of them are residents there. They’ve come to know tourists. We saw several hundred there on our first afternoon driving south towards our camp. They’re just as large and beautiful as the ones in the south, but not as wild.
So most of our time was spent in the south among hundreds if not thousands of the last great giants of the earth. Some were friendly enough that we could approach fairly closely. One wonderful family seemed almost oblivious to us: The matriarch was engrossed scratching herself on a tree.
Her little one-year old even managed to get on the other side of the tree and mimic her!
But most of our encounters in the south aren’t quite as peaceful. We had many trumpeting us, several charges and many times had to keep our distance to avoid disturbing them.
Part of the reason for their anxiety is that there’s just too many of them. The elephant density is so great today in northern Tanzania that normal elephant behaviors are breaking down. Families have no choice but to spend some time near one another, something they didn’t do when there weren’t so many.
We had finished a fabulous afternoon game drive heading back to camp when an incredibly wild family of elephant intersected the road. I hesitated not knowing if we should proceed.
Most of the elephant found in Africa, today, are relatively docile: they’ve been habituated to tourists for generations.
This is not true, though, in the more remote parts of Africa or even in the remote parts of its protected areas. That’s where we were: the southern half of Tarangire National Park.
My Walsh Family Safari was staying at one of my favorite Tanzania camps, Oliver’s. It’s located near Silale Swamp almost exactly half way down this 2200 sq. mile, oblong national park. 95% of the tourists stay far north of here in more conventional safari camps and lodges.
According to the great elephant researcher, Charles Foley, about 2800 elephant live in the northern part of the park, and he calls them “sedentary.” An uncountable number – because they change so often – live in the southern part where we were staying and are “transitory.”
The transitory elephant are much wilder, and I think, healthier. They come through the southern half of Tarangire not to start a home, but to get somewhere else: like the eastern savannah which is equally remote.
I can usually tell the difference after just a few minutes of looking at a family. The sedentary elephant have lost many traditional behaviors, such as keeping their distance from other families and flapping their ears by rocking back and forth their head in warning.
This is because, in my opinion, there are too many elephant in this area. They’ve adapted “socially” by changing their customs. So today in the northern part of Tarangire and many other very insular protected national parks in Africa you can easily see 200 or more elephant together, males, young and mixed families.
They no longer shun other families, because — well, there just isn’t enough space to do so.
Not with the transitory elephant of Tarangire! So just as we had finished the afternoon game drive and were trying to get back to camp before dark, this one large, healthy family of 15 blocked us on the road only 40 meters in front of us. We’d watched them come down, heading for the swamp to water, and taking angry note of two other smaller elephant families in the vicinity.
The grand matriarch started some serious vocalization. This doesn’t mean just trumpeting, but deep rumbles of which we can hear only 10%. The remaining 90% are below our decibel level, so if we can hear rumblings, we know a lot more is being said!
We stopped in the road as she pulled her ears out and moved her head back, a precharge signal. So – but for only a moment – did the other two elephant families stop and take note of this swaggering grandma, but then the matriarch of the nearest one seemed to dismiss the challenge, turned her head to go and continued to saunter away.
The grand matriarch of the wild family lowered her head, trumpeted and charged the insubordinate matriarch of the family walking away.
The matriarch of the retreating family turned and faced her challenger for all of a second. By then the massive likely near 4-ton wild matriarch was practically upon the sedentary matriarch, who then began to run away from here.
But it was too late. She poked the retreating matriarch with her tusks eliciting a trumpet of pain as that smaller family fled faster and faster away. The grand matriarch then huffed and puffed a couple times before slowly walking back to her family, which had gone dead still.
I had decided we couldn’t move while she was running, because her stride together with her speed produces a 4½ ton projectile we couldn’t possibly outrun.
So began the standoff with us. The rest of her family were as still as possums as she jogged back to their front and faced us square on. The rest of the family as if on queue began moving again, seemingly in no discernible direction, just sort of milling about but suddenly we were surrounded.
Any one of the larger adults could have flipped us over. I have a front roof latch above the driver’s seat in the Landcruiser. It was open and I was standing straight through it, the first human she could sense. My clients were all standing up from the back seats.
My group was amazing. I know everyone’s hearts were beating frantically, including my own, but everyone was dead silent and unmoving.
The matriarch waved back and forth in front of us, her giant ears flopping in rhythm, but the good sign was that there was no vocalization.
Most elephant lose much of their sight after about ten years, but they continue to develop an acute hearing and smell. A brush of my bird book against the open roof, someone who is chewing gum and opens their mouth – these are the kinds of things that a grand matriarch standing only 20 meters away might take offense at.
So we just waited. Finally, she settled down and led her family down to the water away from us.
Mary Disse, who is usually not, was speechless! Everyone got extraordinary pictures, but more importantly, experienced viscerally the excitement of truly wild Africa.
We had a grand two days in Tarangire, Africa’s best elephant park. In addition to the tembos, we saw leopard, cheetah, lion, hundreds of impala, buffalo and wildebeest; thousands of zebra, dozens of bird species, and were incredibly lucky to have also encountered oryx and kudu. It was an extraordinary success.
Now we’re relaxing at another of my favorite places, Gibb’s Farm, before heading to the crater. Stay tuned!
Lions don’t climb, hippos aren’t in Tarangire, vervets hate thorns, and guides know it all. Just a few of the things disproved so far on my safari!
Apologies for the big delays between blogs, but Tanzania is in something of a data congestion at the moment. Reports from businesses in Dar and Arusha are all complaining of the slow internet signal.
It’s not the weather, which is beautiful and quite normal, nor nearby conflicts, because except for distant Burundi there are none. So common wisdom is probably true: there are suddenly just too many people trying to use to few satellites.
Common wisdom, though, would not hold much rank on the McGrath family safari. Today in Lake Manyara National Park we saw two near-adult lions in an acacia tortilis tree sleeping their lives away until we arrived.
They were draped over the branches like wet laundry hung out to dry. We watched them for a while until another car came up at which time one of the lions got nervous and teetered down quite ungracefully.
The last one tolerated 2 or 3 more cars before she finally took to the ground, too. So what’s all this about lions not climbing well?
The truth is that lions will climb trees everywhere, if it’s the right kind of tree: fantastic Manyara is filled with so many different kinds of trees there are plenty with the requisite low horizontal branches that will tempt this largest of the cats.
But you can tell it’s a real balancing act, because they never seem completely comfortable up there. But unlike their many cousins on the savannah, their views on the ground are obscured by Manyara’s thick vegetation, so anything that gives them height gives them comfort.
Manyara was great in several wonderful ways, today! The lake is pretty full, so the hippos are plenty. The wind was down, the morning not too cold, and we first watched for a good long time at least a couple dozen silvery-cheeked hornbills flying around and cackling madly.
This is the largest of the hornbills in Tanzania and true dinosaur looking bird!
Grandma Cindy asked if there were any malachite kingfishers, and a few minutes later as we headed to the platform overlooking the hippo pool, we saw two! Also saw lanner falcon, long-toed plover and a bunch of other stuff.
Manyara is baboon heaven, but otherwise I never expect Manyara to be a memorable animal experience. Yet we added to the lions-in-the-tree, 15 minutes literally immersed in an elephant family of 13, and the truly beautiful lake shore landscapes covered with giraffe, wildebeest and zebra.
I even glanced a klipspringer as we were leaving. Manyara was a much better animal experience today than I would expect.
The last several days in Tarangire were classic. The park is absolutely the best elephant park in all of Africa, and it gave us opportunities to learn to distinguish between healthy elephants, lone elephants, sick elephants … elephants that were agitated, and so forth.
The northern half of the park has the more docile and approachable sedentary elephants, whereas the south half of the park usually has more temperamental and transitory ones. Only this time I felt they were pretty calm in the south.
It could be that just over time the homesteaders are arriving. Or it might be that the transitory folks were just coincidentally absent, giving entry to the over crowded north. Either way it was an astounding experience for us.
That is except for Hakon and Alden on the way to their Tent #1 at Little Oliver’s, unable to do so because the elephant wouldn’t leave the path.
I think the manager, Julie, did exactly the right thing. Took a truck down the path and let the guy know he wasn’t welcome. Far too often camps try to cultivate wild animals, and it never ends up well.
We had a chance this time to visit the far southwestern side of Silale swamp, and that was a real treat. Lemala has put a semi-permanent camp down there and the tracks are being better maintained.
It gave us an opportunity to see larger numbers of Grant’s gazelle and hartebeest. If there is any drawback to Tarangire it has been the uniformity of its wildlife experience: almost exclusively elephant and giraffe. The new tracks in the south now will broaden its appeal.
Finally, too, as we were leaving we stopped at a water hole in the Serengeti Plains. We’d already spent probably hours watching elephant frolicking in water, but here they were frolicking among very angry zebra definitely not pleased with their arrival.
It was a wonderful interaction that ended when the Mommy elephants finally got the youngsters to leave the swimming pool and the zebra came down to drink. A wonderful end for us in this marvelous park.
Elephants up close but safely is what our Tarangire experience was all about!
I was in Tarangire two weeks ago as the drought broke, and it seems like the rains ever since have been especially hard.
I wouldn’t say “relentless,” but according to the folks there it was sure close to relentless. The 6-week drought was serious, and among the exploding grass and deep green of the park are sand straws and dead twigs.
Drought/flood/drought/flood seems to be the new normal here, and it was absolutely not normal in the old days.
Now staying in the farming community of Karatu it’s crazy to see all the vibrant almost luminescent green of the valleys and hillsides that frames corn fields of nearly failed crops.
A farmer in Illinois can handle climate change a lot better than a farmer in Karatu. The animals in Tarangire are handling it just fine … so far, as evidenced by the enormous numbers of very healthy elephant with many, many very young babies.
In fact a random family of elephant in Tarangire is likely to have a new-born, several 2- and 3-year olds, a 5-year old or two, and at least one 8-year old. That suggests a long streak of health.The amount of water falling on the equatorial regions of the world is increasing. But it now comes in periods of unbelievable cloudbursts spaced by drought. The result is devastating for African farmers.
Erosion is unbelievable. Overgrazing which has been a problem for decades, is exacerbated and the stock gets sick quickly from feast and famine, something that a lion can do but a Guernsey cannot.
Our elephant encounters in Tarangire were terrific. I spaced our two vehicles among three families that were near the track not far from Silale, and we just sat there for nearly an hour.
We watched the babies slip and slide, the toddlers wrestle, the young males trumpet, random trees felled for seemingly little reason, and sadly, a very old and big female out of habit pull up grass and stuff it into her mouth but then drop it because she had no more teeth left for chewing.
Less than two months ago I was in Botswana which I often see reported as the world’s best elephant experience. It’s excellent for sure, but as I’ve been saying for at least ten years now, the best elephant experience is Tarangire!
First game drive Tarangire: 7 lions, leopard, maybe 300 (?) elephant, tons of impala, waterbuck … oh, before I forget, 17 wild dog.
The top half of the picture above shows a portion of that family zonked out towards the end of the day. They’d killed that morning and were basically sleeping it off.
Several weeks ago Steve Taylor leading an earlier EWT safari spotted wild dog in the Serengeti!
I think this marks the turnaround point for wild dog, and the successful work that several American zoos have been doing to stabilize their populations.
Zoos like Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo have painstakingly convinced Maasai who live on the periphery of the park to get their dogs vaccinated … free. It’s no easy job. (See bottom half of picture above.)
But the hard work has paid off. By vaccinating the peripheral dogs, wild dogs are staging a bounce back more resilient than expected.
Our safari stayed in the center of Tanzania, which I do with some trepidation this late in March because of the rains. But this year it’s been unusually dry. It’s not yet a crisis, but the veld looks like October more than March.
The Silale Swamp was only half green. We experienced sprinkles and I kept looking at the sky’s growing clouds wondering if the much needed rains would return.
It was also unusually hot. Humid, hot and extended dry conditions means more tse-tse and it was really among my worst experiences. But my travelers were incredible, never complaining, spraying on the DEET and getting on with the business of game viewing.
It was fantastic. Tarangire rarely disappoints because of its enormous elephant population, but we had a gorgeous view of a nearly full grown male leopard in a tree right beside the road within about ten minutes of starting our game drive!
We’d flown into the Kuro airstrip so we were in the midst of the park. The leopard was in perfect view on a dead tree looking with aggravation at a nearby herd of impala. I say aggravation because he, too, had a giant belly and had no need to hunt.
Perhaps the impala knew!
We had a single encounter with truly wild elephant that are mostly transitory south of the Kuro airstrip. It was hilarious. We rather surprised a single family, and one female who was nibbling on a smaller acacia tree was so startled that she ripped the entire tree out of the ground and ran off!
The hundreds if not thousands of elephant we saw were mostly the sedentary group north of Kuro. They tend not to move in and out of the park, content with the space and habitat. More docile than very wild elephant, it allowed us numerous wonderful encounters.
I think everyone was particularly pleased as we watched three very young elephant rough house for nearly 15 minutes.
They “jumped” on one another, rolled each other, butted each other … I put quotes around jump because that’s virtually impossible for an elephant to do, but I really believe I saw that youngster fully airborn if for only a nano second.
I’ve noticed that most of the southern European and western Asian bird migrants haven’t yet left (like the Eurasian Roller and Steppe Eagle [buzzard]), whereas most of the central and northern European migrants have (Adim Stork, Eurasian bee-eater). Don’t know if that means anything – please leave a comment if you think you understand this.
We left Tarangire hurriedly so that we’d have enough time to see Manyara from top to bottom, entering from the remote southern gate. It’s a spectacular drive through rural Tanzanian countryside, including intense small farming of rice and corn.
Manyara, too, was dry but it was wonderful as we left late in the day to see the thunderstorms forming.
Three leopards, hundreds of elephant, five lion, dozens of giraffe and an unexpectedly large number of zebra featured the Kisiel Family’s first two days on safari.
Tarangire is usually the first game park I take my families to. It’s relatively close to Arusha, never fails to produce the best elephant viewing on the continent regardless of the time of year, and is simply a great introduction to game viewing.
That proved true, again, and it also lets me explain the complex situation that exists with elephant, today.
In my view there are too many elephant. That doesn’t mean there are more elephant than ever, or that there isn’t a serious problem of poaching, but it means that the habitat left to ele today is simply not large enough for them.
This seemed self-evident to me about a decade ago when normal elephant behaviors began to break down, and it was most demonstrable in Tarangire.
In the past elephant families rarely mixed. If there was a water hole or wallow of interest by multiple families, they each too their turn, giving wide berth to the other families.
Every day in Tarangire multiple families are seen together. And there is obvious agitation but ultimate acceptance that multiple families must at least temporarily merge. Although it’s hard to use anecdotal evidence and my observations are no means rigorous science, I definitely believe what I and my clients see every single time I come here is an indication there are too many ele.
And, of course, all you have to do is pull up some of the local chatter and blogs of farmers, clergymen and school teachers who live near ele reserves like Tarangire.
So this is a time throughout East Africa to be particularly cautious about ele.
So you can imagine how I felt when the manager and staff of Tarangire Sopa Lodge where we’re staying seemed incapable of keeping three ele from nearly entering reception, playing around with the lawn hose, and walking up and down the balconies of the rooms as if they were checking the serial numbers on the patio windows.
This is courting disaster. And it’s hard to explain this to my clients. The kids, especially, thought it was “cool” and they’re right, it was thrilling and clearly not something you’d expect.
But it’s also dangerous. One security man threw a few rocks at the ele, but no one turned off the water, no one seemed to have a elephant horn (a loud screaming high pressure device that sometimes works) and no one offered or perhaps was trained to shot a blank above their heads.
So they lingered throughout most of the afternoon, making it difficult for me to keep the kids out of their sight.
We had a great time in Tarangire, and I’m glad to say a safe one as well. We had wonderful ele encounters out on the game drives, getting remarkable close to those we judged safe.
But if lodges and camps can’t figure out a way to keep familiarity at bay, disaster is around the next corner.
As she walked past my verandah and over to the verandah where Ryan, Hadley, Sophie and Cam were watching her, I remembered a number of horrible stories about what elephants can do and have done to me and my clients.
Tarangire is the best elephant wilderness in all of Africa, but it carries the burden of enormous controversy.
Last year I was trapped inside Tarangire with my group and had to go suffer the logistical and financial horror of chartering two aircraft for a 9-minute flight from the central Tarangire airstrip to the Manyara airstrip.
It began to look like a decision had to be made: the best possible migration experience (which is now) and therefore, no Tarangire. We were trapped because the park’s bridges are not designed to work in the middle of the rainy season, which is when the migration is at its best.
But it kept gnawing at me that here we would be, in northern Tanzania, yes poised to experience the most dramatic wildlife spectacle on earth (the great wildebeest migration), right next door to Africa’s best elephant wilderness.
So I decided to arrange a “tentative day.”
I hired two sets of vehicles for Monday morning. My set went the night before to Tarangire to scope out the situation, to try to cross the problematic river and to let me know the next day if it was safe to come.
The second set took us all to the West Kilimanjaro airstrip near our beautiful Ndarakwai Ranch where we’d begun our trip.
And I would tell the pilot where to fly us!
Tarangire was open, the river was down, and we flew into the center of the park on a short 35-minute flight. The rest of the day we spent exploring the northern half of the park.
Needless to say, we saw elephants. I estimated at least five hundred, but if we included the ones we could see in the distances, it could have been twice that.
There are too many elephant in East Africa, and there are too many elephant in Tarangire. But what a beautiful sight!
The scene and the fundamental problem causing it are as disjunct as any spectacular art work from the value a collector will pay for it.
We knew there were too many elephant as we left the park and saw the pitiful attempts by local farmers to discourage elephant from destroying their land and crops. “Scarecrows” that could hardly keep out an ostrich much less an elephant.
As I’ve often written, the “elephant problem” when seen from the point of view of a Tanzanian is quite different than the poaching problem perceived by the outsider.
While there is a poaching problem, there is also the problem of there being too many elephant, and that to the local Tanzanian, is the main problem. No one wants to discourage tourists and scientists who are helping to save their fragile environment.
But you’ve got to consider the kids walking to school, the farmer who depends year to year on a good crop, and the village counselor trying to connect his borehole to the citizen homes.
So the “scene” is today almost indescribably beautiful. But there is a problem that scene portends, and it’s a very serious one.
We saw much more in Tarangire, of course, than just the spectacular elephant. Hundreds of impala, dozens of giraffe, hundreds of baboon, zebra, wildebeest, mating lion … all in one of East Africa’s most expansive landscapes.
And at the end of the day we left the park before the rivers kept us in! It was a beautiful, color rich day. On to Manyara!
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!