OnSafari: The Crater

OnSafari: The Crater

We were among the first at dawn onto the crater floor and were headed up the Mugai River to see the old Boer homestead when right there in the road in front of us was a mating pair of lion!

Lion have been observed by safari guests for generations, and crater animals in particular are unusually tame, so neither Tumaini or I had much reluctance to interrupt the romance for a better view. Until we got closer.

T pulled the car to within a few meters of the pair and almost immediately young Emmett whispered, “Let’s get out of here.”

Emmett was right. This was a young male lion, just in his prime. His mane hardly noticeable at a distance, he was still huge and nervous. Perhaps this was his first time.

Without hesitation we moved further away.

Our two long game drives just ended in the crater with an impressive species list that hasn’t changed all that much in all the years I’ve been coming here. But the numbers of individual species have changed considerably and I think probably reflect African wilderness as a whole. Some of these changes are dramatic, and they tell us important things about our greater world.

Anecdotally I’m seeing more wildebeest, zebra, gazelle, eland, hippo, buffalo and elephant not only in the crater but all over the place, and in spite of unusually destructive weather. This is likely because the equatorial world is receiving lots more water, producing lots more fodder.

It’s a bit more complicated than that, because the wet and dry periods are exponentionally more intense. This leads to new challenges for animals associated dealing with the radical and quickly changing veld conditions. But for the time being the herbivores seem not only to be managing this, but prospering from it. But there’s also an unexpected flipside:

The crater was probably most famous for its density of lion populations, among the highest on earth. That may still be true, but there are far fewer lions. We know that lion populations are crashing continent-wide.

Twenty years ago we estimated about 110 lion in the 102 sq. mile caldera. That was remarkable for the 15-20 prides that conventionally would each defend territories of around ten square miles per pride.

Rarely in the old days would I take a 4-6 hour game drive in the crater and not see 20-25 lion. Our first afternoon game drive this time encountered 4 lion. Our second dawn game drive saw 8. Notable were that 2-3 didn’t look well, and that one male fully maned was almost half-sized.

Anecdotal experiences are hardly science, but this comports well with the dozens of game drives in the crater I’ve taken over the last few years.

Lion declines are not news and field scientists are madly searching for the reasons. So far the explanation seems to be a combination of poisoning (human development), habitat erosion (human development and climate change) and a peculiar virus picked up from sick buffalo that kills them (which can actually be deduced from climate change).

What I think will make news soon is how many other predators are also declining. My guests were thrilled at their few sightings of hyaena and we spent a long session in my car watching a couple and talking about their unusual social behaviors.

We see many, many fewer than in the old days. Again, this is not science but just anecdotal observation, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts we’ll see the science, soon.

I loved in the old days to point out the rarer golden-backed jackal that we only saw in the crater and the Serengeti, in contrast to the large black-backed jackal seen most everywhere. Some fascinating DNA studies recently have actually shown the two animals are quite different: the smaller golden jackal more closely related to the wolf and the larger black-backed jackal more closely related to dogs.

Anecdotally I’ve noted no decline in the jackals we see today compared to years past. Nor need there be any correlation with the decline in lion or hyaena: jackals are small predators and can survive well on mice. But in the last three years I’ve seen only a single golden jackal (on the very remote Lemuta Plains), because the black-backed is hybridizing them.

Quite a few hybrids are regularly seen throughout the crater/Serengeti ecosystem. They are larger than half the size of one with the other, and darker than a true mix between golden and black-backed. I expect in another ten years the hybrids will become subsumed in the conventional black-backed population.

This is a subtle but functional decline in jackal species and probably also jackal numbers. For the time being the hybrids beef up the drastic decline in the golden’s numbers. When the hybrid is subsumed functional numbers will likely begin declining.

Once there was leopard in the crater. There haven’t been for a decade. Cheetah are still reported but much rarer than before and I haven’t seen one for four years. (Surprisingly what we did see on our dawn game drive was a caracal! I haven’t seen a caracal anywhere in East Africa for seven years.)

Tap this off with the other observation that we see far fewer kills, or remnants of kills, then we did in the past. Of course this makes complete sense if there are fewer predators.

So what does this mean? More prey and fewer predators?

Predators are an important factor in the balance of prey populations but often not as much as people first think. Irregular and regular diseases, normal much less extreme weather and habitat erosion are probably as important if not more so than predation.

So what the crater is telling me is that the hunter fairs much more poorly in a changing world than the hunted. But whatever its story, the experiences of my guests over all these years has never really changed a bit: the crater is the highlight of their trip!

The crater is probably the easiest place in East Africa to measure changes. It’s a microcosm of East Africa’s grand wildernesses – naturally so – ever since the world’s largest physical structure, the super Volcano Ngorongoro blew its stack about 3 million years ago.

Unimaginably powerful eruptions over less than 100,000 years transformed the massive super volcano, Ngorongoro, into seven smaller volcanoes. Only one, Lengai, remains active, and it’s rather small although still capable of local destruction.

Ngorongoro Crater National Park is the caldera of one of those dormant volcanoes. Almost a perfect circle twelve miles across and roughly 1500-1800′ feet below its rim, it is the most visited single game reserve in all of East Africa.