Storms Move The Serengeti

Storms Move The Serengeti

Photo by Sarah Vieth, Ndutu, November 2011
Climate change is slowly, steadily changing the ecology of the world’s most spectacular big game wilderness, the Serengeti. For a visitor, it’s nothing short of fantastic. For animals it’s terrifying. For the planet it’s just too complicated yet to say.

The roughly 7000 sq. miles of the Serengeti/Mara/Ngorongoro wilderness is the greatest wildlife area on earth. Said with bias. And the necessary qualifiers are many, of course. But this is classic Africa that seems to get better to the casual visitor year after year.

Historically northern Tanzania’s rains begin towards the end of the year and last (with a noticeable but incomplete interruption in February) for 5-6 months. This year, and last year, they began much much earlier and ended a little earlier.

And, predictably, this sent the wildebeest circling faster. And all of us “experts” are thrilled and surprised. The wilde now seem to spend less time in the Mara in the northern reaches of the migratory route, and more time in the Serengeti. They don’t follow the rains, but they follow the grass the rain grows.

Rain patterns are critical to the great migration, as well as practically everything else in this ecosystem from fields of yellow bidens flowers to the nesting habits of pink-eyelided eagle owls. For all my life until now all of this explosion of life was pretty predictable. Getting harder, now.

I was astounded this morning, for example, to read a blog posted by Bill and Sarah Vieth from Evansville, Indiana, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in the Serengeti. They probably had no idea how remarkable was the photo Sarah took when they were in the Ndutu area, which I’ve taken the great liberty of reposting atop this blog.

So what’s so unusual about a lioness bringing back a wildebeest baby to its pride for a slightly late Thanksgiving?

There shouldn’t be baby wildebeest, now. Wildebeest are the predictors of the veld’s health and sustainability because their migration and foaling is … well, at least until now, predictable. Wildebeest babies in Ndutu are born in February. That’s what the books say. That’s what I saw for 35-36 of the last 40 years. This birth, following 8 months of gestation, is maybe two months early.

But alas, it all starts to match if you’re willing to believe that the rain clock in Equatorial Africa is changing. It syncs beautifully with last year’s early end to the rains.

Wildebeest rutting historically occurs as the rains end, and last year they ended early. In fact the news blog posted by the owner of Ndutu last May read: “Lake Ndutu was completely dry by the end of May! It’s the first time in all her years of being here that Aadje has seen the lake dry so soon after the end of the ‘wet season.”

Early December minus eight months equals early April. Remarkable, a shift of 6 weeks to 2 months.

Now, was this just a fluke?

I called Bill. Bill was kind enough to give me permission to post his wife’s photo, and went on at great lengths about what a great trip they just had. And he proved that photo wasn’t a fluke.

When Sarah and he were descending into Ngorongoro crater first thing one morning, they watched one, then two wildebeest births. He excitedly described to me the lurking hyaena and how one of the younguns didn’t make it. But proof positive how early the births are occurring!

Now it isn’t so hunky dory and simply just a shift in the clock. I saw a young wildebeest being born in April this year around Ndutu. In September in the far north of the Serengeti I saw baby wildebeest that couldn’t have been more than three months old. So clearly mother nature’s change of habit is causing some confusion with the wildebeest.

Like men, wilde may be resisting the idea of climate change. I excuse them. Their brains are smaller.

Rains began in the northern Serengeti with a vengeance this August, and while they’ve abated a bit right now, the center and southern part of the ecosystem is near flooded. What I think we’re experiencing is not just a shift to earlier rains, but an extension of the entire rainy season. I think we’ll soon all agree that it rains more and more than half the year on the Serengeti.

Or as one blog puts it, “Short Rains Aren’t so Short!”

That jives with rain patterns all around the planet near the equator. With global warming there is more moisture in the atmosphere. We’ve all heard about the 90-mile wide icebergs calving from the Antarctic. It floats towards Cape Town and melts. Seas rise, yes, but so does the atmosphere which in a warmer state can hold more and more water.

And it dumps conveniently on the equator. The Serengeti.

Wish it were just all that simple, but equatorial meteorology is far more complex than my Chicago television weatherman suggests. We have discernible seasons in the north and south of the world, but the equator doesn’t. Rains in equatorial northern Peru were devastating in the last few years, but hard to predict.

One week is a series of torrential storms; the next week seems like a drought. That’s the basic pattern as you move away from the equator, away from the Serengeti. That’s why the Somali refugee camp at Dadaab had thousands of refugees fleeing a drought 4 months ago, and thousands now fleeing floods.

But closer to the equator the complexity is less stark. Basically, it just rains more; it’s wetter.

So what does this mean to the animals?

Having lived there and visited constantly throughout my adult life, I can say with care that the animal populations are bigger, the viewing more dramatic as tension among predators and competition for food sources increases, but my worry is that it will all come crushing down some day.

You might call it the Animal Bubble.

Things are good for the animals, now. Probably will be for a few years, but just as wildebeest sex lives are getting screwed up (pun intended), massive ecological systems don’t like quick change. The response to quick change is usually to crash.

But right now, a month or more early, the wildebeest have massed at Ndutu and it’s pouring. And for now, they couldn’t do it better at DreamWorks.