The biodiversity here in Tanzania is absolutely incredible and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) only continues to amaze me. The NCA covers vast stretches of plains, savanna, woodlands and forests, from the plains of the Serengeti National Park in the north-west, to the eastern part of the Great Rift Valley. Together, wildlife and semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists coexist in this area. The historic Olduvai Gorge (Oldupai) and Ngorongoro Crater are included in the NCA, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Conserving natural resources as well as allowing human habitation in the NCA, makes this one of the only sites attempting to reconcile human communities while providing protection for wildlife simultaneously.
Driving up through dense vegetation, we are now on the outskirts of the Crater ready to descend to the floor. This Crater is the largest drained and unbroken volcanic caldera, the remnants of a volcano that collapsed some three million years ago. The 2,000 feet deep, 100-square-mile Crater floor is home to over 25,000 animals, including a small population of the endangered black rhino. Crater walls, 610 meters high, act as a natural barrier for many of the animals. Although many stay year round, they are free to migrate in and out and come and go as they please. Marshes and swamps along with two woodland areas are all seen from above on the Crater’s edge. Said explains that the Yellow fever Tree and Acacia flood the Lerai Forest, while Acacia Lahai and Pillar Wood are in Laiyanai Forest. Passing Gum Acacia, Red Thorn Acacia, Blackthorn Acacia and everything in between, we make it to the bottom.
Down on the Crater floor, a plethora of dramatic scenes captivates the eye. Twelve miles across, this stunning crater supports buffalo, wildebeest, zebra, warthogs, giraffe, ostrich, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, bushbuck, waterbuck, Bohor reedbuck, eland, hartebeest, hippos, elephants, hyenas, lions, jackals, egyptian geese, greater and lesser flamingo, grey crowned crane – shall I go on? I think you get the gist.
Since entering gates of the NCA, up to the peak of the Crater walls, and now down on the edge of the floor, I have been learning the remarkable history of the Crater lions. Able to witness part of their extraordinary battle for survival, I feel compelled to share their story with you.
The Ngorongoro Crater has the densest known lion population. There are 5 prides which all together are made up of anywhere from 50 to 62 individuals. The result is an inbred population. In 1963, the Crater lions endured an intense disease outbreak leaving 80% of the population dead, and only a handful of lions remained. But times began to look up for the survivors, for new males had descended onto the Crater floor between 1964 and 1968. Having bred so effectively, by 1983, they had recovered from the deadly outbreak, with 124 lions now residing in the Ngorongoro Crater. The abundance of food and water helped as they successfully raised their young. Soon the success took a turn for what would leave an everlasting effect on the future of the Crater lions. The number of male lions skyrocketed, fostering strong coalitions made up of 6 to 11 individuals each. Their territorial instincts kept new lions out. In addition, growing human communities made it difficult for new lions to cross in from the Serengeti Plains. This made the in-migration of new genes nearly impossible and kept them at bay for two decades. By 1987 the chronic inbreeding was evident. No unrelated males had infiltrated the population, leaving only fathers, uncles, brothers and sons for the females to mate with. The damage was done.
The population has continued to be in flux. It has been suggested that repeated disease outbreaks are what brought the lion numbers to drop below 40 individuals in 1998. However, the Crater lions lived on to revive their population to around 60 to 70 but soon took a devastating fall with numbers as low as 30. Veterinary investigations of the Crater lions were not permitted. Nonetheless, The Serengeti Lion Project, run by Craig Packer, was able to verify that a series of CDV (Canine Distemper Virus) and babesia that caused torment to the Serengeti Lions in 1994 was the same deadly combination that affected these Crater lions in 2001. Species with normal genetic variation facing stressors have the innate immunity to naturally adapt to what is necessary for the species to survive. The Ngorongoro Lions are different. Because they are so genetically similar, if one individual is affected, all other Crater lions are highly susceptible as well. They are also vulnerable to genetic disorders.
Not only have generations of Crater lions been vulnerable to inbreeding depression but also from threats of human development. Other than on the actual Crater floor, Maasai are able to live anywhere throughout the Ngorongoro Conservation Area — with one condition: they must follow their traditional lifestyle. For some, part of this lifestyle is Ala-mayo, a ritual of killing a lion. Maasai also retaliated against carnivores that preyed on their livestock with spears and poison. However, a solution was set in place to resolve some of these conflicts. So rather than being compensated for livestock that had been lost due to lions, they were to be payed for the lions that lived. This technique was deemed successful in Sweden with reindeer herders. Instead of hunting reindeer, the Sami community is able to grasp that reindeer are actually worth more alive than they are dead. This method is exactly what the Maasai communities in the NCA would benefit from, and it would preserve ecological integrity. Nevertheless, efforts to preserve the NCA’s wildlife and culture, are critical as the Crater lions fight for survival continues.
Climate change, poaching, hunting, disease, and loss of habitat remain problematic for the animals of the Ngorongoro Crater. However, I can tell you the Eden in which they occupy still thrives and its exceptional beauty lives on. The intimacy of this place is irresistible and I am completely overwhelmed by all of its wonder. I believe this is the most stunning destination I have reached in my whole life.