When my big sis, Melanie, suggested a safari in Tanzania to see the annual migration of wildebeest in honor of my milestone birthday in 2021, I roared “yes” like a lioness. She knew it was one of my life dreams to see this migration, arguably the greatest outdoor show on earth. While COVID-19 delayed our trip a year, building up anticipation, we realized the second Dansby “dada” (“sister” in Swahili) safari in July 2022. (Our first safari was 20 years ago in South Africa.) As expected, Tanzania gave us the safari of a lifetime.
This East African country is home to arguably the world’s best game parks, including elephant-laden Tarangire, baboon-filled Lake Manyara rainforest and two UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Ngorongoro Crater with an estimated 30,000 animals and the Serengeti, where the migration of about 3 million wildebeest occurs. Mel and I visited all of these northern parks in the care of local guides and lodges that maximized our immersion in nature.
Tanzania is among the most biodiverse countries in the world, especially in terms of large mammal intensity. There are 8,000 African savanna elephants in Tarangire National Park alone and Serengeti National Park has the highest concentration of carnivores in the world! The Serengeti stretches across 1.5 million hectares of savanna covering 15,000 square kilometers. The Ngorongoro Crater is the world’s largest caldera from an extinct volcano, covering 304 square kilometers, and an animal magnet due to high mineral soil, open grassland and water availability, including Lake Magadi.
We saw an enormous amount of wildlife in these parks, including thousands of wildebeest crossing the Mara River and hundreds of zebras and antelopes. We also saw the Big Five – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and black rhinoceros – several times (except for the rare, highly protected rhino, which we only saw once as a silhouette) as well as giraffes, cheetahs, hippos, ostriches, serval cats, about 100 of 530 bird species, rare wild dogs and an even an African wildcat, plus more. We observed these creatures co-exist or avoid each other in cycles of life and death, learning fun facts about them from our modern Masai guide Kakae. For example:
- Guides use hand symbols amongst each other to indicate certain animals like a beard gesture for a lion, a long neck motion for a giraffe, a finger pointing to tree for a leopard, a finger pointing down for a cheetah and finger or arm scissors for a crocodile.
- Animals have four zones of interaction with other beings: comfort, alert, warning and critical (flee or attack). With most animals, a fair warning is given before an attack unless it is a predatory situation or a buffalo, which is the most temperamental and dangerous animal of all.
- Hooves indicate herbivore and paws mean carnivore. Animals with single hooves include zebras (hard hooves), elephants, rhinos and hippos (soft hooves); the rest have double hooves (wildebeest, giraffes, gazelles, etc.).
- Lions, leopards, hyenas and some antelopes (dik diks, impalas and waterbucks) are territorial. A territory in the bush is defined as space without your own species. More green (territory) means more females (harem) for almost all territorial animals except for smaller ones with small territories like dik diks and jackals.
- Dirt for animals is like sunscreen and they roll in it to protect their skin, cool off, itch and remove parasites like ticks. Big divots in the ground are from the wallowing of large animals like elephants, buffalos and zebras.
- Among carnivores, only cheetahs and wild dogs have discerning taste, eating fresh meat. Other carnivores will eat slightly rotten meat. Kakae said he once saw a large leopard with 25 kills in two trees, where it stockpiled meat!
- Only baboons and elephants appear to be “friends” with their own species, displaying emotional connection and mourning in a human-like way (chimpanzees and dolphins do so as well).
- Only dik diks and jackals mate for life. Cats mate during drought because prey are easier to spot then so they have a lot to eat for strength. Most other animals mate in the spring wet season.
- Wildebeest and primates (mainly baboons), followed by zebras, then elephants make the most noise of animals at a level that humans can hear.
- Cheetahs have the greatest speed at 120 km/hr, followed by hartebeest at 97 km/hr, and topi and Thompson’s gazelles at 80 km/hr for long distances and ostrich at 75 km/hr. Lions and leopards can go fast but only for short distances; their strength is ambushing. For example, a lion can go 85 km/hr but only for 30 seconds so it won’t usually bother to chase a fast antelope with endurance. A charging leopard can move 22 meters per second.
- Primates and birds have good color vision (more cones in their retinas) but not other animals, which have better night vision (more rods in their retinas).
- The “clean-up crew” after carnivore kills include hyenas, jackals, vultures, Maribou storks and flies/maggots. The storks even eat garbage from human food.
- Giraffes (national symbol of Tanzania), African wild dogs, cheetahs and black rhinos are highly protected and cannot be hunted. The latter three are under threat of extinction.
Seeing this amazing wildlife made us keenly aware of both its fragility and ferocity as well as our desire to protect all of it. As a child, I used to put my stuffed animal toys in my bed to protect them. Now I wish I could do that with real animals in their natural habitats.