Covering an area of 125 square miles the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania is the largest intact caldera on earth. Ngorongoro crater is an environment both beautiful and unusual, it contains an array of habitats and a year-long supply of water, this ensures that it is always teeming with life even at the height of the dry season but this blessing can quickly become a curse. Its closed-off nature has caused behavior unseen anywhere outside of its wall.
Ngorongoro crater Formation
40 million years ago the rifting began when the earth’s crust along Africa’s eastern plains started to thin a massive fault line formed. As the continent split apart, the land on either side collapsed and lava from within the earth formed a massive depression of highlands and volcanoes, the Great Rift Valley.
Two and a half million years ago one of these volcanoes erupted; the Ngorongoro volcano was about the same size as Kilimanjaro. Trapped lava from within the base had nowhere to move and the entire mountain imploded forming what is known as a caldera. For years it remained desolate and uninhabited but as the fires settled and the slopes cooled, vegetation started to colonize the steep banks thriving off the rich soils and moisture. Herbivore wildlife followed the flora over the rim and down into the crater, soon after the carnival wildlife was followed with no incentive to leave the animals have stayed here ever since. The result is an oasis of wildlife known as the Ngorongoro crater.
Wildlife Animals of Ngorongoro Crater
Today over 25 000 large animals make their home here among these is the greatest concentration of carnivores on the planet, some of the world’s oldest elephants, largest grazers, and most charismatic birds, and their desire to stay is closely related to the unusual layout of the land. Ngorongoro crater has a range of habitats within one consolidated arena from plains to freshwater swamps, soda lakes, forests, and wetlands
During Tanzania’s dry season the crater’s savannah becomes frail and desolate, each resident must embark on a migration within the crater walls to reach its water source. The wetlands in the center of Ngorongoro provide water generously all year round. Tempted to stay inside because of its permanent supply of water, the inhabitants rarely step outside of the sheer walls. This has caused behavior not seen in any other animals on the planet, imprisoned by their natural instincts they stay within this amphitheater even when it is to their detriment leaving the question as to whether it is a paradise or a prison.
Lions in Ngorongoro
Lions are the famed hunters of the African savannah, they are highly effective pack predators able to take on large prey due to their size and strength. But the lions in the Ngorongoro crater are different, the dominant prides unwilling to share in the crater of Ngorongoro have chased away all migrating lions that attempted to enter because of this the crater has caused what is referred to as a genetic bottleneck limiting the gene pool all of the crater lions are descended from a single isolated population generation of interbreeding have left these lions more prone to disease. Because of the consolidated nature of the crater, their natural survival instincts have become their biggest detriment, years of holding on to the spoils of Ngorongoro has its toll and this has caused another inversion in the usual hierarchies of the animal world. This is the only place on the planet where lions are not the kings of the savannah. In Ngorongoro, lions scavenge up to 80 percent of their food from the dominant hyena clans.
The Dorminant Hyenas of Ngorongoro
The crater is home to 400 spotted hyenas and here they are unmatched for their size, power, and hunting efficiency. The crater hyenas do not suffer from interbreeding as the lions do. Males are chased from their birth group by the dominant females, this forces them to reproduce elsewhere. The hyenas roam the dry plains of the crater as the unexpected rulers of an unorthodox. Ngorongoro hyenas have dominion overall. hyena clans exist in strict hierarchies, social rank is fundamental to the success of their highly coordinated hunting excursions and strength is the principle that underlies the whole system. Females are ranked according to how many fights they have won, in their world the most feared is at the top. Their ferocity makes them formidable hunters, the best fighters have priority at carcasses and they are highly territorial. They roam this unusual land as distinctive emperors unrivaled for both their strength and hunting efficiency
Wildebeest Herds in Ngorongoro
Every year outside of the caldera walls, tens of thousands of animals migrate across the Serengeti to escape Tanzania’s dry season but the crater animals stay where they are they circulate around the crater floor every day on internal migrations in search of grazing and water. Although the cloud forests on the rim maintain moisture all year round during periods of drought, little of this trickles down to the savannah on the crater floor and the majority of the animals that live here are confined to endure this scarce habitat. Wildebeests are restricted to eat on the Ngorongoro craters savannah biome, their broad muzzle and loose lips are adaptations suited to rapid bulk feeding. They feast on grass that responds well to grazing, trampling, and manure. they cannot graze the grasses on the rim which are too delicate to deal with the wildebeest’s boisterous eating habits. This keeps the wildebeest on the dry plateau below
when rains are minimal these shallow-rooted grasses quickly stops growing, the confined nature of the crater means that the planes become crowded. Wetlands with little moisture but wildebeest need to drink daily so they are limited to pastures no further than nine miles away from water. Every day they must embark on a migration to the wetlands but they are not the only ones caught in this unforgiving loop.
Zebra Herds in Ngorongoro
Ngorongoro is also home to 4000 grants zebra the two groups of animals constantly feed as they move across the crater floor every day to the wetlands in the search for water where the wildebeest prefer the shoots of new grass closer to the ground, zebra enjoy the coarser taller stalks, zebra are known to be pioneer grazers moving over a patch of the earth first and cropping it down to a size that other species including wildebeest prefer. Moving in bigger mixed herds reduces an individual’s chance of being attacked by creating an added destruction from predators, this makes traveling in large numbers beneficial especially in the crater.
Birds of Ngorongoro Crater
For the scavengers, the dry season is a time of plenty tawny eagles are well-known pirates of the savannah, often intimidating others off a kill in order to enjoy it for themselves their keen eyesight and rapid flight speed ensure that they are quick on the uptake. When the crater claims an animal the flat open nature of the crater floor provides ideal conditions for another scavenger’s impeccable sense of sight vultures saw on thermals to look for carrion but the layout of the caldera suits other birds too and not all of them favor taking to the skies in the search of food. secretary birds thrive in the crater’s barren grasslands and this is because of the structure of their body secretary birds prefer moving around on their long powerful legs over flying they can move over 18 miles a day in the search for food unlike most birds of prey their favored method of killing is not with their beaks but their legs using these powerful pistons to stamp smaller prey. They are efficient predators and the desolate plains of Ngorongoro are the ideal hunting ground.
The open layout of the floor is also important for the crater’s biggest bird unable to fly, ostriches rely on their speed to evade predators like lions and hyenas when they need to they can sprint over 40 miles an hour but when there is no danger around they do something else. A dance known to be an invitation to mate. ostrich mating precedes the reigns this is so that their chicks will be born in the abundance of the wet season and they are not the only crater birds joining in the ritual crowned cranes eagerly await the rains, these elegant birds need permanent marshes to make their nests but once again the dry grass is the reason they have been drawn out from their wetland homes. The crater floor is a prime hunting ground for them, they are mixed feeders eating anything from insects and lizards to flowers and seeds. these short dry grasslands enable them to use their long limbs to comb through the savannah in search of smaller prey like everything else in the crater they need to make the migration every day from the dry savannah feeding grounds to the lush marshlands in search of water.
For the waterfowl the wetland is a constant home great white pelicans are bound to the water throughout the day in the morning they will hunt for fish and for the rest of the day they will socially bathe and preen their fishing techniques see them dependent on the shallow warm waters. they are joined by other birds on the hunt, the yellow-billed stork’s odd-shaped bill is perfectly adapted to fishing in drying rivers as fish become trapped in shallower pools. the storks seen here use their feet to stir up the muddy water before stabbing fish with their sharp beak, they also have an intriguing way of cooling themselves in the heat of the day while standing around preening they will urinate on themselves to cool their legs as the urine crystallizes the whitish colors act as a screen to reflect the sun for the water is a constant source of food and nourishment
there are other areas nearby that support life throughout the year but their waters are inaccessible to most, the lakes of the rift valley are a product of aggressive geological forces and some have retained inhospitable characteristics because of this before the rifting there were no lakes in Africa but as the earth was violently reshaped water began to settle when the lakes of the great rift valley formed much of the ground was covered in lava and ash as the water filtered through the ground volcanic chemicals were carried into the lakes creating a hostile aquatic world
Lake natron lies at the foot of mount old Oldonyoi, 60 miles to the north of Ngorongoro, its caustic waters are strong enough to corrode human limbs. only about 15 inches of rain reaches it per year much of which is phantom rain, the water evaporates before it has even touched the surface of the lake, as a result, the lake’s waters do not come from the sky but rather from under the ground. Little that comes into contact with the volcanic waters survive but a single-celled organism visible only when magnified a thousand times thrives here spirulina platinus flourish in the carbonate-rich water under high temperatures and plenty of sunlight providing a source of food for one of the oldest bird species, the flamingo’s specially adapted bill allows it to graze the upper inch of the corrosive water and harvest the spirulina. The heavy arch of the bill allows great quantities to be sucked over fine hairs inside their mandible filtering out the food. these waters can sometimes exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
A flamingo’s hard featherless leg is one of the few things that can withstand the corrosive lake this allows them to wade to the mudflats right in the middle and these are no more welcoming than the surrounding waters temperatures are high winds are strong almost no vegetation survives and movement across the thick muddy terrain is impossible for most mammals the mudflats also create the harshest nursery on the planet using lake natron’s volcanic water as a moat against all land-based predators the flamingos have made the barren ground in the middle the ideal breeding site. this is the largest flamingo breeding ground in the world, the land’s unusual and inhospitable nature has given them exclusive feeding and breeding rights but they are not the only creatures that have adapted to withstand the volcanic waters.
Buffaloes in Ngorongoro
buffalo are the largest members of their family and they require a lot of water to maintain their massive bulk, but they too can only feed on the dry grasses of the crater floor carbs weigh just under a hundred pounds at birth, and are largely defenseless until they mature, they are utterly dependent on their mother’s knowledge to survive the long periods of drought and they too must journey between the craters savannah and its marshes everyday water is the driving force behind the continued occupancy of the Ngorongoro animals.
Weather in Ngorongoro
Even in the depths of the dry season, the Ngorongoro crater boasts an abundance of residents, and their desire to stay is closely related to the history of the land. During the formation of the great rift valley, a surge of landscapes emerged as the ground broke apart a range of new environments and species were born the crater is a product of this tectonic flux and it has inherited some interesting characteristics because of this, as clouds scrape the top of the montane forest on the rim, moisture is continuously flushed through the system. As a result, it creates its own climate separate from the surrounding areas even in the dry season when everything else begins to wither, the crater forests still flourish. This dense greenery is a result of the unique topography of the rim, it’s a forest haven unhindered by the changing seasons
The Ngorongoro is a sanctuary for Tanzania’s last few remaining black rhinos even when the dry season is at its harshest they are provided with water, they are normally elusive hiding within the forests but they are drawn out to join the rest of the residents in the search for nourishment. the wetland is the life force of the Ngorongoro crater it ties together all of the park’s residents, it is the only reason that they can endure the severity of the dry season. The Ngorongoro waters support all stages of life from the youngest animals to some of the planet’s oldest.
It’s a haven for old elephant bulls that wander inside the crater for the safety and seclusion that it offers. Elephants tusks keep growing their entire lives by the time a bull is 60 years old his tusks can reach a combined weight of 260 pounds, as a result, the Ngorongoro elephants are endowed with tusks of a size seldom seen outside the crater walls.
The crater’s wetlands are a constant home for another far larger resident for the hippo to live comfortably they need a water source that is deep enough for them to submerge completely and they also need to be close to grasslands these pools provide them with the ideal home. this water haven is the beating heart of the park it supports and provides for all of its residents all year round and without its dependable sustenance life in the crater would not be able to endure
the sheer 1900 foot drop of the caldera walls saves this landscape from the surrounding areas in many ways. it has its own apex predators, a separate climate, and a wealth of habitats unseen outside but what is on the face of it a wildlife oasis may just be something closer to a natural prison even at the height of the drought, most animals stay and endure the severity of the land. it is a constant home for herbivores no matter how frail and overpopulated the grasslands become or how many predators roam the enclosed amphitheater. seduced by the temptations of a year-long water supply, abundant grazing, and large numbers of prey the inhabitants have tempted over the crater walls thousands of years ago and many of their descendants have never left shackled by the promises that it offers their instincts for survival keep them bound to Ngorongoro even when this is to their detriment the life that endures here does so according to its own rules produced by the hostility of a volcanic environment. Ngorongoro crater is both a generous habitat and a dangerous trap and each of its residents has to navigate this boundary in the daily search for water the result is an animal kingdom like no other