Ngorongoro: The Cradle of Mankind

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Overview about Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Ngorongoro, as officially known as Ngorongoro Conservation Area, is in northern Tanzania, Situated about 180 km west of Arusha. It’s home to the vast, volcanic Ngorongoro Crater and “big 5” game (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino). Huge herds of wildebeests and zebras traverse its plains during their annual migration. Livestock belonging to the semi-nomadic Maasai tribe graze alongside wild animals. Hominin fossils found in the Olduvai Gorge date back millions of years.

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it covers 8,292 square kilometers of magnificent grass plains, acacia woodlands, and crater-filled highlands. It is named after the world’s largest intact and unfilled caldera.

The area is located to the North and North-West by the Serengeti National Park, Lake Natron to the East, the left arm of the Great Rift Valley to the South, and Maswa Game Reserve to the West. Its altitudes range from the lowest areas, the main Crater (600 m) to the highest point, the Oldonyo Lengai (2,962 m).

Location: Ngorongoro Conservation Area

Ngorongoro's History

Ngorongoro was named after Ngorongoro Crater, (which means “the black hole” in Maasai) world’s largest unbroken and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater was formed by a major volcanic eruption.

Ngorongoro Crater
Ngorongoro Crater

Ngorongoro was part of Serengeti National Park until 1959 when the two were separated into two different Protected Areas with different conservation status. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area was established as a multiple-land use area, where wildlife could co-exist with the semi-nomadic Maasai, who move from one place to another in search of water and pasture. The Maasai are a pastoral tribe that has managed to preserve its culture over hundreds of years, living in harmony with the wild animals. The NCA was therefore established as an experiment to maintain a balance between pastoralism, conservation, and tourism.

Before the arrival of the Maasai in Northern Tanzania in the 1800s, the area was occupied by other tribal groups (including The Mbulu and The Datoga), beginning with hunter-gatherer tribes that were replaced by groups of pastoralists earlier on. During the colonial period, the area was mostly a hunting ground for European hunters. In 1928, hunting was prohibited in the crater.

The National Park Ordinance of 1948 (implemented in 1951) created the Serengeti National Park, of which Ngorongoro was part thereof. This, however, caused problems with the Maasai, resulting in the split of the two protected areas. The 1959 ordinance also created Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, an administrative body to manage the Area as a parastatal organization. The authority is under the supervision of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism (MNRT).

Purpose of Ngorongoro Conservation Area

  1. To maintain a dynamic multiple land use system which preserve the balance of people and Nature
  2. To conserve the biodiversity and ecological integrity of Serengeti ecosystem and Ngorongoro highlands
  3. To conserve the area’s internationally significant paleontological and archaeological sites and resources.
  4. To protect water catchments vital to the region’s ecology and residents
  5. To safeguards and promote the rights of indigenous residents of the area to control their own economic and cultural development in a manner that leaves exceptional resources intact.
  6. To encourage responsible tourism which benefits the local, regional and national economy
  7. To provide opportunity for interpretation, education and research concerning the area’s natural and cultural resources.
  8. To maintain and promote those values for which the areas is designated as a world heritage site and international biosphere reserve.

Getting There

Most visitors approach the Ngorongoro Conservation Area from the town of Arusha, about 180 kilometers away. Arusha can be easily accessed via domestic transfer from Julius Nyerere International Airport (DAR) in Dar es Salaam or Kilimanjaro International Airport (Kilimanjaro.

The road from Arusha to Ngorongoro Conservation Area is good and is paved; it enters the Conservation Area through the Loduare Gate near the town of Karatu.

Another common entry point is from the west, from Serengeti National Park, on a gravel road through Naabi Hill Gate. It is also possible to get to Ngorongoro Conservation Area by flying a charter plane. There is an airstrip on the crater rim; close to the headquarters of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Other local airlines have scheduled flights from Arusha, and other major destinations in the country to Serengeti next door, which makes an easy connection to Ngorongoro.

Game-viewing safaris around Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and particularly entry into Ngorongoro Crater, are restricted to four-wheel-drive vehicles (4WD) only.

There are various tour companies that offer safari service to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and other wildlife areas in northern Tanzania, usually as part of a tour package. For visitors who have no experience of African travel, an organized tour is highly recommended. Details of tour companies that can arrange your safari can be obtained from a travel agent, from the Tanzania Tourist Board, or from the Tanzania Confederation of Tourism. Most tour companies offer full packages that include transport, entry fees, accommodation, and transfers from the airport.

Time to Visit

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a destination for wildlife viewing that can be visited at any time of the year. Unlike on the plains, where the numbers of animals are dictated by the availability of food and water, the abundant game is present inside the crater year-round because food and water are always available for both herbivores and predators.

However during the dry season, especially from June to October. It is an extremely popular season to visit the area because wildlife is more visible and easier to spot, due to dryness of the landscapes and also most of the game can be spotted near the water.

Outside the crater, but still in the conservation area, from around December to May (depending on the rains), over one million wildebeests and thousands of zebras and gazelles move south to calve in the short-grass plains around Ndutu that straddle the conservation area and Serengeti National Park. This is the area where the animals regroup to start the annual wildebeest migration that spans through the Serengeti ecosystem.

For birders, the period from November to March is the best time to see migrant bird species, in addition to the indigenous species. Botanists will enjoy most of the wet season, which runs from March to early June.

What to Do in Ngorongoro

Ngorongoro is one the best destination in Tanzania, a visitor to the area will be able to see a wide range of attractions ranging from wildlife, archeological site, mountain climbing and cultural tourism.

Amazing Wildlife

Around 550 bird species have been recorded in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, of which 400 can be found in the crater itself. The region’s dense acacia woodland is home to the world’s largest known population of the near-threatened Fischer’s lovebird, while the Gorigor Swamp is an important habitat for aquatic species like the whiskered tern and African rail. One can see birds at Lake Magadi, a Salt lake on the floor of the crater often thousands of lesser flamingos can be observed, Flamingos can also be seen at Lake Ndutu and in the Empakaai Crater Lake.

Many of the birds found in the conservation area are unique to Tanzania or East Africa, including endemics and near-endemics such as Jackson’s widowbird, Hartlaub’s turaco, hornbill goshawk, Montagu’s Harrier and the Rufous-tailed weaver.

Secretary bird

Apart from birds, there have been 115 species of mammal recorded in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The two main areas for game-viewing, apart from the crater, are the short-grass plains west of the Gol Mountains, northwest of Ngorongoro Crater, and the surroundings of Lake Ndutu close to the border with Serengeti National Park. The two areas become the feeding and breeding ground for over 2 million animals during the rainy reason as they support the great annual wildebeest migration that spans the Serengeti ecosystem. From around December to May (depending on the rains), over one million wildebeests and thousands of zebras and gazelles move south to calve in the short-grass plains around Ndutu that straddle the Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park.

Elephants, elands, hartebeests, and the endangered rhinos are among the residents of the crater. There are also resident zebras and wildebeests in the crater that do not take part in the annual migration. Hippos are found in the permanent freshwater pools and the swamps in the crater. Other non-migratory herbivorous mammals that are found in the Conservation Area include buffalos, waterbucks, warthogs, and kudus and other species of antelope. Giraffes live in the surroundings of Lake Ndutu, where acacia trees are abundant.

The carnivores found in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area include lions, cheetahs, hyenas, leopards, jackals, serval cats, and the endangered wild hunting dogs.

Ngorongoro Wildlife Toursim

Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai or Oldupai Gorge is named after a native wild sisal plant (Sansevieria ehrenbergii) which grow abundantly in the area, it’s the most famous archaeological location in East Africa, and has become an essential stop for travelers to Ngorongoro or Serengeti. It is located about 40km northwest of Ngorongoro Crater, just a few kilometres off the main Serengeti road.

The site holds the earliest evidence of the existence of human ancestors, the records of the site is dated as far in 1911, when the German entomologist Professor Wilhelm Kattwinkle found the initial fossils in the gorge that lead to many great discoveries. Kattwinkel found the teeth of an extinct three-toed horse known as Hipparion. In 1931 Louis Leakey visited Olduvai Gorge, He and his wife Mary Leakey discovered Zinjanthropus boisei in 1959, then the oldest significantly intact hominid fossil from Olduvai Gorge. This skull, plus other archaeological finds from Olduvai Gorge are housed in the national museum in Dar es Salaam.

Ngorongoro Zinjantropus Busei
Sansevieria ehrenbergii
Ngorongoro Olduvai Gorge

Olduvai Gorge museum

A museum dedicated for showing the history and information about the findings made in and around the Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli fossil sites. The museum exhibits numerous fossils and stone tools of our hominid ancestors, and skeletons of many extinct animals, it has a separate dining area, a curio shop and a lecture room.

Olduvai-Gorge-Museum

Nasera Rock

It’s a huge gneiss inselberg that is located about 27 km north of Olduvai Gorge. Its source of various archaeological findings most of which are stone artifacts high in quartz and obsidian, bone fragments and sherds of pottery – dated to as far back as 30,000 B.C.

Nasera Rock is also a spot for climbers and bird watchers. The eastern side of the rock is gentler and enables climbers to reach the top and admire magnificent view of the plains in the area.

One can also see rock the paintings and wildebeests which can be observed well on wet season.

Ngorongoro Nasera Rock

Laetoli Footprints

These are the footprints most likely made by Australopithecus afarensis, an early human whose fossils were found in the same sediment layer. The entire footprint trail is almost 27 m long and includes impressions of about 70 early human footprints.

The site of Laetoli is 25 miles to the southwest of Olduvai Gorge, About 3.6 million years ago in Laetoli, two early ancestors of humans walked through wet volcanic ash. When the nearby volcano erupted again, subsequent layers of ash covered and preserved the oldest footprints of early humans.

The Laetoli area was first studied by the German entomologist Kohl Larsen in the 1920s and yielded a few fossils. In 1974 a team led by Mary Leakey made the discoveries of the hominid footprints, and excavations were carried out in 1978 and 1979.

Cultural Tourism In and around Ngorongoro

There are several cultural activities a tourist can enjoy while visiting Ngorongoro. Activities include participating in community projects, Hunting with local, cooking and eating local food, bicycle riding and visiting Maasai boma. to read more of these activities read this article. 

When to visit

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a destination for wildlife viewing that can be visited at any time of the year. Unlike on the plains, where the numbers of animals is dictated by the availability of food and water, abundant game is present inside the crater year round because food and water are always available for both herbivores and predators.

Outside the crater, but still in the conservation area, from around December to May (depending on the rains), over one million wildebeests and thousands of zebras and gazelles move south to calve in the short-grass plains around Ndutu that straddle the conservation area and Serengeti National Park. This is the area where the animals regroup to start the annual wildebeest migration that spans through the Serengeti ecosystem.

For birders, the period from November to March is the best time to see migrant bird species, in addition to the indigenous species. Botanists will enjoy most the wet season, which runs from March to early June

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