|Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania
by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
No one knows just where the biblical Eden was actually located. Some of the earliest traces of humans have been discovered in the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. We definitely know the cradle of civilization was in present day Iraq between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. We know that because our earliest recorded history tells us so. The closest thing to Eden that I have ever found is the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. I have been most fortunate that, during my seven summers in Africa, I spent weeks at a time for five of those summers camping down in the Crater.
Unfortunately, since I now photograph with a large video camera, I can no longer afford to go to Tanzania where the government requires me to pay $650 a day just to bring my camera into the country. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC), National Geographic and other big budget corporations can probably afford such exorbitant daily fees; as a private, free-lance wildlife photographer, I cannot. In addition, the hoteliers, who run the luxury hotels up on the rim of the crater, have persuaded the government to ban all camping in the crater, thus forcing everyone to stay in their hotels. I am truly thankful for the many weeks I have spent in this African Eden. One of my lifelong dreams was to be able to spend a period of at least six months there and that still wouldn't be time enough to document the activities of all the wildlife that lives there.
Ngorongoro Crater is an extinct volcano that lies about eighty miles due west of Tanzania's capitol, Arusha. The rim of the crater has an elevation of about 7,500', which is why the rim is usually shrouded in clouds. The floor of the crater is about 5,000' in elevation. The caldera is roughly ten miles across so that the crater encompasses about ninety square miles of area. In the crater there are two freshwater streams flowing into a large alkaline lake, a small forest, a few hills and miles and miles of savannah grassland. However, it is the wildlife that makes this idyllic spot an Eden.
The crater has one of the largest concentrations of the very best, big, black-maned lions I have ever seen. I don't know what the lion population is in the crater, but on every trip there I averaged at least forty lions a day. One pride consisted of 23 males, females and cubs and, of course, to feed that many lions took a lot of meat so there was lots of action all of the time.
There is no shortage of prey species for the lions, as there is a herd of about 30,000 wildebeest that live in the crater. Wildebeest migrate constantly and they do so in the crater, too. All of the animals in the crater could leave it if they wanted to, but most never do. The wildebeest don't migrate out of the crater, they just migrate around the lake, taking between four to five days to complete the circuit in a counter clockwise circle. During periods of drought the lake recedes, leaving a dusty, alkaline shoreline. When wildebeest walk, they do so with their heads held low, almost as if they were weary from the weight of their crooked horns. Most of the herd migrates through the grasses, but those who follow the shoreline, and they don't have to, kick up billows of choking dust. They look as though they had been condemned to spend the rest of eternity plodding through the dust and going nowhere.
The wildebeest are not alone in their travels. There are herds of thousands of Burchell's zebras following the same route. Hundreds of Grant's gazelles tag along, sometimes running on ahead as if afraid that they would be left behind. This is really a needless endeavor because, as the wildebeest keep walking at a steady pace, the gazelles that might fall behind would, within a few days, be at the head of the line.
You have to be up early to get good interaction photos between the lions and their prey. In all my time in the field I have only seen lions actually kill their prey about five or six times. I have photographed lions eating freshly killed prey hundreds of times, which leads me to believe that most lion kills take place about 5:00 a.m. under the cover of darkness. Ngorongoro Crater is only a few hundred miles south of the equator so that there are roughly thirteen hours of daylight and eleven hours of darkness in a 24 hour period. Sunrises and sunsets occur very quickly; they are often spectacular, but are over in a matter of minutes.
The crater is unique for another phenomena. In the crater, the hyena is a major predator rather than being primarily a scavenger as it is elsewhere. There are a large number of hyenas in the crater and they have learned to hunt in large packs. The hyenas made their transition from scavenger to predator many years ago. During periods of great drought, the lions left the crater when large numbers of wildebeest left to search for water. Deprived of being able to scavenge on lion kills, the hyenas survived by making the kills themselves. I have, on many occasions, seen the lions chase the hyenas from their kills rather than make a kill themselves. A pride, or family group, of lions can chase a dozen hyenas from a kill; a single lion cannot.
There are a few cheetah in the crater, but I have never seen a leopard. There may be a few leopards there but leopards need trees in which to live; as the forested area is small their population would be low.
It was not at all unusual to find five to six fresh wildebeest carcasses every day, which made for great photographic opportunities. We would discover the carcasses by actually seeing the lions and hyenas on the kill or we would be attracted to hidden kills by the circling of the vultures. Carcasses could be hidden from our sight by intervening hills or brush but nothing is hidden from a vulture's sight.
All of this predation is needed, not only as food for all of the predators and their young, but is also needed by the wildebeest and their young. Predation on a stable population of prey species by predators helps to keep the prey population stable. Overpopulation of a prey species is detrimental to that species as it causes the destruction of their habitat by overgrazing. Overpopulation also allows for the transmission of disease and starvation. The lions and the hyenas are doing their best to do their part and keep all of the wildlife in good health and condition.
There is a small herd of elephants that stays in the forested area, as they much prefer to feed upon brush than grass. The elephants are the only species that constantly go in and out of the crater. Instead of climbing up the very steep slopes of the crater, the elephants walk up the graded roadway. If you are driving, either up or down the road, and an elephant is also using the road, you can expect your trip to be an hour longer. The elephants just refuse to leave the roadway. They are convinced that the road was built for their convenience and they are too big to argue with.
Black rhinos have had their populations almost annihilated by poachers, as a big rhino horn is valued at about $35,000 on the illegal market. The two best places that I know of to photograph black rhinos are Nairobi National Park in Kenya, where the remaining rhinos have been brought from all over Kenya to protect them from poachers, and Ngorongoro National Park in Tanzania. The crater is isolated by its being a volcanic crater having high, steep sides and only two roads which are heavily patrolled. The rhinos can always be found at the far end of the crater as they favor the coarse weeds that grow there.
All photography in the crater is done from a safari car. When photographing rhinos, keep as quiet as possible. Rhinos have very poor eyesight but extremely keen senses of hearing and smell. Most often the rhino is alerted to your presence because the tick birds that sit and feed on the rhino fly off if you get too close and may cause the rhino to charge or to run off.
The freshwater ponds that empty into the lake hold a bonanza of shorebirds and ducks. Whereas a 400mm lens is usually large enough to do most of the mammal photography, a 600mm lens will let you do a better job on the birds. Of course, the larger the lens, the more you have to dampen any movement in your safari car. However, because of its high elevation and proximity to the equator, the light in the crater should allow you to shoot at 1/500 of a second and still set your f-stop between 11 and 16.
As I mentioned, I no longer run tour groups into Tanzania, but good friends of mine do. Joe McDonald is one of the country's top wildlife photographers today. He and his wife Mary Ann conduct photo tours to the crater. You can contact them at 717-543-6423 or find their website at www.hoothollow.com. If you get the opportunity, by all means go before this Eden too disappears.