The Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) spans an area of 8,292 sq.km (829,200 hectares) in northern Tanzania. The region consists of several volcanic features which include Ngorongoro crater, the most fascinating attraction. Others include crater-filled lakes of Ndutu, Empakai, Olmoti, and Eyasi.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area forms part of the Greater Serengeti-Mara Ecosystem and is bordered to the northwest by Serengeti national park. Ndutu plains which is an extension of southern Serengeti plains, the calving grounds for wildebeests, lies within the NCA. The area’s eastern boundary is marked by Mount Lolmalasin (3,700 meters) the 3rd tallest peak in Tanzania.
The Gol mountain range, which rises to a height of 915 meters lies to the north and the rift valley Lake Natron game controlled area to the north east at the border with Kenya. NCA consists of a diverse range of wildlife habitats such as open savanna plains, woodlands, highland forests, marshes, gorges, and crater-filled lakes. Ngorongoro is rich in biodiversity including 500 species of birds and 25,000 mammal species including the Big 5 which include lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino, and leopard.
Most of the mammals dwell inside the Ngorongoro crater, where visitors must go for game drive and birding experience. The crater alone covers an area of 260 sq.km with a diameter of 20 km encircled by cliffs that rise to 610 meters above sea level. The depression is linked by several corridors and routes used by migratory species such as wildebeests, elephants, flamingos, giraffes, buffaloes to move in and out of the crater. For instance, the Kitete wildlife corridor links Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the south with Tarangire and Lake Manyara National Parks. Empaakai crater and Lake Natron are breeding grounds for the greater and lesser flamingos among other species of the great white pelicans.
Vegetation in Ngorongoro Conservation Area
Ngorongoro conservation area is ecologically diverse with a variety of vegetation types which include open savanna grasslands, acacia woodlands, marshes, montane heath, bamboo, and evergreen forest. Savanna grasslands is the most dominant vegetation growing both in low and highlands. For instance tussock grass species grow on the rim of the crater at high altitude. The Northern Highland Forest Reserve (NHFR) on the southern boundary of Ngorongoro crater with Karutu contains several evergreen shrubs and tree species such as Bersama abyssinica, cape chestnut (Calodendrum capense), zigzag caper bush, white stinkwood (celtis africana), wild olives among others like quinine tree (Rauvolfia caffra). Large mammal species like elephants, rhinos, tend to visit the NHFR for food and habitat.
Unlike other protected areas in Tanzania, the NCA was established as a multiple land use zone in 1959 under the direction of the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority (NCAA). According to the Tropical Forest Ecosystems by UNESCO (1978), multiple land use refers to the utilization of resources, that is, a sustainable utilization, resting on ecological principles, and therefore including agricultural, forestry or pastoral development. The goal of making NCA a multiple land use landscape was to recognize the role of the adjacent indigenous communities in conservation and tourism so that their culture and ways of life wouldn’t be jeopardized by the new conservation policy.
The name Ngorongoro comes from the Maasai people “Ngor Ngor,” which refers to the sound and echo of a cowbell. The Maasai semi-nomadic pastoralists are the most dominant among other people living around which include the semi-nomadic Datoga and the Hadzabe bushmen. The fossils of early humans were unearthed within the Maasai community at Olduvai gorge, a UNESCO world heritage site. They have lived in harmony with wildlife long before the protected areas were gazetted.
For instance, the culture of the Maasai and Datoga is heavily reliant on cattle. Livestock is traditionally moved from one location to another in search of good pastures and water. Given that the grazing grounds were not limited to specific areas and there were no fences separating communities from the park, it was common for cows to graze along with wild animals like zebras, elands, and giraffes. The social customs of the Maasai promote coexistence with wildlife. For instance, they don’t eat bush meat or kill animals that aren’t a threat to their livestock.
However, they can kill lions more than any other predator given that a lion can attack and fight off the hunters. Lion hunting among the Maasai was also a rite of passage and a sign to show the stronger and brave warriors in the community. The Datooga also depend on livestock for survival and are best known for their wildlife tracking skills. The Hadzabe bushmen survive by hunting small game such as antelopes and gathering wild food and honey.
The new conservation plan for Ngorongoro Conservation Area
According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) which promotes inclusive and sustainable growth for all peoples, the indigenous communities were assured of their land rights during the proposal for establishing the NCA. The Maasai, Datoga, and Hadzabe would continue to access the natural resources, be part of the management, and have improved access to water for livestock. However, there’s a new plan that intends to resettle 82,000 Maasai communities by 2027. According to a Report on the Joint mission of the World Heritage Center (WHC), International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the NCA was tasked to control population citing that there’s pressure on nature resources.
The conservation area is also to be expanded from its current size 8,292 sq.km to 12,083 sq.km to include the adjacent Lake Natron and Loliondo controlled game hunting areas. For easy management, it will further be partitioned into different zones including a resettlement and development zone, a transition zone, and a conservation core zone. As this plan is being implemented, there are concerns that the land rights of the indigenous people are being violated.
Attraction in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area
The Ngorongoro crater
Ngorongoro was formerly a massive volcano almost the same size as Mount Kilimanjaro. However, it erupted and its top and sides collapsed inward during the Paleolithic period about 2.5 million years ago to form a large depression. Today, the Ngorongoro Caldera covers an area of 260 sq.km with a diameter of 20 km encircled by cliffs that rise to 610 meters above sea level. Ngorongoro is the largest intact unflooded caldera in the world and a must-visit gem in East Africa. Diverse habitats are found inside the caldera including crater-filled lakes, swamps, open savanna plains, acacia woodlands, and highland forests. The crater is famous for harboring one of the highest densities of animal species in one place.
According to the NCAA ground survey of large to medium mammal species. There are over 500 bird and 25,000 mammal species within the caldera including the Big Five mammals which include elephants, black rhinos, cape buffaloes, lions, and leopards. Among other wild animals include Maasai giraffes, hippos, Thompson’s gazelles, cheetahs, wildebeest, plains zebras, elands, impalas, waterbucks, and hyenas. Some of the unique bird species found in the crater include common ostriches, secretary birds, martial eagles, hartlaub’s turaco, rufous-tailed weaver, Jackson’s widowbird, among others such as Egyptian vultures, gray crowned cranes, kori bustards, Livingston’s turaco, lesser flamingos and greater flamingos.
The Ndutu plains
The southern Serengeti plains, which make up the northern portion of the NCA, extend into the Ndutu area. The area consists of two permanent soda lakes which include Lake Ndutu and Lake Masek surrounded by swamps, short grass plains, and acacia woodland. Ndutu plains are famous for harboring the grounds for wildebeest birthing which takes place between December and April. The abundance of young calves attracts a high density of predators including lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, and African wild dogs. As such, the Ndutu game drive offers a thrilling wildlife viewing experience.
Empakai is an alkaline crater-filled lake within the larger Ngorongoro caldera. The lake is famous for attracting a plethora of flamingos that come to feed on the green algae.
Olmoti crater is situated on the northern rim of Ngorongoro crater at 3,080 meters. The crater stretches for 6.5 km diameter within a larger depression where the Munge river originates and drains into the Ngorongoro crater. Olmoti crater offers spectacular views of Mount Lolmalasin 3,700 m.
The Olduvai Gorge lies in a volcanic valley stretching for 55 km long and 100 meters deep about 180 km southeast of the Serengeti National Park and 42 km northwest of the Ngorongoro Crater. Mary Leakey discovered some of the earliest human fossil remains at Olduvai Gorge in 1959. Among these bones is a hominid skull known as Zinjathropus. The archeological site was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1979, seven years after Mary’s husband Louis Leakey’s death, who led the hunt for African human origins.
Olduvai Gorge Museum
Olduvai gorge museum is 43 km (1 hr drive) west of Ngorongoro crater and 180 km (2-hour drive) south of Serengeti. The museum was founded by Mary Leakey in 1970 to provide space for animal and human fossils and Stone Age tools. Among the fossils she discovered is a 1.75 million years old hominid skull named Zinjanthropus (Australopithecus boisei). The skull was later reconstructed using other fossils excavated from the gorge and put on display in the exhibition. These fossils revealed a lot more about the ancient humans, making Olduvai gorge Tanzania, the cradle of humankind. In order to preserve it for future generations, the New Olduvai Gorge Museum was rebuilt in 2017. The new layout includes a restaurant, lecture hall, viewing platform, and visitor center of which have since improved the visitor experience.
Laetoli footprints are located 45 km south of the Olduvai Gorge Museum within Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Laetoli is a 27 km long trail, which consists of 70 ancient human and animal footprints. The footprints were discovered in the footprints in the volcanic ash in the open valley by Mary Leakey and her team in 1976. According to the National Museum of Tanzania, the footprints are some of the oldest hominid footprints in Africa, dating back 3.6 million years ago. The tracks are still visible. However, they’re reportedly disappearing due to sedimentation into the rocks, making for a must-visit gem of paleontology in East Africa.
The Shifting sand dunes
The Ngorongoro shifting sand dunes are located 12 km northwest of Olduvai Gorge along the way from Ngorongoro to Serengeti. There are two dark-colored crescent-shaped sand dunes which lie at the foothills of Mount Ol Doinyo Lengai 2962 m (9718 ft), an active volcano at the southern end of the Great East African rift valley. The composite volcano is famous for spewing out carbonatite lava. This type of lava is composed of alkali substances like magnetite, gregoryite, sodium, nitrate, nyerereite, calcite, potassium, calcium and high content of carbon dioxide.
Carbonate lava erupts at much cooler temperatures, making it less viscous, heavy, and magnetic than silicate magma. Carbonate lava also breaks down faster after cooling and turns into fine volcanic sand when exposed to air and water. Given that the sand has some form of magnetite iron ores, it can collect around a rock to form a dune. The sand is then put into motion by wind. According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Ngorongoro sand dunes have been shifting westwards across the plains at a rate of 15 to 20 meters per year, making for some of earth’s rare physical features.