Did you know that the Ngorongoro Crater is actually a caldera? Apparently when you let people who study butterflies name a geological formation, some mistakes may be made!
The Ngorongoro Crater (caldera) is absolutely stunning. If you ever get a chance to go, don’t say no. The caldera has vegetation and animals living on the floor, as opposed to craters that are filled with water. The amount of animals to see is incredible.
On our last day in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, we took a walking tour in the morning with a park ranger along the rim to see the caldera from high above. “Limon” has been a ranger in the park for the past 17 years, after starting his career in Kilimanjaro and Arusha National Parks.
Limon greeted us with a Kalishnikov assault rifle. He told us not to worry as he would likely not use it, but he would fire it in the air if he a spotted a leopard or buffalo that was threatening us.
We had been walking for no more than 10 minutes when we heard strange animal cries coming from a few metres above us. Seeing the concerned look on our faces, Limon broke into a smile and told us that what we were hearing were Maasai hearding cows. We then heard them singing, and we felt a little foolish.
Part of Limon’s job as a ranger is to act as a liaison with the Maasai. He knew many of the people we passed that morning and he had several friendly conversations with the locals.
Limon showed us a variety plants and the way the Maasai use them. We smelled three different types of mint, and learned what plant leaves the Maasai use for toilet paper. We also learned what roots the Maasai boil to treat typhoid and malaria, as well as a number of other ailments.
We then reached the top of the rim and had a beautiful view of the caldera that just the day before, we were racing through way down below. There were no sounds this time except for the birds and the breeze, and the odd Maasai cry.
I asked Limon what changes he had seen in the area over the last 17 years. He said one of the biggest concerns was invasive species. He said the worst was wheat, which local villagers are starting to grow to make a profit.
The wheat seeds are carried into the caldera on the wind and by birds. They take root and push the native vegetation out. The problem is that the herbivores of the area like zebras, rhinos and wildebeest can’t eat wheat, and so their food source becomes diminished.
Limon says about 200 people are employed year round to pull the offending wheat, but it is not enough.
Another problem is the amount of safari vehicles in the area. On a busy day, upwards of 200 vehicles might visit, which disturbs the animals and cuts up the ground. But it is difficult for Tanzania to limit the number of vehicles because in a poor country, you need to find dollars where you can. They are contemplating grouping tourists together on larger vehicles, but he didn’t think the plan would actually work.
He also talked about problems with inbreeding among lions in the area. A research scientist tried to introduce two new male lions, but they were chased out by the lions already present. Those two lions then went on to steal Maasai cows, which evidently was not popular among the locals.
Limon also pointed to the forested area in the caldera and the challenges it faces. The forest is aging but there is no new growth because saplings are immediately trampled by elephants.
The last challenge involves people. The Maasai population has more than doubled since the Ngorongoro Conservation Area was given UNESCO world heritage status. The resulting environmental impacts are not only devastating for the area, but UNESCO has threatened to revoke the park’s status.
Moving people is not easy, and often inadvisable. There are many negative examples around the world of what happens to the moved population, including right in Canada. Negotiations with the Maasai are ongoing, but there is no end in sight.
I feel like we were lucky to see Ngorongoro when we did. There are only 48 rhinos left in the area due to poachers, and we managed to see about eight of them. Limo sadly pointed to the forest, and told us it would not be there 50 years from now. There are so many things on our planet that we are losing right underneath our noses, but there are no easy answers to stop the loss.