Serengeti National Park Natural Attractions
A WILDEBEEST MIGRATION SAFARI
The Great Wildebeest Migration in Africa – also known as the Gnu Migration, Serengeti Migration and Masai Mara Migration – is one of the last mass terrestrial wildlife movements left on the planet. It’s the chief reason why so many travellers venture to Kenya and Tanzania for a Migration safari, especially around mid-year.
Migration is one of nature’s greatest paradoxes: timing is vital, but there is no way to predict the timing of the animals’ movements. We know that the wildebeest (and a smattering of zebra and antelope) will cross the Mara River – but nobody knows exactly when. We also know that rain will trigger the wildebeest to move onto fresh grazing – but nobody knows exactly when the rain will fall.
Fortunately, we’ve been planning Wildebeest Migration safaris in Africa since 1998. We’ve helped thousands of travellers to be in the best possible place at the best possible time for the best possible price. If you’re looking for expert planning advice, look no further. We’ve compiled all our specialist tips in this handy beginner’s guide to a Wildebeest Migration safari…
How Does the Great Migration Work?
Can the Migration River Crossings be Predicted?
No, not even the wildebeest know when they’re going to cross! Some arrive at the water and swim over immediately; some arrive and spend days hanging around grazing; some arrive and turn back to where they came from. We wish we could predict the crossings, but no one can. This is why it is best to have as much time on safari as possible if you hope to see a river crossing.
What Month is the Wildebeest Migration?
Most people think that the Wildebeest Migration only takes place between July and October, but it’s an ever-moving, circular migration with various but equally exciting events that occur year-round. The popular river crossings usually coincide with the safari’s high season (June to October), hence the perception that this is the only time of the year that the wildebeest is on the move or can be seen.
Where Does the Great Migration Start?
Because the Great Migration is a fluid, year-round movement of about two million animals across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, there are no defined start or end points. The Gnu Migration is triggered by East Africa’s rains and the animals follow an age-old route in search of fresh grazing and water. This epic journey takes the wildebeest across the Masai Mara plains in Kenya, all the way south into Tanzania’s Serengeti and the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, before circling up and around in a clockwise direction.
Why Do Wildebeest Migrate?
It is generally believed that the Great Migration in Africa is dictated primarily by the wildebeest’s response to the weather. They move after the rains and the growth of new grass, essentially following an instinct to find food to stay alive. Some experts believe that the wildebeest is triggered by distant lightning and thunderstorms, but there is no scientific proof of it.
What Happens When?
A Month-by-Month Breakdown of the Great Migration
With climate change, the long and short rainy seasons in Tanzania and Kenya are no longer as regular or predictable as they once were. The rains can be late or early, which will throw the whole wildebeest calendar out of synch. This is, once again, why it’s important to plan for as much time on safari as possible. You cannot fly in for two nights, see a river crossing and fly out again – nature simply doesn’t work that way.
This is a very general guideline for where the herds are during the year – bearing in mind that the entire Gnu Migration is triggered by rain, which can be early, late or on time:
The herds are in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, moving south from the north-east region and into the area near Lake Ndutu. The Serengeti is not fenced, so the herds are free to move where they can find grazing. Remember that although up to two million wildebeest, zebra and antelope from the Serengeti Migration, they are not all in a single herd. The animals break up into mega-herds of thousands or hundreds of individuals at a time.
February to March
It is a calving season (over 8,000 wildebeest babies are born each day!) so prepare yourself for lots of wobbly calves… and lots of heartbreak as fearsome predators swoop in. The Serengeti’s big cats take the lion’s share, but hit-and-run jackals, packs of wild dogs, and hyena clans add to the spectacle. It’s a bittersweet ballad; the circle of life played out as a live-action drama.
If the short rainy season (Nov–Dec) produces good grazing, the herds feed frenziedly and remain in the Serengeti’s southern plains until they slowly start moving west in March.
It’s the start of the long rains (Apr–May) and the herds generally move north-westerly towards the Moru and Simba Kopjes. The action-packed rutting (breeding) season is in full swing, featuring testosterone-fuelled jousts between males competing for the right to mate with receptive females.
Wagons roll! The massed herds are on the go, huge columns of up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) in length can sometimes be seen as the wildebeest funnel up into the central Serengeti. Everyone’s moving a little quicker now that the calves are stronger.
The wildebeest are usually in the central Serengeti and getting ready for the toughest part of their odyssey. The herds may have split up, with some already crossing the Grumeti River.
The Great Migration have reached the Grumeti region and northern parts of the Serengeti and is peering closely at the treacherous waters of the Mara River they have to cross into Kenya. Why? Huge Nile crocodiles, that’s why!
As mentioned, it is impossible to accurately predict river crossings – they depend entirely on the rains and the often unpredictable wildebeest themselves. It’s vital to book your Wildebeest Migration safari in Africa up to a year in advance to get a lodge on or as close to the river as possible – this cuts down on travel time to lookout points. The wildebeest do have historical crossing areas and you may spend days staked out in the hope of seeing the action. We recommend choosing a mobile safari camp that moves with the Migration to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time.
August is generally considered the best time to witness the dramatic river crossings from the northern Serengeti into the Masai Mara. You’ll need a passport to cross into Kenya; the wildebeest are exempt. The Masai Mara National Reserve is open to members of the public so for a more exclusive safari experience, head for the private conservancies that are contiguous with the reserve.
The herds break up into smaller groups, as not all the wildebeest migrate into Kenya. Less than half of the animals remain in the northern Serengeti, the rest are swapping war stories in the Masai Mara. So, you could still see wildebeest in the Serengeti (just not the mega-herds) but as a general rule of thumb, the Masai Mara is the best place to witness the Migration in September.
Your best bet is still the Masai Mara, but bear in mind it is a far smaller reserve than the Serengeti and there may be a lot of other visitors. The neighbouring private conservancies are much less crowded and, not only will you still be able to witness the Migration, but you will also directly contribute to the Maasai communities who have lived there for thousands of years. Plus, you can enjoy off-road game viewing, night drives and walking safaris – activities not permitted in the national reserve.
In a ‘normal year,’ the short rains have begun, propelling the wildebeest to leave the now-denuded grasslands of the Masai Mara and head back into the rejuvenated Serengeti. Bear in mind that the rain can be late or early, which is also unpredictable.
The herds are generally on the move but can be seen around the north-eastern parts of the Serengeti where they may split into smaller groups for their journey southward.
Tip: although many people think of Africa as a hot place, the rain can cool things down dramatically. You’ll be out on early morning and late afternoon game drives – the sun is at its weakest during these times. Take at least one pair of trousers, closed shoes that can cope with mud, and a fleece or waterproof jacket.
Fresh grazing sees the wildebeest move south, covering the northern and eastern Serengeti to feast and prepare for yet another death-defying, 3,000-km (1 900-mi) odyssey.
Timing is everything
The annual movement of wildebeest and other herbivores across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is rarely the same in terms of precise timing and direction.
Best Time to Go
When is the Best Time to Go on a Migration Safari?
Now that you know how the Great Wildebeest Migration in Africa works, you can easily see that the best time to go depends entirely on which events you’re personally interested in seeing. Remember, the Serengeti and Masai Mara’s abundance of wildlife and wide-open landscapes make them fantastic year-round safari destinations.
|Calving (Birthing) Season
|February to March
|Rutting (Breeding) Season
|April to May
|Western & Central Serengeti
|Grumeti River Crossings
|May to June
|Mara River Crossings
|July to August
|Northern Serengeti & Masai Mara
|On the Move
|November to January
|Masai Mara & Northern Serengeti to Southern Serengeti
Note: the above are approximate dates only. The Wildebeest Migration is a year-round, circular journey and the river crossings cannot be predicted. Sometimes the herds stay put for two weeks, other times they could cross four times in one day!
Key Facts to Remember
The bulk of the Migration takes place in the Serengeti.
It’s a year-round, circular journey.
River crossings cannot be predicted, but generally occur between May and August.
The animals are strung out across a large area – there are always forerunners and stragglers.
Your best chance of seeing a river crossing may involve spending all day at a site where the wildebeest has massed. If you are a keen photographer, your best opportunities may occur around midday when the sun and glare are at their harshest, so make preparations to accommodate this.
Geology of Serengeti National Park
The Serengeti ecosystem is part of East Africa’s high interior plateau. It slopes from its highest parts in the crater highlands (at an altitude of 3,636 meters) towards Speke Gulf on Lake Victoria (920 meters above sea level).
The highlands result from volcanic activity related to plate tectonics of the Rift Valley. The area still has one active volcano: Ol Doinyo Lengai, which means ‘mountain of God’ in the local Maa language. Learn all about Serengeti’s geology on this page.
Rivers in the Serengeti
The Serengeti plains are at an elevation between 1,600 and 1,800 meters above sea level. Several river catchments drain the area. The Mara River in the north flows from the Mau forests in the Kenyan highlands, southwards through the Masai Mara National Reserve, then west through northern Serengeti, out through the great Masarua marshes, and ultimately into Lake Victoria at Musoma. This is the only permanently flowing river in the Serengeti ecosystem. It supports dense riverine forests on its banks in the Mara and along its major tributaries in Serengeti National Park. South of the Mara are the parallel catchments of the Grumeti and Mbalaget Rivers that form the Western Corridor of Serengeti National Park. Further south there are the much smaller Duma, Simiyu and Semu rivers flowing through the Maswa Game Reserve. The area is undulating and dissected by many small seasonal streams that drain into the main rivers.
Hills & mountains
There are bands of hills that rise steeply from this relatively flat landscape. One band forms the northeastern boundary of Serengeti National Park in the woodlands, running north from Grumechen to Kuko, then joining the Loita Hills in Kenya. The Gol Mountains rise from the Serengeti plains east of the park. Another band stretches from Seronera west along the corridor to form the Central Ranges, and a third group of hills lies in the south forming the Nyaraboro-Itonjo plateau.
Soils & volcanic history
West of the line Mugumu – Seronera the underlying rocks are ancient (600 million to 2.5 billion years) and comprise Precambrian volcanic rocks, banded ironstones and mineral-poor granites. Late Precambrian sedimentary rocks cover this shield and form the central and southern hills. East of Seronera, granite and quartzite form the eastern hills and kopjes. The western corridor is of more recent geological history; it is a complex of unconsolidated sediments and alluvial formations, which form the base for more nutrient-rich soils. The Crater Highlands are volcanoes of the Pleistocene age and comprise basic igneous rocks and basalt. One volcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai, is still active with the last eruption dating back to 2013.
Africa is an old continent. Evidence suggests it is as old as 4 billion years, older than Europe or North America. We can see this old age from the air (so have a good peek when arriving at Kilimanjaro Airport). Millions of years of weathering have flattened mountains and turned much of Africa into a series of endless, rolling plains and hills. One exception is the geologically active East African Rift system.
The East African Rift is the area where two tectonic plates are moving away from one another. The resulting cracks have produced both the immense Rift Valley and the volcanoes on either side of it. Kilimanjaro, Mount Kenya, and Mount Meru are a few of the best-known examples of the Rift’s volcanoes. Although Ngorongoro Crater looks like an extinct volcano, geological surveys suggest it never exploded, however, most of its immediate neighbours did. Ngorongoro Crater is a caldera, which means the mountain is collapsing on itself as the tectonic plates separate.
The volcanoes of the East African Rift are relatively young. As these volcanoes erupted, they covered the eastern parts of Serengeti with ash and larger particles. This volcanic ash on the plains creates a very specific type of soil rich in minerals. Eastern plains soils contain different salts, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. The soil here is shallow because of the formation of a calcareous hardpan, also known as caliche. During the regional rains, salts are washed down into the soil. As water is removed by plant uptake, the soluble substances precipitate and the caliche layer develops and cements through lime. Soils in the Serengeti become deeper (where the hardpan disappears) towards the northwest plains and into the woodlands, because of more rainfall and less calcium. At levels of precipitation too high for hardpan formation, a characteristic soil catena is found. This is the gradient of soil types from ridge top to drainage pump, characterized by sandy, shallow, well-drained soil at the top transforming to poorly drained and deep silty soil at the bottom. These catenas form because of the long-term downwash of the finer soil particles downslope with surface run-off.
Below the layers of volcanic rock and ash, that form the soil of Serengeti National Park is a thick layer of extremely old rock. A giant bubble of liquid granite forced its way up from the molten rock below the Earth’s crust and into the Tanganyika Shield in the late Precambrian period. Today, as the softer rocks wear off, they expose the jagged top of this granite layer, forming kopjes (pronounced ‘kop-eez’). The granite is cracked by repeated heating and cooling under the African sun and weathered into interesting shapes by the wind. Most kopjes are round or have round boulders on them.
Kopjes are a distinctive feature of the Serengeti landscape and are often referred to as ‘islands in a sea of grass’. They provide protection from bushfires, hold more water in the direct vicinity, offer a hiding place for animals, and a vantage point for predators. Hundreds of plant species grow on kopjes, but not in the surrounding grasslands. Many animal species live on kopjes only because of the presence of these plants and for reasons of protection. These animals include insects, lizards, and snakes, but also mammals such as shrews and mice, up to large specialist mammals, such as lions. Kopjes are one of the best places to see lions, and occasionally cheetahs or leopards.
Serengeti kopjes details
Tanzania has breathtaking landscapes and natural wonders, from the iconic Serengeti Plains to the majestic Kilimanjaro. Nestled within this East African gem lies a geological treasure known as the Moru Kopjes. These intriguing rock formations are a testament to the region’s fascinating geological history. In this blog post, we’ll embark on a journey to discover the allure of Moru Kopjes.
What are Moru Kopjes?
Moru Kopjes are a series of massive granite rock outcrops situated in the southern part of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The term “kopje” is derived from the Afrikaans word for “small hill,” and it perfectly describes these unique geological formations. Rising dramatically from the vast plains of the Serengeti, these kopjes are truly a sight to behold.
The origins of Moru Kopjes date back millions of years. The slow and patient work of nature shaped these remarkable formations. The kopjes are primarily composed of granite, once molten magma beneath the Earth’s surface. Over millennia, the granite cooled and solidified, eventually becoming exposed through erosion.
What Makes Moru Kopjes Unique?
Breathtaking Scenery: Moru plains starkly contrast the Serengeti’s sweeping grasslands. The massive granite rocks jut out of the flat plains, creating an otherworldly landscape. The juxtaposition of lush vegetation against the rugged kopjes is a photographer’s dream.
Wildlife Haven: These kopjes are geological marvels and home to a rich variety of wildlife. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas use the kopjes as vantage points for hunting, making them excellent spots for wildlife enthusiasts.
Cultural Significance: Moru Kopjes hold cultural significance for the local Maasai people. They consider these formations sacred and often perform rituals around them. Exploring the kopjes can provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the region’s cultural heritage.
Exploring Moru Kopjes
Visiting Moru Kopjes is a unique adventure, below is what you can expect during your exploration:
Hiking and Rock Climbing: For the more adventurous traveller, hiking and rock climbing are popular activities around the Kopjes. The panoramic views from the top are breathtaking.
Sunrise and Sunset: Don’t miss the opportunity to witness sunrise or sunset at Moru Plains. The warm hues of the sun against the granite rocks create a magical atmosphere.
Rhino Tracking: This experience offers an extraordinary and humbling adventure for those who seek a deeper connection with nature and a chance to contribute to the conservation of endangered species. With expert guides and the backdrop of Moru’s breathtaking landscapes, this experience is bound to leave an indelible mark on your memory and foster a greater appreciation for the incredible biodiversity of the Serengeti. The Moru Rhino Center acts as a great re-introduction of the endangered Black Rhinos, and you can join the rangers to spot the Black Rhinos here. You should make a booking in advance.
Let’s visit Moru Kopjes
Moru Kopjes stand as silent witnesses to the Earth’s geological history and serve as a canvas upon which nature has painted a vibrant tapestry of life. These iconic formations are more than just rocks; they are a testament to the intricate relationship between geology, wildlife, and culture in the heart of Africa.
Exploring Moru Kopjes is an unforgettable experience, offering a glimpse into the mesmerizing world of the Serengeti that extends far beyond its famous savannahs. Whether you’re a geology enthusiast, wildlife lover, photographer, or cultural explorer, Moru Kopjes has something to offer everyone, making it a must-visit destination for anyone visiting Tanzania’s wild areas.
Simba Kopjes are the tallest kopjes in the park and a regular haunt for lions. The Simba Kopjes rise like giant sentinels on the open plains and, as the name suggests, are a good place to spot lions. The highest kopje is called Soit Naado Murt (in Maasai, the Long-necked Stone). Several game loops encircle the kopjes and there is a small hippo pool to the south. To the west lies the shallow and saline Lake Magadi. The glass-like waters of Lake Magadi are a great spot for pink flamingos to gather.
A group of Koppjes or rocky hills located inside the Serengeti National Park – along the road to Seronera from Naabi Hill Gate. They act as a home to several plant and animal species – a good place for game viewing especially lions and leopards who spend most of their afternoons here.
What to do there?
Game viewing, mostly lions – usually one den that can be spotted with some searching, or following where most of the tour vehicles are headed. There also are several birds and plant species that may be viewed in the area.
The best time to visit is Any time of the year, as the roads to it can be used even during the rain. But the early months of the year may be perfect for viewing the wildebeest migration on the plains.
Location of Simba kopjes
Simba Kopjes are located spread out on either side of the dirt road from Seronera to Naabi Hill Gate – the only cluster of rocky hills on it. On either side of it are endless plains for as far as the eye can see.
How to get there
By vehicle, as the nearest airstrips are either in Seronera or Lake Ndutu – requiring about an hour’s drive to get to the Kopjes from there. Alternatively, if using a vehicle, then the place is about half an hour from Naabi Hill gate and an hour from Seronera.
Vehicles used could be private ones, rentals, tours and travel ones with no preference for the vehicle type – as long as it can handle the famous Serengeti bumpy roads.
BALLOON SAFARI IN SERENGETI: IS IT WORTH IT?
The Serengeti is a marvel of nature featuring prominently on several travellers’ bucket lists. It is most famous for its wondrous array of wildlife, stunning landscapes, and enchanting lakes — a true jewel of Africa! Spanning a massive 30,000 square kilometres, there’s so much to see and do that it will take several trips to be able to capture all that it has to offer unless, of course, you have the ultimate vantage point — the air! That’s what a balloon safari in Serengeti delivers and there is simply no better or more exhilarating way to see Africa’s incredible landscapes and animals.
It is the experience of a lifetime as you rise with the sun and gently bob through the air in whichever direction the winds of the morning take you. It is a spellbinding scene as you witness herds of wildebeest, towers of giraffes, or a pride of lions running across the plains of the Serengeti just a few hundred meters below and your eye darting to every possible corner, euphoric on adrenalin and gasps of “wow” and “oh” are the only words you can muster. Worth it as it is one of those trips that you will remember for all time.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
There are several hot air balloon safari companies, but it is still advisable to pre-book this popular activity for your Serengeti safari holiday. This activity cannot be organized on the day and due to the reliance on favourable weather, it is not on offer throughout the year. The price per person is around 500 to 600 USD, which covers the ride, a champagne toast after the landing, and a delicious bush breakfast with options for vegans/ vegetarians.
The price reflects the relatively high cost of maintaining and servicing the balloons as well as the rest of the pre- and post-launch activities, including launching and recovery as well as the road transport to and from the launch site. Each trip also requires a licensed pilot and a formidable team of around 20. Keep in mind, also, that because the weight of the balloon is a crucial safety consideration, passengers who weigh over 120 kilos (265 pounds) may need to reserve two places.
As such, it might be too pricey for budget and standard travellers, but if it is within your means, the feeling you’ll get when you are up there and looking down at the incredible scene below is priceless. So yes, it’s 100% worth it. The balloons are huge and the compartmented comfy baskets can accommodate from around 8 to 16 people for each voyage depending on the size. At this time, only children over seven years old are allowed on the trip and they must be accompanied by an adult.
WHEN TO GO
The dry season (June to October) is the ideal time for a hot balloon safari in the Serengeti. During the rainy months of March, April, and May, some companies will still offer tours, although the actual flight will depend on the weather conditions – if it is too rainy or windy, the flight will be cancelled and your payment will be fully refunded. If you have still ample time left for your holiday, the flight can be rescheduled to another day. Thankfully, the dry season is also the perfect time to witness the Great Migration, so floating silently above this wondrous spectacle means you’re in for a treat of a lifetime.
WHAT TO PACK
Bring your binoculars and DSLR camera, so they can capture those majestic sights below that no words can do justice to. You’ll also want to wear comfortable clothes and wrap up in a few extra layers as it is usually chilly before and during the ride, though it does get warmer later.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Pick-up is at early dawn usually around 5/5.30 AM and you could grab a coffee and a light breakfast before departing your lodge. On your way to the launch site, you may spot nocturnal animals that you could not have encountered at any other time of day.
There is a pre-launch safety briefing from the pilot while the balloon is being inflated. Flight time is approximately 1 hour and the balloon can ascend to 1000 ft exposing the vast magnificence and spectacular panorama of the Serengeti below. The pilot can precisely control the altitude of your balloon, sometimes flying at treetop height so you can see individual animals at close quarters.
Upon landing, you will be welcomed with a champagne reception toasting “maisha marefu”, which translates to “long life”. After that a splendid bush breakfast in the middle of the Serengeti awaits, capping off what is sure to be one of the most thrilling experiences ever.
Is a hot air balloon safari in the Serengeti worth it? Absolutely! So, what are you waiting for? Get in touch with us today and ensure you have the chance to witness the majesty of Africa from the best seat in the house!
The Wildlife in Serengeti National Park
Serengeti is not just home to the Great Migration and the Big Five but hosts a myriad of incredible wildlife species.
We encourage everyone visiting Serengeti National Park to only look beyond the Big Five. The Serengeti offers so much in terms of animal variety that is it sometimes hard to comprehend how diverse this area is. Below we have outlined some of the highlights.
Reptiles, Amphibians and Fish
Wildlife on the plains
The Serengeti sustains not just the largest herds of migrating ungulates but also the greatest concentrations of predators in the world. Estimates put wildebeest at between 1.3 and 1.7 million, zebra at 200,000 and Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelle at around 500,000. These herds support around 7,500 hyenas, up to about 4,000 lions and 500 to 600 cheetahs.
Interminable distance migrants comprise wildebeest, zebra, Thompson’s gazelle and eland. Likewise, Grant’s gazelle also moves some distance, however little is known about where they go. The migrants are supported by the plains in the wet season, but only a few Grants’ and Thompson’s gazelle and ostrich live there in the dry season. Oryx occur on the Salai plains, but they are rare and their numbers are unknown.
Wildlife in the woodlands
The woodlands have several resident species of animals. Topi occur throughout the woodlands, but they form large herds on the wetter plains of the Western corridor and the Serengeti Mara area and are non-existent in the east. In contrast to their close relative, the kongoni, prefer the eastern woodlands and long grass plains. Impala, steinbuck, dik dik, elephant and buffalo are active throughout the woodlands and avoid the plains. At the turn of the millennium, elephants were scarce in the Serengeti, but an aerial survey undertaken in 2014 counted over 8,000 individuals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, as compared with the 1986 tally of around 2,000. Some sources attribute this increase to greater persecution outside protected areas, but whatever the cause, elephants are noticeably more common than they were even ten years earlier, with the greatest concentrations to be seen in the north. The same survey showed that the buffalo population of the Serengeti possibly stands at around 50,000 individuals.
Giraffes also occur throughout the woodlands, but you may see them strolling across the plains to the Gol Mountains and the Ndutu woodlands. Waterbuck are confined to the bigger rivers with grassland. Bahor reedbuck may also be found along rivers. They spread through the long grass plains in the rainy season but are most active at night. Warthog are widespread but scarce in the woodlands and just a few on the plains. Oribi is prevalent in the northwest, with a few found northeast near Klein’s Camp. Grey duiker are also found in the northwest with a few in the hills elsewhere. The majestic Roan antelope occurs in two localities, the northwest (Ikorongo, Lamai and Mara Triangle in Kenya), and in the south near Maswa. The far south of Maswa also sustains greater kudu.
Wildlife in riverine forests
If you are in the riverine forests, keep in mind to look up and down. The diversity and abundance of insects and plants make the forest a fantastic place to see animals and birds. There are insects and seed eaters such as banded mongoose, shrews and the large marsh mongoose. Plant eaters such as duiker and bushbuck hide in the thick cover. In the canopy above, you might see tree hyrax which may seem like huge rodents; in fact, they are more closely related to elephants! Black-and-white colobus monkeys can be seen in the woodlands along the Grumeti River. We find both olive baboons and vervet monkeys through the woodlands close to water, and baboons are especially abundant along the western corridor.
In the rivers themselves, shaded by the trees of the forest, rest the giant crocodiles of the Grumeti and Mara rivers. Hippos spend the days submerged in the river or their greenish pools throughout the dry season. These two species live without a problem in the same confined pools.
Of the larger carnivores, cheetahs, hyenas and lions are found in almost all Serengeti environments. Serengeti National Park rarely disappoints when it concerns large cats. The Tanzanian side of the Serengeti ecosystem supports about 3000 to 4000 individuals of lion, most likely the largest population left in Africa, and hundreds of resident lions wander the plains around Seronera, and the Simba, Moru and Gol koppies close to the main Ngorongoro road. Here, it is not unusual to see two or three prides in the course of a single game drive. We frequently see lions lying low in the grass or basking on rocks, though many Serengeti prides are increasingly given to languishing in the trees on scorching days.
Leopard numbers are unknown, because of their secrecy and elusiveness. However, they are common in the Serengeti and are often seen in the Seronera Valley. The estimated leopard population stands at around 1000 individuals. Cheetahs are frequently sighted as well: the park’s estimated population of 500 to 600 individuals is densest in the open grasslands around Seronera and further east toward Ndutu.
Of the other predators that can be seen in Serengeti National Park, spotted hyenas are very common, perhaps more so than lions. Hyena form sizeable groups on open areas like the plains, but are solitary in much of the woodlands. Golden jackals and bat-eared foxes appear to be the most abundant canid species on the plains around Seronera, while black-backed jackals are fairly common for the thicker vegetation towards Lobo.
Driving at dusk or dawn, you stand the best chance of seeing night-time predators such as civets, African wildcats, and serval. A true rarity among the predators is the African wild dog (or painted dog), which was common until the 1970s; but unfortunately, disease wiped out the entire population from the park in 1992. Fortunately, wild dogs are very mobile and wide-ranging animals, some travelling groups have been seen on the eastern plains and in recent years wild dog populations have been re-establishing to the northeast of the park in Loliondo. Several other introductions from elsewhere in Tanzania have taken place, and the Serengeti’s wild dog population is estimated to be as high as 250 individuals.
Reptiles, amphibians & fish
Serengeti National Park contains a vast variety and number of animals that creep and crawl. Most of these lizards, skinks, and serpents feed on the abundant insects and rodents in the grass while others specialize in birds’ eggs. Pythons can even devour animals as large as gazelles. Some crawlers are herbivores themselves, such as the leopard tortoise. Not all crawlers are small: monitor lizard lives in reeds and bushes and can grow to 1.5 meters long. The master of all crawlers, at over 800 kilograms and sometimes over five meters long, is the massive freshwater crocodile of Serengeti. These ancient creatures can live for over a hundred years and will happily eat a whole wildebeest for supper.
The fish in Serengeti National Park are adapted to live in low oxygen muddy conditions and sometimes survive without water altogether. A helpful feature during the dry season. The catfish of the Mara and Grumeti Rivers sometimes pull themselves through the mud from pool to pool and can weigh up to 20 kilograms. Others, such as the lungfish, bury themselves completely in the dry season, living in a cocoon beneath the dried cracked mud. Some smaller fish live to use their entire lifespan in the few months during the rains. As the pools dry, they breed and lay their eggs in the mud. The eggs miraculously survive the hot dry winds of August and September, hatching into the next generation when it rains once again in December.
Frogs’ surveys have identified some 20 different species, many of which live in trees and grasslands and ponds and watering holes. The night sounds of the wet season are filled with the chorusing of frogs intent on making themselves heard above the background symphony of crickets and cicadas. This is the soundtrack of the African bush in the wet season.
The first thing that many Serengeti National Park travellers notice is the apparent low number of insects. While the numbers of stinging insects are much lower compared to North America or Europe, the diversity of insects is much higher. Insect diversity abounds in Serengeti National Park from ants, beetles, weevils, and termites on the forest floor, to clouds of flies, wasps, and bees, to high-flying swallow-tailed butterflies and giant rhinoceros beetles. Five of the more common insect groups and ones crucial for the ecology of the park are dung beetles, grasshoppers, termites, butterflies and ants.
Beetles are the most diverse and successful group of animals on planet Earth, with over 400,000 (!) known species. In the Serengeti over 100 different species of dung beetles are identified in just a small area of the plains. Each of these species specialises in a distinct dung type in different seasons. Without dung beetles, the Serengeti would become uninhabitable. These amazing creatures roll away and bury up to 75 per cent of all dung dropped in the Serengeti, which amounts to several hundred tons per day. Their carefully crafted dung balls are buried and become home for beetle larvae which eat the leftover nutrients inside, leaving behind a hollow ball of earth. When soil researchers dug pits on the Serengeti plains, 15 to 20% of the soil comprised buried dung balls. The colossal amount of dung and soil moved by dung beetles serves to fertilize and loosen the soil and plays a major role in maintaining the productivity of the entire Serengeti ecosystem.
Grasshoppers are a diverse group of insects. Their physical shape and colour change as they grow, making the different species challenging to identify. Although eat fresh green grasses, some eat flowers, and seeds and some are even predatory on other grasshoppers and tiny insects. Estimates accounting for the population size suggest that at certain times of the year, grasshoppers eat more grass than any other group of animals in Serengeti National Park, including all wildebeest. Grasshoppers’ diversity in Serengeti is very high, researchers have identified over 60 species in just a few collection points. After the seasonal rains, the grasshopper numbers increase and draw enormous flocks of migratory birds to the Serengeti feasting on them.
Termites play a critical role in turning over nutrients in the Serengeti. Most termite species are night creatures, harvesting dead wood and grass. They use dead plant material to support fungus forms in underground chambers which they cultivate and eat. The soil used to build these chambers is mixed with saliva and used to build their distinctive mounds. Some termite mounds are up to 3 meters high with turret-like chimneys. The shafts of the mounts provide homes for a variety of animals, such as snakes, mongoose and mice. Cheetahs, lions, and wildebeest often stand on top of termite mounds using them to survey the area. On the flat plains, even a rise of just one meter gives an impressive view and is well worth the trouble to find food.
Butterflies and moths
Flying low over the grass or flitting from branch to branch in the woodlands, butterflies feed on nectar from flowers, thus fulfilling their function as pollinators. A sizeable group of animals feed on butterflies and moths, and as a result, they have developed impressive tactics against being eaten. These include camouflage colouring, hiding, radar detection, toxic hairs, and large ‘eye’ patterns on their wings which they flash to scare predators.
Biting red ants are the most noticeable ants in Serengeti National Park. Biting red ants live in massive colonies. Unlike most ants, they do not have a permanent home. These ants rather hide in hollow tree trunks or underground holes during the day, but at night become voraciously marching predators. Enormous armies of ants have been known to push lions off a kill, consuming what is left. However, typically they go easier targets such as insects, nesting birds, rodents, lizards and geckos. During the rainy season, you can occasionally see highways of red ants crossing the road in the early morning as they return from their nightly escapades.
Why does the Serengeti have so many animals?
The Serengeti is unique because it is a transition area. There is a distinct changeover from the rich flat soils in the southern plains to the -much poorer- hilly soils in the north. Because of a rainfall gradient, the south receives much less rain than other locations. The Serengeti is also home to pockets of leftover riverine forests, the result of the landscape once being covered by dense lowland forests. Combined, this results in a diversity of different vegetation types and habitats across Serengeti National Park. It is precisely this diversity (and their dynamics) that supports the many different species we see today.
Seronera river valley
The Central Serengeti, lying at the heart of this spectacular national park, is the most popular region in the reserve for its abundant wildlife, large numbers of big cats and quintessential Serengeti landscapes of acacia-studded savanna. Resident wildlife makes this part of the Serengeti a fantastic year-round destination, but the months of April to June and October to December, when the herds of the Great Migration pass through the area, are when it’s at its peak.
The Seronera River Valley, located in the south-central region of the park, is one of the most popular areas in the entire reserve. Known as the Big Cat Capital of Africa, the Seronera is rich in lion, leopard and cheetah – and people often spot all three in one day of game drives. Look for leopards around the Seronera River, which is home to one of Africa’s densest populations of big cats, while lions can often be seen on the kopjes (rocky outcrops). The Serengeti Plains – the open savanna south of the Seronera River – are prime cheetah territory. Other animals to spot in the area’s varied habitats of rivers, swamps, kopjes and grasslands include elephants, hippos and crocodiles in the rivers, buffaloes, impala, topi, jackals and bat-eared foxes.
While the year-round supply of water from the Seronera River means that the area is excellent for wildlife spotting throughout the year, April to June is the peak season for game viewing in the Seronera, as this is when the plains are full of migrating wildebeest, zebra and gazelle as they’re making their way up north. The central location of the Seronera means that it’s one of the best places to see the Great Migration in action, as the animals are moving through the area for months.
The Central Serengeti is a fantastic area to see the Great Migration in action: the herds move through this section of the park from April to June as they travel northwards, and then they come back again heading south from October to December. Some of the best locations in the Central Serengeti to see the herds include the Seronera Valley and Seronera River, Moru Kopjes, Simba Kopje and Maasai Kopjes.
If you’re after Big Cats, the Seronera area in the Central Serengeti is your best bet: this region is hailed as the best place to see predators – particularly lion, leopard and cheetah – on thrilling hunts.
The Central Serengeti is studded with many rocky granite outcrops, known as kopjes, which are where you should look out for lions and cheetahs. There are also some particular kopje highlights, such as the Simba Kopje, or Simba Rocks – the place that inspired Pride Rock in the Disney film The Lion King. The film link is not the only reason to visit this pile of granite boulders however – it’s a great spot to see lions, which are often lying on the rocks under the sun. At Moru Kopjes, south of the Seronera River, you can try and search for some of the last remaining black rhinos in the entire reserve – as well as see some old rock art paintings. Then there’s a visitor’s centre for the Serengeti Rhino Project, where you can learn about the important rhino conservation work that’s being done to protect this highly endangered species. Moru Kopjes is also one of the very few areas of the park where you can do multi-day walking safaris.
Hot air ballooning is a must-do when you’re visiting the Serengeti. Floating gently above the grassy plains in the golden light of dawn, spotting animals from your suspended basket is an experience you’ll never forget. If you’re staying in the Central Serengeti, you can get a transfer to and from your lodge or camp to the hot air ballooning launch site near the Masai Kopjes. A champagne breakfast once you land is the cherry on top of an amazing activity.
Many lodges and camps offer a visit to a Maasai village so that you can learn more about the famous semi-nomadic pastoralist tribe who have long lived in the area that is now the Serengeti and the Masai Mara national parks. At the Maasai village, you’ll be treated to members of the village singing and dancing, with the male warriors doing a traditional jumping dance. You’ll also be able to buy beautiful jewellery and handmade crafts, which make great souvenirs – and also support the local economy.
The Seronera region, as the most popular area of the park, has a wealth of lodging options ranging from budget-friendly through to mid-range and up to all-out luxury, with some of the park’s best high-end properties. Budget travellers can camp under the stars at the rustic Seronera Campsite, while travellers looking for mid-range options will find affordable lodges and camps – many of which are family-friendly and offer the full range of amenities such as WiFi. You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to luxury camps: there are mobile camps which move with the Great Migration herds (and don’t scrimp on comfort, with proper beds, hot bucket showers and private butlers), beautifully designed lodges with private infinity pools and activities such as guided meditation sessions in the bush, bush picnics and stargazing.
The park headquarters are also based in Seronera (close to the airstrip), where there’s a visitor information centre, a curio shop and a café.
The Seronera gets particularly busy during the most popular months of June and July and October to April and sightings can be overpopulated. If escaping the crowds is your priority and you’re travelling in these months, consider booking your lodging in another part of the park.
Seronera is accessible by road on a six-hour drive from both Arusha and Mwanza, but the easiest option to access this part of the park is to fly into the Seronera airstrip and stay at a lodge that caters for fly-in travellers: they’ll come and pick you up from the airstrip and provide game drives in their vehicles.
Some of the lodges and camps offer short walks in the bush of two to four hours with Maasai guides, who’ll teach you about the smaller creatures and the plants that you miss on game drives. If walking is something you’d like to experience, do some research on lodges that offer this activity.