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Noah's Ark of Africa.

It is hard to imagine the force of the volcanic eruption and eventual collapse of the caldera that left behind the enormous crater known as Ngorogoro in western Tanzania.

There are a half dozen theories on the origin of the name but the most commonly accepted is that it is a local dialect that simply means, "Big Hole," and that is an injustice to this natural Noah's Ark.

Morning ground fog mixed with dew produces a massive wave of cumulous like clouds that line the rim like cotton candy and spill over the craters edge in a dramatic slow motion waterfall. Through this filter, the rising sun is a swirling red ball that announces another day in the great ballet of life and death that is Ngorogoro Crater, Tanzania. From the rim, through binoculars, a visitor can see entire herds moving about. Creatures the size of a car seem antlike in the mornings haze as animals begin to stir in the Noah's ark of Africa.

The crater itself is part of the Ngorogoro Conservation Area, located 180 kilometers, (110) miles west of Arusha and just south of the Kenyan border. It is a collapsed caldera; the sixth largest in the world and the remains of a massive volcanic explosion geologists believe took place some three million years ago, leveling a mountain that approached 6,000 meters, (20,000 feet) perhaps taller than Kilimanjaro. It is 610 meters deep, (2000 feet) and covers 260 kilometers, (100 Square miles) On a continent known for its abundance of game parks, the 25-30,000 animals, mostly ungulates, (Hoofed animals) that call the crater home, are the single largest concentration of wildlife in a confined area on earth. It is in effect, the world's largest zoo and a place of close interaction between man and beast.

Because of the massive concentration of animals, the safari business there is massive, but fortunately for the animals, in time, as people became more and more enlightened about the creatures who share this planet, cameras eventually replaced guns. No hunting is allowed there unless it is to remove an injured animal or one that has become a menace to humans, at which time park rangers will dispatch it. Today the Ngorogoro Conservation Area authority has operational control over the crater, and it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Visitors should know that there are armed rangers patrolling at all times to protect both visitors and animals, and in the presence of any animal, it is against park regulations to exit your vehicle. This combination of confined area, armed supervision of law enforcement, and countless visitors as witnesses, has given the crater the lowest average of poaching of any game park in Africa.

It is unique in its multi-use that allows human habitation while still being a wildlife conservation area. Ngorogoro Crater adjoins the Serengeti National Park and is part of the Serengeti ecosystem that allows minimalist farming at the subsistence level. There is no other place on the African continent where man and animal share the space so closely and in such harmony.

Human occupation can be traced back three million years to remains uncovered at nearby Olduvai Gorge, and oral histories record the Mbulu people entering the crater as far back as the time of Christ. They were followed by the Datoogo people in the 1700's who in turn were replaced by the Maasai during the early 1800's when massive tribal warfare decimated the Datoogo.

The Maasai, fierce warriors and nomadic pastoralists, stayed in what was then called German East Africa until the British took control after the Second World War and made the crater part of the Serengeti National Park in 1951. Continued disputes over grazing rights caused the forced eviction of the Maasai as permanent residents of the crater in 1959, but today they are still allowed to enter it to graze their cattle, if they exit by nightfall. This trans-human pastoralism has created a unique symbiotic relationship between the Maasai and the creatures of the crater.

The first white European known to have entered the crater in 1892 was an Austrian Cartographer named Arthur Baumann, followed by two German brothers who operated the first commercial hunting safaris in the area.

Several prides of resident lions numbering less than 100 animals in total, and a smattering of Cheetahs, keep the herd numbers in check, culling out the weak and infirm, that no matter how cruel it may seem to us bipeds, it is the way nature continues the great balancing act of life in the crater. With approximately 25,000 animals within the rim, this is the largest ratio of predator to prey on the entire African continent.

The lions are unusually large by African standards because of the ready abundance of food, but have paid the price of in-bred physical problems due to their extreme isolation that keeps transient lions from entering the gene pool. Lions, contrary to their murderous reputation, are very much like domestic cats. They love to play amongst themselves, biting, wrestling, and sleeping, and rarely attack anything, including people, unless provoked. Much like people, the young males tend to settle down after sowing their wild oats and have families, and when a male gets too old to hunt or keep up with the pride, he is ejected. It is usually these old "rogue" lions that become man eaters out of necessity of not being able to fend for themselves.

Predators are nature's way of balancing the animal population, because without them scores of creatures would starve to death in a far crueler manner than being quickly killed by a lion or cheetah. If the lions should go extinct, it would spell disaster for most of the population of the crater. On the plus side, the physical constraints of this environment make the study of specific species easier than in most other game parks.

Most people associate the annual wildebeest migration with the crater as it is the central part of their route, but many do not know about the symbiotic relationship the wildebeest have with the Zebras that allows this stupendous event to happen. The two species often travel together with the zebra using its natural striped camouflage to blend in with massive herds of wildebeest while the notoriously near sighted wildebeest use the keen eyesight of the zebra as their pathfinders.

Beginning in December, the Wildebeest herds, numbering about 1.7 million move south, accompanied by approximately 250,000 zebras, traveling through the crater from the Maasai Mara in Kenya, into the Serengeti plain in Tanzania, then retreat back north in June. It is at the Mara River, a natural boundary between the two countries that thousands of massive crocodiles gather to take down this bounty of food as it attempts cross the water barrier.

The "Big Five" game animals are all crater residents, including The Black Rhino along with numerous Hippopotamus that are usually rare in this part of Africa.

Hartebeest, Gazelle, Jackals, Cape Buffalo, Leopards, and Spotted Hyenas are common sights while the once common wild African dog has all but disappeared, feared to be extinct, but not yet verified as such.

The Ngorogoro Conservation Area also includes Olduvai Gorge, a steep ravine that follows the Great Rift Valley for 30 miles along the Eastern Serengeti Plain. This area is considered the cradle of humanity after pioneering excavations by Louis and Mary Leakey in the 1950's uncovered the earliest known human remains, including Homo Habilis, and Parenthropus Boisei. The name Olduvai comes from Oldupaai, the name of a local sisal plant in the Ma language. Today the work of the Leakey family continues under the auspices of the Leakey Foundation, pushing mans' knowledge of our ancestors further back in time with every new discovery.

There are six luxurious accommodations on the craters rim, the most impressive being Ngorogoro Crater Lodge, and the Ngorogoro Serena Safari Lodge. Besides these five star facilities several more traditional safari companies maintain permanent tented camps along the rim offering shot showers, meals, native security officers who stand watch all night, and guided transportation into the crater each day.

For obvious reason, no one is allowed to enter the crater on foot but only under the auspices of a licensed guide after obtaining a permit at the park entrance. Once inside though, there are numerous opportunities to exit the vehicles for photos, picnics, and bathroom stops, at areas known to be safe under the watchful eye of ones' guides.

For those interested in viewing wildlife, Ngorogoro Crater is the most concentrated collection of Africa's creatures available.

It is not only a sanctuary but a modern day Noah's Ark that you can actually visit.

James Michael Dorsey is a freelance photojournalist and a frequent contributor to The World & I Online. His work can be seen on the Web at jamesdorsey.com.
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Title Annotation:LIFE; Ngorogoro crater in western Tanzania
Author:Dorsey, James Michael
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:6TANZ
Date:May 1, 2015
Words:1478
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