By - Victoria Akindele
The Ngorongoro Crater, is the main feature of the Ngorongoro Conservation. It is the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera. The crater, which formed when a large volcano exploded and collapsed on itself two to three million years ago, is 610 metres (2,000 feet) deep and its floor covers 260 square kilometres (100 square miles). Estimates of the height of the original volcano range from 4,500 to 5,800 metres (14,800 to 19,000 feet) high. The crater floor is 1,800 metres (5,900 feet) above sea level. The crater was voted by Seven Natural Wonders as one of the seven natural wonders of Africa in Arusha, Tanzania in February 2013. The Ngorongoro volcano was active from about 2.45 to 2 million years ago.
The volcanic eruptions like that of Ngorongoro, which resulted in the formation of Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, were very common. Similar collapses occurred in the case of Olmoti and Empakaai, but they were much smaller in magnitude and impact.
Out of the two recent volcanoes to the northeast of the Empakaai caldera, Kerimasi and Ol Doinyo Lengai, Doinyo Lengai is still active and had major eruptions in 2007 and 2008. Smaller ash eruptions and lava flows continue to slowly fill the current crater. Its name is Maasai language for ‘Mountain of God’.
The crater highlands on the side facing the easterly trade winds receive 800 to 1,200 millimetres (31 to 47 inches) of rain a year and are covered largely in montane forest. The less-steep west wall receives only 400 to 600 millimetres (16 to 24 inches) and is grassland and bushland dotted with Euphorbia bussei [es] trees. The crater floor is mostly open grassland with two small wooded areas dominated by fever tree (Vachellia xanthophloea). The Ngorongoro Crater is also referred to as ‘the Garden of Eden’ due to its dazzling beauty and being a paradise for animals.
In 1951 the area was included as part of the original Serengeti National Park, but in 1959 it was separately designated the Ngorongoro conservation area. It was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 1979. The Ngorongoro conservation area is one of the most important prehistoric sites in the world. The fossils discovered there are said to be the earliest known evidence of the human species.
Although cultivation is not permitted within the area, some 25,000 to 40,000 Masai are allowed to graze their livestock there. Issues of concern during the latter part of the 20th century were the damage to the ecosystem caused by overgrazing and tourism vehicles and the diminishing of black rhinoceros, leopard, and elephant populations because of poaching. The 2009 Ngorongoro Wildlife Conservation Act placed new restrictions on human settlement and subsistence farming in the Crater, displacing Maasai pastoralists, most of whom had been relocated to Ngorongoro from their ancestral lands to the north when the British colonial government established Serengeti national park in 1959. The Munge Stream known by two names: Magadi and Makat as the Maasai called it, meaning salt; and the Lerai Stream are two main water source in the crater. The other major water source in the crater is the Ngoitokitok spring, near the eastern crater wall. There is a picnic site here open to tourists and a huge swamp fed by the spring, and the area is inhabited by hippopotamus, elephants, lions and many others. Many other small springs can be found around the crater’s floor, and these are important water supplies for the animals and local Maasai, especially during times of drought.
Following the recommendations of the ad hoc committee of scientists convened after the year 2000 drought, an ecological burning program was implemented in the crater, which entails annual or biannual controlled burns of up to 20 percent of the grasslands. Maasai are now permitted to graze their cattle within the crater, but must enter and exit daily.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area also protects Oldurai or Olduvai Gorges, situated in the plains area. It is considered to be the seat of humanity after the discovery of the earliest known specimens of the human genus, Homo habilis as well as early hominidae, such as Paranthropus boisei.
The Olduvai Gorge is a steep-sided ravine in the Great Rift Valley, which stretches along eastern Africa. Olduvai is in the eastern Serengeti Plains in northern Tanzania and is about 50 kilometres (31 mi) long. It lies in the rain shadow of the Ngorongoro highlands and is the driest part of the region. The gorge is named after ‘Oldupaai’, the Maasai word for the wild sisal plant.
It is one of the most important primordial sites in the world and research there has been instrumental in furthering understanding of early human evolution. Excavation work there was pioneered by Mary and Louis Leakey in the 1950s and is continued today by their family. Some believe that millions of years ago, the site was that of a large lake, the shores of which were covered with successive deposits of volcanic ash. Around 500,000 years ago seismic activity diverted a nearby stream which began to cut down into the sediments, revealing seven main layers in the walls of the gorge.
Approximately 25,000 large animals, mostly ungulates, live in the crater. Large mammals in the crater include the black rhinoceros, the local population of which declined from about 108 in (1964 to 1966) to between 11 and 14 in 1995, the African buffalo or Cape buffalo, and the hippopotamus. There also are many other ungulates: the blue wildebeest (7,000 estimated in 1994), Grant’s zebra (4,000), the common eland, Thomson’s gazelles (3,000) and waterbucks occur mainly near Lerai Forest.
Absent are giraffe, impala, topi, oribi, crocodile, cheetah, East African wild dog and African leopard are rarely seen. Spotted hyenas have been the subject of a long-term research study in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area since 1996.
Although thought of as “a natural enclosure” for a very wide variety of wildlife, 20 percent or more of the wildebeest and half the zebra populations vacate the crater in the wet season, while Cape buffalo stay; their highest numbers are during the rainy season.
Since 1986, the crater’s wildebeest population has fallen from 14,677 to 7,250 (2003 and 2005). The numbers of eland and Thomson’s gazelle also have declined while the buffalo population has increased greatly, probably due to the long prevention of fire which favors high-fibrous grasses over shorter, less fibrous types. Servals occurs widely in the crater.
Lake Magadi, a large lake in the southwest of the crater, is often inhabited by thousands of mainly lesser flamingoes. The crater has one of the densest known population of lions, numbering 62 in 2001.
A side effect of the crater being a natural enclosure is that the lion population is significantly inbred. This is due to the very small amount of new bloodlines that enter the local gene pool, as very few migrating male lions enter the crater from the outside. Those who do enter the crater are often prevented from contributing to the gene pool by the crater’s male lions, who expel any outside competitors.
Long-term data imply that lions in the crater were struck by four deadly disease outbreaks between 1962 and 2002. Drought in 1961 and rains throughout the 1962 dry season caused a massive build-up of blood-sucking stable flies (Stomoxys calcitrans) by May 1962. They drained blood and caused painful skin sores that became infected, causing lion numbers to crash from (75 to100) to 12. The population recovered to around 100 by 1975 and remained stable until 1983, when a persistent decline began. Numbers have generally remained below 60 animals since 1993, reaching a low of 29 in 1998. In 2001, 34 percent of the lion population died between January and April from a combination of tick-borne disease and canine distemper.
The lion population is also influenced to some extent by the takeover of prides by incoming males, which typically kill small cubs. The biggest influence, however, appears to be disease, particularly canine distemper.
The Ndutu Lake area to in the west of the conservation area has particularly strong cheetah and lion populations. Common in the area are Hartebeest, spotted hyena and jackals. The population of African wild dog may have declined recently. Servals occur widely on the plains to the west of the Ngorongoro Crater.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area has a healthy resident population of most species of wildlife. The region has welcomed numerous famous people including Prince William, Bill Clinton and the Queen of Denmark. Visitors to Ngorongoro account for approximately 60 percent of the 770,000 who travel to Tanzania each year. The Ngorongoro Crater is also referred to as ‘Africa’s Garden of Eden’ due to its dazzling beauty and being a paradise for animals.
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