Serengeti National Park, Part I

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Just to have a taste of the greatness of the Serengeti first, imagine an endless grassland and an endless line of Zebras taking turn to drink water. What a sight! That's what I call an African traffic jam. In the 2nd pic, after filled up with sufficient water, a huge troop of Wildebeests migrates toward Maasai Mara National Park in search for water and short grass (the Great Migration). Both herbivores, Zebras and wildebeests like to mix with each other.

Serengeti National Park is widely regarded as one of the top wildlife sanctuary in the world. It's constantly placed in National Geographic Traveler "Top 50 Places of a Lifetime" list. It's not hard to see why. In Maasai language Serengeti means "extended place." On some 13 thousand square kilometer of seemingly endless grassland and woodland up to 3 millions of large mammals are roaming. In addition, countless number of some 500 species of birds live in the grass, bushes, and the woods.

Beautiful Sunset and Sunrise.

 

The Animals. You can't go on an African safari trip without knowing "the Big Five," which refers to the five most dangerous and most sought-after trophies for hunters a century ago. They are Lions, Leopards, Rhinos, Buffalos, and Elephants.

Lions (Panthera leo), the biggest and the most magnificent cats in this continent, have always inspired awe and imagination from man. Crowned the "King of beasts," lions in many cultures symbolize power, courage, and nobility. Male lions can be easily spot by their long golden mane, the mark of regality. Lioness, without long mane, are sleek and agile beauties. Lions are social animals, in fact the only social cats. This couple were spotted by us at dawn, resting in tall grass. Zooming closer, the left eye of the lion seems to be blind.

Small piles or rock like this one (1 pic) are favorite rest spots of lions. Here we spotted a swift and brawny lioness, who walked right pass us. Qing was obviously really scared.

On our way from Ngorongoro to Serengeti, inside the bushes, a pregnant lioness was resting. We could see the bulging abdomen and feel the heavy breath of the mother (2nd pic). The next time we passed, the mother was accompanied by several other lioness (3rd pic). Our guide Hamisi said the babies have been born, but we weren't able to take a good look.

In the front we saw a row of trucks gathering around a tree - you know it must be something. It turned out to be a Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus) was sleeping in the tree. Leopards are solitary animals, only come together to mate. They eat almost anything, from beetles to antelopes twice their size.

I found the Buffalos (Syncerus caffer) we met in Serengeti a bit hostile. Hiding behind tall grasses with a pair of huge horns sticking up, these hot-tempered hulks studied us cautiously. Buffalos are known to be one the most dangerous animal in Africa. Imagine a surprise attack from one of these fearless 800-pound monster even lions will normally avoid. Older, solitary, sick, or injured buffalos are especially unpredictable. So always keep your distance.

It was an impressive sight. From a long distance, a group of African Elephants (genus Loxodonta) moving and feeding slowly in an extensive savanna like a few bugs, it almost made us forget that we were looking at the largest land animal in the world. Moving closer, however, these big fellas earned our respect with their enormous sizes. They weigh up to 5 tons, about the same as a car.

Here's another group of elephant drinking water from a little pool.

Some of them were dusting themselves, probably a defense mechanism for flies and mosquitoes. A tottering little baby was carefully surrounded by the whole family. How cute!

Unfortunately we didn't see any rhino in Serengeti, for that we would have to wait till Ngorongoro and Lake Nakuru in Kenya.

 

The "Big Five" maybe highly prized by hunters, but I personally favor Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) above them all. The fastest animal in the world, a cheetah can reach 60 miles per hour in a short spurt, compared to about 23 miles per hour for human (the world record of 100-meter dash). Cheetah is my admirable champ. With tawny fur decorated with sharp black spots, these beautiful creatures scan the savanna with a keen and commanding look in search for preys. Their favorite prey are gazelles, a widely-spread small antelope you'll find below.

Let's continue with Carnivores then. We met a Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) near a creek. It was trying to decide if he should cross, being unsure about the depth. Widely depicted as cowardly scavengers that feed on bigger carnivore's prey, Hyena is probably the most disdained animal in Serengeti. However, research showed that hyenas in pack are actually efficient hunters. And, if it makes ladies feel better, hyena packs are ruled by female. The most senior male usually ranks under the youngest female.

On another occasion, we saw a young Spotted Hyena limping by, apparently badly injured and lost touch with the pack. But still, just the sight of a hyena was enough to scare all the gazelles away.

A big family of Banded Mongooses (Mungos mungo) was practically living in our lodge. Every morning they appear at sunrise in search for lizards, snakes, and insects.

Here hangs a Yellow-Winged Bat (Lavia frons) with a pair of enormous ears. Yellow-winged bats become active at dusk and at night, feeding on insects of various sizes.

 

Omnivores. Remember Timon and Pumbaa in the Lion King? The two characters were so popular that they later had their own TV series. So we got Pumbaa the Warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) here. The four impressive tusks are for defense. They're surprisingly good runner and even jumper, with their tails in the air while running. They feed on fruits, veggies, bark, as well as insects, small reptile, and small mammals.

Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus). Smart and adaptable, these little black-faced primates can be found in everywhere in East Africa. In our lodge, we're told to lock our windows and doors form inside to keep these little demons from raiding our room. Omnivorous but mostly vegetarian. Btw, you're not supposed to look at the 2nd last pic unless you're over 18 years old.

Another frequenter of our lodge, Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis). These tricky little guys often climb into our lodge and taste the flowers with a swagger. It's amusing that this little squirrel-like creature is biologically the closest relative to the largest land animal, the elephant.

 

Herbivorous Big Mammals. Start with the funny-looking Hippo, or Hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius). In Greek "Hippo" means "horse" while "potamus" means "river." Together we have some creatures with a horse-like humongous head and monstrous mouth that soak in a river all day long. Occasionally they come out of water to feed (on grass). On their back are several Red-billed Oxpeckers that live on the parasite in their skin. Averagely 3.5-meter long, 1.5-meter tall on the shoulder, and up to 3.2 tons in weight, hippos share the 2nd largest land animal title with rhino.

In this filthy little pond some 100 Hippos are playing, yawning, and farting in muddy water. Yuk! I can smell it when I look at it now.

Graceful Giraffe (Ardea intermedia), always my favorite. Note a couple of Red-billed Oxpeckers are right on its neck, feeding on the parasites.

Zebra (Equus quagga) is the more common herbivore found all over Serengeti. In fact it's hard not to bump into these stripes in any given day. In the last pic, they rest their head on each other's back both for resting and guarding predators from all directions. Quite a few herbivores living on the open savanna have learned this trick, such as Hartbeest below.

Water is precious on the savanna. A small pool of water can cause a zebra traffic jam in the very first pic on top. Now these guys must consider themselves extremely lucky, playing in a pond all by themselves. Look at that bulging belly, they drink like they've never seen a drop of water in their lives.

Funny moves. In the 1st 3 pix, a zebra is dusting itself on the ground. Our guide Hamisi explained that zebras do that to scratch their itchy skin and to apply a dust cover to keep off insects. In the 4th pic, a zebra lost its tail probably in some life-and-death pursuit once upon a time. In the last 2 pix, funny faces.

 

The Antelopes. My impression is that in Africa almost anything with a pair of horns on their head is some sort of antelope, with the exception of buffalos and goats. Sometime even buffalo or cattle-like creatures such as the Wildebeests (Connochaetes taurinus), to many's surprise, are actually antelopes. Wildebeest cannot survive more than a few days without water and prefer short grass. Every year around July and January some 1.5 millions of wildebeests migrate in between Serengeti and Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya in search for rain and food. The timing of this famous migration (The Great Migration) varies from year to year depending the rainy season. This year (2006) the migration started particularly early, in late June we were only able to catch the last batch of wildebeests.

Wildebeests are peculiar-looking creatures, with a heavily-built front end and a pair of curving horns resemble those of a bull and a somewhat slender rear end. Looks every bit like a relative of cattle to me. Another interesting fact, wildebeests and zebras like to mix with each other.

Another omnipresent species of antelope is Gazelle. About 60-90cm in height, gazelles are widely spread over the grassland and savanna, feeding on less coarse vegetation. Favorite prey of cheetahs, these swift little antelopes can run at a high speed for extended period of time. The smaller Thomson Gazelles (Eudorcas thomsoni, 4 pix) are relatively common. The last pic is the bigger Grant's Gazelle (Nanger granti).

The Hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus). The name hartebeest is supposed to mean "tough ox." That's because hartebeest is one of the fastest and most enduring antelope, and their horns do somewhat resemble those of an ox.

The Topi (Damaliscus korrigum). A medium-size antelope, relative of the hartebeest but a bit smaller. Topi is the fastest antelope (note: not "one of the,"), capable of reaching some 45 mile per hour when frighten.

The Waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus). As the name implies, waterbucks live close by swamp or river, although they don't really live in water. These large hairy antelopes stand up to 1.3 meters and weigh up to 240 kilos. Male waterbucks are equipped with a pair of rather masculine horns up to 40 inches long.

Lastly, the Dik-dik (Madoqua kirkii). These tiny guys with pencil-thin legs weigh only a few kilos. If you pay attention, you'll notice a black dots in front of each eye, that is a gland that secrets a tar-like substance to mark their territories.

 

 

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