A conservation story told by Gary Balfour and David Bygott

Twenty million years ago, a mountain that never had a chance to be named led to the creation of one of the most beautiful and exciting places on Earth for African safari-goers.

At that time, the landscape of eastern Africa was rich with geological activity. Pressures had been building for tens of centuries along two tectonic plates, reaching a point where a series of earthquakes, splits, and faults resulted in the formation of what is now known as the Great Rift Valley. Over the millennia, this activity also fueled volcanic eruptions, creating massive mountains, including Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, and that other, unnamed mountain.

All three mountains were believed to be the size of what Mount Kilimanjaro is today. Later volcanic activity shortened Mount Meru, whose foothills give home to the town of Arusha, Tanzania. Today, if you travel to Arusha by road from Kenya via the Namanga border, you can follow the slopes on either side and picture the huge part that is now missing.

It is estimated that the third mountain was first formed about three million years ago. Volcanic activity continued until about 2.5 million years ago, when the cone became so heavy that it could no longer support its own weight. It came smashing down upon itself, causing a massive caldera. There are many calderas around the globe, but most were damaged upon creation, with one or more sides destroyed. Others were flooded and have become spectacular natural lakes. But in Tanzania, this caldera remains a complete bowl. The lake at the 102-square-mile floor is large enough to support a variety of life but does not flood what we now call the Ngorongoro Crater.

Ongoing volcanic eruptions during this period frequently sent towering plumes of ash into the air. This ash served two important purposes as it settled: first, it created the rich, fertile soil that eventually led to an ecosystem that supports more than thirty thousand resident mammals and countless other creatures in the crater alone. Secondly, it preserved important archeological artifacts, such as the remains of Paranthropus boisei (previously known as “East African Man”), at Olduvai Gorge.

It’s possible to see representatives from all of the “Big Five” in the Ngorongoro Crater: lions, elephants, buffalo, rhinoceroses, and leopards, such as the one above. © Eric Rock

The modern-day Ngorongoro Crater remains as amazing as it must have been at its birth. Home to almost every species of African mammal, it is possible to see the “Big Five” (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros) in a single game drive. In 1997, two black rhinoceroses from South Africa were introduced to the crater alongside the indigenous ones — whose numbers had dipped to twelve, only two of which were adult males — in hopes of augmenting the species’ gene pool. Fortunately, because of the limited access down the two-thousand-foot walls to the crater’s floor and strict management by the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, poaching is not a serious problem in Ngorongoro.

It is believed that hippopotami migrated to the crater hundreds of years ago from Lake Manyara, traveling up the Great Rift Valley escarpment, through what is now the village of Karatu to the rim of the crater, and then back to the floor. All of the elephants in the crater today are bulls. They make the trip in search of the rich minerals found in the grasses and the soda lake, Lake Magadi, at the crater’s center. The females and calves remain at the rim, which is lush with vegetation.

Elephants living inside the Ngorongoro Crater tend to be elderly males who stay in the area for the good, year-round grazing. Elephant cows and calves tend to prefer the forested highlands around the rim of the crater. © Eric Rock

For predators such as the big cats, the crater is a big dinner bowl. Finding a meal is seldom a problem.

However, the limited gene pool and in-family breeding does lead to risk of devastation from disease. In the early 2000’s, the lion population was seriously affected by sickness. Fortunately, the health of the prides has improved, and they have grown in number so that the balance between predator and prey continues.

Most of the mammals found in the crater are year-round residents and do not join the migrations that their cousins enjoy. The story is a bit different with the birds of the region. The large flocks of lesser flamingos that can sometimes be found in the crater travel between Lake Magadi, Lake Natron, Lake Eyasi, and Lake Ndutu.

Lesser flamingos landing on Lake Magadi.

One of the animals that you won’t find in the crater is the giraffe. There are differing theories as to why this is. Many point to the lack of adequate vegetation for these browsers, while others insist that the steep trails leading from the rim are impossible for the giraffe to navigate.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area comprises the Ngorongoro Crater, two smaller craters (Empakaai and Olmoti), eight extinct volcanoes, and part of the Serengeti plains. The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Serengeti National Park, and Kenya’s Maasai Mara make up the Serengeti Ecosystem. During the first few months of the year, depending on the rains, the animals of Africa’s Great Migration may swing southward far enough for the herds to spend time in the conservation area.

In the early 2000’s, the crater’s lion population declined due to sickness among the pride. Fortunately, their health improved and their numbers have bounced back. © Paul Joynson-Hicks

A unique aspect of the Ngorongoro Crater is that it is not only a site of interaction with wild animals but with humans and domestic animals as well. For generations, the Maasai have led their herds of cattle down to the crater’s floor to graze on the mineral-rich grass. Guests at local lodges often awake to the sounds of clanking cowbells as Maasai warriors guide their most prized possessions past the lodge and down the steep trails. It is estimated that more than fifty thousand Maasai live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

Evidence of the Maasai’s use of the crater goes back more than a hundred years. Presently, an ancient fig tree remains reserved for the Maasai and Datoga peoples as a spiritual place where they — like their ancestors before them — visit to pray for their children and cattle.

In 1979, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added the Ngorongoro Conservation Area to its World Heritage Site list. The crater is often referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the Natural World.”