Driving across the plains of the Serengeti, every sense becomes sharpened: eyes alert as you scan the horizon, inhaling the mingling scents of lemon bush and wild mint, you listen to the echos of animals calling in the distance, just as Africa has called to you. It’s incomprehensibly special; this land shaped by vast and varied episodes of geology, ecology and history. Our origins are found in Tanzania’s gorges and valleys, the unearthed fossilized bones of our ancestors dating back millions of years. Spanning as long as human existence, we have lived side by side with the other creatures of this planet. It is human nature to want to know where we came from, to seek out the mysteries of our past. We have always sought out a sense of belonging, and perhaps part what we are searching for is here, in a landscape that can never truly belong to anyone, but nevertheless leaves us linked, imprinting on our soul.
As the sun falls, burning red, we quietly approach a black rhinoceros, affectionately known as Mama Julie. She moves slightly, and a tiny calf becomes visible, mere weeks old. Its curled up form is in stark contrast with the powerful, looming figure of the rhino mother before us—this is nature at her strongest and most vulnerable. It’s a striking end to a safari filled with wildlife spectacles: a cheetah with two cubs feasting on a gazelle, outlined by purple streaks of lightning as the sky unleashes a torrent of rain; a wildebeest struggling against a crocodile in the raging waters of the Mara River; a leopard asleep in a tree, her spotted pelt golden in the dappled sunlight—she lifts her head, piercing green eyes fixed on me. Reflecting on all I have paid witness to, I sit by the fire under a kaleidoscope of stars, caressed by wind and smoke, talking until the coals burned low and became nothing more than glowing embers. Lions call in the distance. I understand what our guide means when he says the Serengeti feels like home.
We leave the following morning, still in a daze at the number of rare species and unique interactions we have encountered. I stare out at the open plains, so expansive I can just make out the curvature of the earth. Navigating dusty roads, we pass a lioness sunning herself on a termite mound, a recent kill beside her, as zebra graze on viridescent grasses that have sprung forth since the recent rains. Yellow-billed storks snatch fish from a glittering pool as baboons wade in to feed on fragrant water lilies. Over the past two weeks, we have become so accustomed to watching life unfold in the most enthralling and heartwrenching ways.
We come upon the huddled form of a baby elephant seeking shelter, entirely alone on the endless plains. He flaps his ears, disproportionately large on his small body. His mother is gone. She has died, either of natural causes or poaching, our guide observes. He radios the rangers and tells us this calf is a suitable candidate for a rescue and rehabilitation center like the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust. Three months before, I had adopted an orphaned elephant, Emoli, from the very same trust in my grandmother’s name. She loves reading updates on the little one’s progress, as he is bottle-fed milk and nestled under Maasai blankets each night, cocooned in warmth. Many elephants have been saved and reintegrated into the wild through the refuge’s inspiring work. Still, during times of drought or spikes in poaching, the number of animals in need grows overwhelming. The gravity of the elephants’ plights is made clear in the graveness of our Expedition Leader’s words: “We can’t afford to lose another one.”
Memories of the Serengeti do not leave you; they live within you, ingrained into your very being. The last pictures I am left with are of the elephant calf, along with the young rhino and cheetah cubs. The future of the Serengeti depends on their survival. The wild animals found here are like no other, and their ecosystem, one of astonishing beauty and inevitable harshness, hangs in a delicate balance. Humans have played their part in throwing that balance off-kilter. But conservation travel has such power; power to change and inspire. The effect of such a place on one’s outlook can be life-altering, leaving us with a desire to preserve and cherish what we were once removed and disconnected from. We begin the process of remembering, retracing our past and laying the groundwork to protect and restore our planet’s future. If we can once again recognize ourselves as a part of the natural world rather than removed from it, then maybe we stand a chance at ensuring the wildlife of the Serengeti lives on forevermore.
All Photos © Emily Goodheart Kautz