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Things You Didn't Know About the Serengeti

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Located in northern Tanzania, the Serengeti Plain comprises more than 3.7 million acres of savanna grassland. Within this region of East Africa, you’ll find the Serengeti National Park, one of seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Tanzania, Although not the largest of the country’s 22 national parks, it is one of the best known due to its abundant wildlife and natural beauty — which attracted nearly half a million people in 2019. Here are eight fascinating facts you probably didn’t know about the vast Serengeti.

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The Serengeti Is One of the Planet’s Most Diverse Ecosystems

African elephants in the plains of Serengeti, Tanzania.
Credit: guenterguni/ iStock

The varied topography, widespread availability of water, and fertile volcanic soil allows vegetation in the Serengeti to thrive. According to UNESCO, this enables it to support the world’s greatest population of ungulates (large mammals with hooves) and the highest concentration of predators of any place on Earth.

Many visitors hope to catch a glimpse of big predators such as lions, leopards, and cheetahs, but other carnivores (such as wild dogs and hyenas) also hunt within the Serengeti. Herbivores such as wildebeests, Thomson’s gazelles, and zebras dominate, but you’ll also find elands, topis, hartebeests, giraffes, and waterbucks roaming in sizable herds — alongside other creatures such as elephants, warthogs, and buffalo. The Serengeti also boasts the largest population of ostriches in this part of Africa.

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It’s the Setting for One of the Greatest Migrations on Earth

A group of wildebeest crossing the Mara river in northern Tanzania, Africa.
Credit: Jannie_nikola/ iStock

An estimated 1.5 to 2 million wildebeest arrive in the Serengeti in late November or December each year, following the seasonal rains in a quest to find food. They munch on the fresh grass and give birth to their calves. Come April, they begin to head north (along with other herbivores like zebras and gazelles) on an epic migration which takes them over the border to Kenya’s Masai Mara.

It’s a long and risky journey, spanning 500 miles of perilous terrain. Predators such as crocodiles and lions lie in wait for the skittish wildebeest in the hope of picking off the weakest as an easy meal. But this migration is equally as vital to the ecosystem as it is to the wildebeests’ own survival. Their hooves churn up the soil, and their waste is a natural fertilizer which helps the grass to recover once the herd moves on.

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It's One of the Few Places You'll See Tree-Climbing Lions

An alert lioness on a large branch in an acacia tree in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
Credit: Jennifer Watson/ iStock

The Serengeti is home to a population of around 3,000 lions, though you may have to look up to spot some of them. Though tree-climbing lions are more commonly linked to nearby Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania and the Ishasha Plains region of Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda, the lion populations in those areas are smaller and sightings are harder to come by than in the Serengeti.

Several theories have been put forward as to why some prides like to hang out in trees. They’re not natural climbers, but with the exception of the largest adult males, some seem to prefer the cool breeze that they enjoy when off the ground. Other advantages include being able to avoid wet grass and to be free of the annoying clouds of flies that often plague the area.

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Serengeti Predators Keep Watch From Unique Landforms Called Kopjes

Three lion cubs resting on a series of Kopjes.
Credit: Harry.Singh.Photography/ Shutterstock

The mounds of granite and gneiss (a coarse-grained rock) that you’ll often see scattered throughout the Serengeti are called kopjes. These exposed, sun-warmed rock outcrops attract species such as lions and cheetahs. That’s because their elevation, several feet higher than the surrounding plain, enables them to easily spot potential prey.

Some sources erroneously identify one such part of the Serengeti, the Simba Kopjes, as the inspiration for Pride Rock in The Lion King. However, kopjes are common throughout East Africa. As Disney location scouts were seen in Hell’s Gate National Park in neighboring Kenya, it’s likely that the Serengeti wasn’t the true inspiration for that aspect of the movie.

4

The Serengeti Is Home to a Rare Volcano

Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano and Maasai village in Tanzania.
Credit: Aleksandr Sadkov/ Shutterstock

The vast Serengeti grasslands are punctuated by a rather unusual cone-shaped volcano. Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only active volcano in the park and the only carbonatite volcano on the planet that has erupted in living memory. Carbonatite is a rare kind of magma — unlike the more typical magma containing silica and oxygen, carbonatite is instead rich in calcium, sodium, and carbon dioxide.

Ol Doinyo Lengai ejects lava which typically reaches temperatures of only 900 to 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. (In comparison, lava emitted from Kilauea in Hawaii is about 2,140 degrees.) When Ol Doinyo Lengai’s lava comes into contact with the air, it turns white, and ash from the volcano hardens when the rains come and forms a cement-like substance.

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The Serengeti Teaches Us About Human Evolution

A view of the Olduvai Gorge in the Serengeti.
Credit: ChrisCrafter/ Shutterstock

The eastern Serengeti Plains are home to the Olduvai Gorge. Fossils of hominids — the predecessors of Homo sapiens — have been found in this steep-sided ravine, enabling paleoanthropologists to glean vital information about the evolution of the human race. As a result, the gorge is sometimes referred to as the “Cradle of Mankind.”

In 1959, British paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey uncovered the skull of an early hominid. In 1986, a team of archaeologists from Tanzania and the U.S. uncovered a mammoth haul of 302 bones and teeth, which were later authenticated as belonging to a 1.8-million-year-old female hominid. To put that in context, Homo sapiens probably didn’t arrive in the area until around 17,000 years ago.

2

The Maasai People Gave the Serengeti Its Name

Masai man, wearing traditional blankets, overlooks Serengeti in Tanzania.
Credit: jocrebbin/ iStock

Nomadic pastoralists have inhabited the Serengeti for thousands of years. Among the groups who live here are the Kuria, Ikoma, and Sukuma peoples. The Maasai migrated into the area in the 17th century, bringing their cattle to graze the lush grass of the Serengeti. They called their new home siringit (sometimes spelled serenget), which means “endless plains.”

However, the designation of the Serengeti National Park in 1951 led to the displacement of around 50,000 Maasai, an action that at the time was justified for its benefits to conservation. Some tribe members have turned to tourism, operating safaris and cultural activities, while others continue to raise cattle outside the park boundaries. In recent years, there’s been a growing realization that nomadic pastoralists are as much a part of the landscape as the wildlife.

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The Serengeti Gets an Unrealistic Mention in a Hit '80s Song

A herd of Plains Zebras in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.
Credit: Cezary Wojtkowski/ iStock

The song “Africa” was a surprise chart-topper for Toto, who had added it to their album Toto IV as an afterthought. One of its lyrics says, “I know that I must do what's right, as sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.”

When songwriter and band member David Paich penned those words, he’d never set foot in Africa, let alone the Serengeti. But he’d attended a Catholic high school, enthralled by teachers who had visited as missionaries, and spent his spare time watching the National Geographic channel on TV. There’s just one tiny detail he overlooked — you can't see Kilimanjaro from the Serengeti.

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