Everything You Need to Know about the Serengeti National Park
Think ‘Africa’ and ‘safari’, and the image you conjure up will most probably be the Serengeti. The vast wilderness of endless plains where animals roam freely is one of the oldest and most famous ecosystems on earth.
‘Serengeti’ comes from the Masai word ‘siringet’, which means ‘a place where the land goes on forever’. But it’s also a place where time goes on forever. The ecosystem has barely changed at all since early man first walked here two million years ago.
The landscape is a combination of nutritious grasslands and sparse woodlands: grassy areas dotted with Acacia trees, the iconic image of the Serengeti. The entire ecosystem spans 30,000 km² from north Tanzania extending to south-western Kenya.
Around 14,750 km² of that is made up of the Serengeti National Park, the oldest in Africa and the most famous protected area in the world. The National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been named as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
The sheer concentration of wildlife, as well as the spectacle of the Great Migration, makes the Serengeti National Park one of the most popular destinations in Africa for safari-goers. It’s estimated that the National Park receives around 90,000 visitors a year.
If you’re planning on visiting this extraordinary, awe-inspiring land, here’s everything you need to know about the Serengeti National Park.
The Serengeti National Park is made up of four predominant regions:
- The Southern Plains: flat, open areas of short grassy plains stretching from southern Seronera into the Ngorongoro Conservation area. This is the classic landscape the Serengeti is famous for.
- The Central Seronera Valley: a network of river valleys whose rich grazing lands attract the largest concentration of wildlife in the region.
- The Western Corridor: stretching west to the edge of Lake Victoria, the Western Corridor follows the path of the Grumeti River, where the first perilous river crossing takes place during the Great Migration.
- The Northern Serengeti: the most remote area of the Serengeti National Park and the best place for visitors to witness the famous Mara River crossings along the border that separates the Serengeti from the Masai Mara National Park.
History of the National Park
Undisturbed for millions of years, the Serengeti ecosystem came to the attention of the world when the first European explorer, German Oscar Baumann visited the area west of the Ngorongoro crater in 1892.
In 1913, explorer and hunter Stewart Edward White explored the area. Attracted by the volume of lions, which were considered ‘vermin’ and trophy prizes, more hunters followed and shot at will. During the 1920s, the lion population was drastically reduced. It wasn’t uncommon for up to 50 lions to be killed during a safari.
The Government, at the time under the command of the British colonial administration, stepped in to stop the hunting. Between 1921 and 1930, a series of laws were passed to protect the animals of the Serengeti. In 1935, the killing of lions was prohibited in the Banagi and Seronera regions of the Serengeti. Finally in 1951, the area was given National Park status and declared a game reserve and protected conservation area.
There are around 3–4,000 lions here, as well as large numbers of cheetahs, spotted hyenas and jackals.
However, the Serengeti National Park is not just home to predators and the big five, even if they are the park’s biggest attractions. Here you’ll also find elephants, giraffes, mongoose, baboons, bat-eared foxes, aardvarks, over 500 bird species including ostrich and eagles, colobus monkeys, monitor lizards, rock hyraxes, agama lizards, and giant Nile crocodiles and hippos that lie beneath the murky waters of the Grumeti and Mara Rivers.
But the biggest attraction of the Serengeti National Park for many visitors is the annual migration of around 2 million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles and impala that follow the rains in search of food and water.
The Great Migration
The Great Migration is an annual journey running in a clockwise direction north from the Serengeti plains of Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya, and then down again.
January to February
At the beginning of the year, herds congregate on the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area on southern edge of the park to feed on the nutrient rich grasses of the Southern Plains. It’s also calving season. Over a three-week period, usually in February, around half a million wildebeest calves are born.
March to April
The Southern Plains get drier and drier, so the herds gradually move westwards, up along the Western Corridor towards the heavy rains of the north.
May to June
The migration moves north along the western edge of the Serengeti, arriving at the Grumeti River. June is the perfect time to visit the National Park and get a chance of witnessing this gruesome yet spectacular fight for survival.
In order to reach the greener grasses of the Northern Serengeti, the herds must cross the perilous Grumeti, home to enormous Nile crocodiles and hippos. The hungry crocodiles lie below the surface, ready to strike out as thousands of wildebeest line up along the banks of the river.
But the danger isn’t over. Those that survive the Grumeti River Crossing are weakened and exhausted, making them easier prey for the predators that are waiting for them on dry land. Lions lie in wait, ready to spring, while spotted hyenas and vultures fight for the leftovers.
July to October
The herds can now be found in the Northern Serengeti. But as the dry season continues and the grasses begin to yellow, they follow the rains, heading further north towards the Masai Mara of Kenya.
Before they can leave the Serengeti to enter the Masai Mara National Park, they must face the most perilous river crossing of all: the Mara River, a mass of deep, powerful currents, steep, slippery banks and home to large, hungry crocodiles.
Some die from the fall, others are dragged underwater by the crocodiles, while many drown in the turbulent waters of the mighty river. Gruesome and traumatic as it is, the Mara River crossing is a spectacular display of survival of the fittest. Most visitors to the Serengeti National Park come from July to October specifically for this dramatic, yet awe-inspiring event.
November to December
As the rains begin to fall on the Serengeti, the herds start to make their way back down again along the eastern side of the National Park.
By late December, most of the herds are back on the Southern Plains, pregnant and tranquil. They will stay here until the whole cycle begins again.
Best Times to Visit
The abundance of wildlife and the sheer size of the region mean that the Serengeti National Park is an ideal all-year-round safari destination. However, depending on what you want to see, some seasons and areas are better than others.
Also bear in mind that you are witnessing a natural occurrence, so the weather and animals can be unpredictable. However, as a general guideline the seasons are divided into two categories:
Dry Season (May to October)
- The best time to see wildlife is during the dry season. July to October is the peak season with the highest number of visitors, so early booking is recommended.
- The best time to get a chance of seeing the river crossings is June and July (Grumeti River), and August to October (Mara River).
- June and July are the best times to view wildlife in the Western Corridor. August and September are the best times to see them in the Northern Serengeti region. The grasses are shorter and the animals are easier to spot. The dry season also increases the chance of seeing more animals congregating around waterholes and rivers to drink.
- There are fewer mosquitoes in the dry season, so the risk of malaria is fairly low. It’s a good time to bring children.
- Although it’s dry, at this time of year temperatures can be extreme. Early mornings and nights can get very cold, whereas it can be extremely hot at midday and throughout the afternoon. Ensure you bring warm clothing for early morning safaris, and hats and sunscreen for later on.
Wet Season (November to May)
- The rains from November to March tend to be sporadic and are usually just a short storm in the late afternoon, so unlikely to affect your enjoyment. In fact, a lightning storm over the Serengeti only enhances your overall experience.
- In January and February, you can enjoy the Southern Plains bursting with colour as the lush green grasses and wildflowers transform the landscape into a calm and tranquil grazing land.
- February is the best month to come if you want to witness the births taking place on the Southern Plains. The vulnerable newborns also attract predators, so you’ll get the opportunity to see lions in action.
- The wet season offers the chance to view huge varieties of native and migratory birds. It’s an ideal time for birdwatching, especially around the water holes.
- March and April are the wettest months. Viewing wildlife is hampered by the heavy rains that also make some of the tracks and roads impassable. There’s also a higher risk of malaria in this period, as there are more mosquitoes at this time of year. It’s the least popular time of year to visit the Serengeti.
Interesting Facts about the Serengeti National Park
- Cats are definitely king of the Serengeti. Lions can be found throughout the National Park, while cheetahs prefer the Southern Plains. Leopards, on the other hand, prefer the shelter of the trees along the Seronera River.
- Larger herds of elephants and giraffes can be found in the open woodlands of the Northern Serengeti.
- During the Great Migration, around 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebra die from either predators, drownings, hunger, thirst or sheer exhaustion.
- The Southern Plains are dotted with giant volcanic granite rock formations known as kopjes, which provide great vantage points for predators as well as hiding places for lizards and pythons.
- One of Disney’s most successful films, The Lion King, is based on the Southern Plains of the Serengeti National Park.
- No other region in the world has a biodiversity like the Serengeti. For this reason it has been declared a region of significant ecological importance and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- The Masai tribespeople, proud, nomadic warriors, known by their distinctive red cloaks and beaded collars, have been herding cattle for thousands of years.
- Historically, the Masai lived in harmony with the wildlife of the Serengeti, living off the meat, meat and blood of their herds instead.
- Very little has changed in the Serengeti ecosystem, which goes back millions of years. The plants, rivers and landscape today are largely the same as they were a million years ago.
- The oldest ever human remains thought to date back to 2 million years ago were found by palaeontologists between the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti National Park, leading scientists to believe that the first humans evolved in East Africa.
- The Great Migration has only been happening since the 1960s. In the late 19th century, nearly all of the wildebeest population in the Serengeti were wiped out because of a widespread epidemic. Inoculations were introduced to increase their numbers, which subsequently boomed. By the 1960s numbers were so high the land could no longer sustain them, so they began to migrate north, following the rains in search of food and water.
Whether you want to see the big five, witness at first hand the Great Migration, or you want to see wildlife in general, the Serengeti National Park offers an unforgettable opportunity to experience the beauty and savagery of nature at its very best.
Here at True Luxury Travel, we have a range of luxury tented camps and lodges with privately guided safaris in the Serengeti National Park, offering visitors the adventure of a lifetime. For more information, get in touch today.
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