Ngorongoro

The kids are settling into their traveling lifestyle. So far, 10 days into their year of travel, they have hit the books for about 30 minutes one day. Meanwhile, the stuff they leave in their hotel / safari lodge rooms at checkout has steadily decreased.

We stayed the night before at the very edge of the Rift Valley looking over the infinity edge pool (too cold for me) into the seemingly infinite shores of Lake Manyara shrouded in mist. Yesterday we drove up to an amazing property called the Retreat at Ngorongoro, just outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and had a lazy afternoon and evening and used the fireplaces in our rooms at night to warm up. In the morning we loaded into our 4x4s and headed from an elevation of about 4800 ft up to 7000 ft at the rim of the Ngorongoro crater which was completely covered in fog and clouds. Philip drove us around the rim and down into the huge crater floor. The rim is heavily wooded steep and the crater is flat and grassy. Once we were down in the crater, the clouds had burned off and we were left with a brilliant blue sky and a perfect day. The crater was formed about two million years ago when the caldera of a volcano collapsed into itself, and Wikipedia bills Ngorongoro crater as “the world’s largest inactive, intact and unfilled volcanic caldera.” It is a Garden of Eden for wildlife – no humans live inside the crater.

We explored the crater floor till lunch time. A lot of that time was spent looking at a bachelor group of six young male lions. They were resting on top of and under a bluff when we discovered them, and at various times, they sat up and expressed interest in a passing lone buffalo but they didn’t move much. If you look at the third photo down you can count the six lions. There is an army green safari truck in the photo whose lone occupant is the Lion Lady, Ingela Jansson. She is studying the whiskers of the six lions which is how researchers identify them.

Over a boxed lunch of grilled chicken and fruits, Ingela explained her work to us. Our group of two safari trucks and thirteen visitors are customers of Austin and Arusha based Fair Trade Safaris which helps fund conservation efforts in several places, including Ingela’s work. Ingela explained that about 20 years ago she realized that the main pressure faced by lions were humans, the pastoral Maasai who share the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with the animals (unlike the national parks which are exclusive zones, the NCA is a mixed use land, allowing animals and a few tens of thousands of humans to co-exist). So she created a system to lion guardians based on a system that had been shown to work in Kenya, where a Maasai warrior is a full time member of her group, and his job is to keep track of and facilitate the safety of lions and cattle (and humans) in his home area. Ingela’s experience has shown that pride in being a guardian of lions, having a well-paid responsibility, and keeping his people and the lions safe is a suitable proxy for being the brave Maasi warrior who under other circumstances would have killed the lion.

Ingela then shared a box full of cards with the whisker marks, parentage, age, and other details of every lion in the area. We looked at the six we had seen earlier in the morning. Evan had the opportunity to rename one of them Leo after his friend (like most others it carried a number, in this case MASEK-89 or something like that). So, Leo – if you get around to Ngorongoro, you may be able to see your namesake one day! In the group photo, Evan is standing in front of me, and to his and my left is Ingela, the Lion Lady.

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