Imagine vast expansive plains with endless horizons, seas of pale yellow grass rippling in the warm breeze, gnarled acacias twisting to the sky and vultures circling on thermals overhead.
This is the Serengeti, Africa’s most famous and fabulous game reserve.
Subject of countless documentaries, the Serengeti does not disappoint in real life. Each year, up to two million wildebeest snake their way across the plains following the promise of rain. Accompanied by zebra, they form a black, braying column more than 40 kilometres long. Flurries of egrets rise and fall above them and dust surrounds their hooves. They thrash through rivers, crackle across plains and finally, reaching verdant grasslands, give birth to wet glistening calves, wobbling on unsteady legs.
Even without the migration the Serengeti’s wildlife is unparalleled. Lion are a practical certainty for the photographer, cheetah pace the plains, leopard lounge in sausage trees and spotted hyena and golden jackal can be seen trotting through the grass. In the acacia woodland, Kirk’s dik-dik, oribi and roan hide, whilst herds of elephant feed on the fringes.
Masai lion: the Serengeti is believed to hold the largest population of lions in Africa due in part to the abundance of prey species. More than 3,000 lions live in this ecosystem.
African leopard: these reclusive predators are commonly seen in the Seronera region but are present throughout the national park with the population at around 1,000.
Tanzanian cheetah: the fastest running land animal can reach speeds of up to 70 mph. The ability to be so quick allows them to capture prey that no other animals can catch. It is estimated there are over 1,000 individuals living in the park.
African bush elephant: the herds have recovered successfully from population lows in the 1980s caused by poaching, numbering over 5,000 individuals, and are largely located in the northern regions of the park.
Eastern black rhinoceros: mainly found around the kopjes in the centre of the park, very few individuals remain due to rampant poaching. Individuals from the Masai Mara Reserve cross the park border and enter Serengeti from the northern section at times.
African buffalo: still abundant and present in healthy numbers.
Serengeti wildebeest: the park is home to spectacular migration events. Large ungulates from Grant's gazelles to blue wildebeests travel across vast tracts of land as the seasons change. The population of migratory wildebeests is approximately 1.2 million.
Apart from the vast herds of migratory and some resident wildebeest and zebra, the park is also densely packed with other plains game including half a million Thomson's and Grant's gazelle, over 8,000 Masai giraffe, warthog, topi, eland, waterbuck, duiker, impala, klipspringer, roan antelope, bushbuck, lesser kudu, fringe-eared oryx and coke's hartebeest.
Carnivores include about 4,000 spotted hyena, jackal, African golden wolf, honey badger, striped hyena, serval, and the recently introduced East African wild dog(extinct since 1991). Apart from the safari staples, primates such as yellow and olive baboons and vervet monkey, patas monkey, black-and-white colobus are also seen in the gallery forests of the Grumeti River.
Serengeti National Park has also great ornithological interest, boasting about 500 bird species, including Masai ostrich, secretarybird, kori bustards, helmeted guineafowls, southern ground hornbill, crowned cranes, marabou storks, yellow-billed stork, martial eagles, lovebirds, oxpeckers, and many species of vultures.
Reptiles in Serengeti National Park are include Nile crocodile, leopard tortoise, serrated hinged terrapin, rainbow agama, Nile monitor, chameleons, African python.
The Maasai people had been grazing their livestock in the open plains of eastern Mara Region, which they named "endless plains", for around 200 years when the first European explorer, Austrian Oscar Baumann, visited the area in 1892. The name "Serengeti" is an approximation of the word used by the Maasai to describe the area, siringet, which means "the place where the land runs on forever".
The first American to enter the Serengeti, Stewart Edward White, recorded his explorations in the northern Serengeti in 1913. He returned to the Serengeti in the 1920s and camped in the area around Seronera for three months.
To preserve wildlife, the British evicted the resident Maasai from the park in 1959 and moved them to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. There is still considerable controversy surrounding this move, with claims made of coercion and deceit on the part of the colonial authorities.
The park is Tanzania's oldest national park and remains the flagship of the country's tourism industry, providing a major draw to the Northern Safari Circuit encompassing Lake Manyara National Park, Tarangire National Park, Arusha National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. It has over 2,500 lions and more than 1 million wildebeest.