Story & photos by Julie Maris/Semel
I held my breath, seemingly for fifteen minutes, while a six-ton, fifty-year-old elephant nibbled shrubs less than ten feet from my porch near the entrance to Tarangire National Park. The last night of a remarkable Tanzanian safari left me in bed listening to the night sounds of hyenas laughing and frogs chirping. Hearing the loud crack of a breaking branch, I rushed to the screened window to see my elephant with three-foot tusks that reflected the moonlight. I heard him pulling and chewing the grass while I ceased breathing. My surreal dream ended when three Maasai watchman carrying quartz lights chased him towards the wilderness.
The safari began a week earlier at Lake Manyara National Park, a two-hour drive from Arusha’s airport on paved and then bumpy, pot-holed dirt roads. The park and the Rift Valley, the result of tectonic plate movement, encompass diverse habitats and vegetation. A two-thousand-foot escarpment overlooks shimmering grasslands and acacia woodlands that support two-million flamingos, over 390 bird species, and the world’s largest concentration of baboons.
I watched the frequent laugh-inducing baboons’ antics and listened to my guides’ educational and amusing comments about their behavior. Both resulted in camera movement and blurry photos.
As part of Lake Manyara Biosphere Reserve, the shallow soda lake and alkaline ecosystems feed pelicans and cormorants. Eagles soar on thermal winds over grassy floodplains filled with sprinting giraffe, buffalo, and zebra.
Tarangire National Park’s acacia woodlands, the iconic lacy trees with dome-shaped tops, and towering, ancient baobab trees, include migration corridors for the second highest number of elephants in Tanzania. Hundreds in parades or swimming left me speechless. Sitting at a picnic table in close proximity and watching lumbering elephants gave me an intimate view of the beauty of these majestic animals but also of their fragility.
Excitement followed the continuous and dusty bends in the roads when unexpected tree-climbing lions in Tarangire and a pair of Serengeti National Park cheetahs, eyeing prey from an eight-foot termite mound, came into view. As the four-wheel drive lurched to quick stops and my guides scanned the horizons, I grasped my binoculars and would have easily lingered for hours watching the game if time and distance were not on the safari agenda.
These lyrical and vast landscapes and the privilege of a safari immediately highlight the true issues. Frightening statistics regarding conservation of the ecosystems and habitats and the additional loss of animal life from poaching and human conflicts threaten all species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of threats to giraffe apply to most animals: illegal hunting, civil unrest, ecological changes, and habitat conversion.
From the giraffe’s loss of thorny acacia trees to increased agriculture and environmental projects that affect wildlife migration corridors, the impact is staggering. The Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the New York Zoological Society), IUCN, the African Wildlife Foundation, the Tarangire Elephant Project, and the Serengeti Lion Project are involved in biodiversity conservation through activities including community involvement and tagging lions and elephants. Support is imperative for the survival of these precious animals.
The awe-inspiring Serengeti savanna, characterized by its tropical and volcanic grassland and dispersed trees, protects the largest concentration of plains animals in Africa. Famous for its million wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle that migrate during the year, there are also frequent sightings of prides of lions and cheetahs.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contiguous to Serengeti National Park, incorporates the largest intact and non-flooded volcanic caldera, the Ngorongoro Crater. The two-thousand-foot deep crater contains 25,000 animals that include the rare and endangered black rhino and leopards.
The establishment of the conservation area preserved the Maasai culture when they were diverted from the Serengeti. These pastoral nomads build temporary villages outside the area but herd cattle within the crater overlooked by the blue-hued caldera.
In 1960 archeologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered Homo habilis, a stone age human jaw, at Olduvai Gorge within the conservation area. Nearby in 1978, Mary Leakey found the Laetoli footprints, a trail of seventy fossils of erect hominds embedded in volcanic ash, the oldest footprint site in human history. While evaluating a new museum location in 2015, archeologists uncovered fourteen additional 3.6-million-year-old prints.
As a guest of Augustine’s Adventure Africa, I experienced incredible animal sightings coupled with the ability to closely observe their behavior. Augustine Minja and his driver/guide, Mohamadi Mpagama, enlightened me about wildlife with passion, expertise, and knowledge with regard to management and conservation.
Augustine sponsors children’s trips to local national parks, part of Tanzania’s 13,000 square-miles of protected parkland, for environmental and conservation education. On safaris, he also supports local culture through visits to community schools, health care clinics, markets, and coffee growers that give clients another side of the social and economic picture.
© Photos and article by Julie Maris/Semel
For more than twenty years, Julie Maris/Semel has photographed adventure travel. Her work features people, landscapes, and wildlife from Asia to the Arctic. As a photojournalist, she has produced articles for national tourist boards and editorial clients. Her images have appeared in magazines and on Nikon’s website and reflect the challenges of capturing the brief second between subject and camera, as well as the quality of light and color.www.juliemarissemel.com