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Our first destination was Lake Manyara National Park, in the middle of Tanzania's "northern circuit" of national parks. In each park, we stayed overnight in beautiful lodges in the Sopa and Serena hotel chains.
Twenty-eight percent of Tanzania is under some form of protection, mostly National Parks and Game Reserves. This is a higher proportion than any other country and represents a huge commitment by one of the poorest nations. There is intense demand for arable land from Tanzania's growing population, most of whom remain subsistence farmers. Most human settlement and activity are prohibited in national parks.
Manyara, which packs a lot of diversity into a small area, is the only park in the area that is green all year round. The park seems like a tropical rain forest with its dense lush vegetation. Manyara, however, is a ground water forest: it stays green through the dry season thanks to ground water fed by springs seeping from the walls of the Great Rift Valley. East Africa's Great Rift Valley, the only geological feature clearly visible from the moon, is the root of much of the terrain we explored during our trip. The rift produced some of the world's biggest volcanic mountains (including Mt. Meru and Ngorongoro) which in turn created the fertile volcanic ash feeding the Serengeti plains.
Elephant society is matriarchal and based on close family kin. Daughters remain in the same herd as their mothers and grandmothers. When a baby is born, the whole herd is attentive to it and will be very protective. Calves small enough to walk under mother maintain constant contact.
Lions and hyenas are capable of nabbing baby elephants, but rarely get the
chance. Herds will form a defensive ring around calves. Both male and female African
elephants have tusks, the size of which indicates their age.
We encountered both kinds of Impala herds. This is a breeding herd with many females and young. Each breeding herd is shepherded by one dominant male. If the dominant male loses a challenge from a bachelor, he forfeits his territory and joins a bachelor herd.
Here's an all-male bachelor herd, consisting of immature males that have yet to gain a territory and grown-ups who've lost theirs. Only males with a territory get to breed. So the bachelor herds have the social dynamic of a Star Trek convention.
Manyara is known for tree climbing lions but they are so hard to find, some people believe the lions are just a rumour concocted by the park's marketing department. The idea that a small Tanzanian park would have a marketing department is a rumour spread by the tree climbing lions. Or at least that's the rumour I started.
We were fortunate to spot two prides sprawled out on the stout branches of flat-topped acacia trees. No one exactly knows why these lions take to the trees while most grown lions don't climb. These particular trees do seem custom designed for lion comfort: They are easy to climb and provide a cool resting place away from biting flies and herds of buffalo and elephant.