Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Big cats and the endless plains of the Serengeti

A leopard rests in an acacia tree next to a stream.  At night, they stalk
their prey and pounce, but rarely chase. Leopards are widespread
throughout Africa, but this is the only one I have ever seen.

When grasses bloom, the herds follow. Lurking in places beneath the eye, the cats await their next feast. With muscles tensing, jaws opening, claws extending, they pounce!

Read on for lions, cheetahs, and the endless plains...

Sunrise over the Serengeti. Let the day begin...

In the Masaai language, according to our guide, "Serengeti" translates to "endless plains."  Filled with grasses and occasional trees, Serengeti National Park covers 1.5 million hectares. It stretches into other nearby parks in Tanzania and into the Masaai Mara of Kenya. To the human eye, it is indeed an endless plain.

The male African Lion, Panthera leo, lifts his head from rest. When prey
is plentiful, lions may sleep up to twenty hours a day. 

Although it can get warm in full sun, the Serengeti plains rise from around 1000 to nearly 2000 meters. I think where we stayed was around 1700 meters above sea level. With previous impressions of a dry and sun-filled landscape, I was surprised at how cool it was in the morning and as the sun set.

A pile of female and young male lions sleep nearby the previously-pictured

The availability of water is a major limiting factor in the growth of plants. Where there is not enough water for trees, grasses often blanket the land.

The spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta, is a peculiar predator that is related
to cats. Although they have a reputation as scavengers, they actually hunt
most of their food. They have been widely killed by humans and often fight
over kills with lions. Find out more.

By streams and their adjoining marshes, trees find enough water to grow. Sometimes the only break in the flat plain is a line of trees following the river.

This spotted carnivore, Acinonyx jubatus, is the fastest land mammal.
Although it once roamed several continents, the cheetah is now endangered
and can only be found in northern Iran and sub-Saharan Africa. 

We found many animals near the water sources. Ducks and sandpipers were on the water, weavers constructed their nests on the branches of the nearby trees, and vultures sat atop the crowns waiting for the scent of flesh. 

The herd of African buffalo is tiny compared to the expanse of the plains,
even though each buffalo (Syncerus caffer) is 2-3 meters long and
on average weighs 700 kilograms.

There was never a dull moment in the Serengeti. Even when all animals seemed to disappear, the sounds of the wind rustling the grasses provided a soundtrack as heavy clouds pushed along the sky.

Hyenas and lions are the main predators of the buffalo.

Just look at what the hyenas are watching. A herd of Thomson's Gazelle
grazes, drawn to this predator-rich land by an even richer store of grasses.
High numbers of Thomson's gazelle, Grant's Gazelle, Zebra, Topi,
Bohor reedbuck, hartebeest, impala, wildebeest, buffalo, small mammals,
and even elephant provide opportunities for the Serengeti's predators.

So flat and big you can see an individual rainstorm start and stop.

The Serengeti ecosystem is protected by the Tanzanian government as a National Park and several other conservation-designated areas. Still, it is threatened by human activities and invasive species. Activities outside the park can affect the migratory animals that flow in and out of the park boundaries.

Panthera pardus is hunted for its skin and killed by cattle ranchers. 

All three of the big cats shown in this post are either endangered, vulnerable, or conservation-dependent. Places like the Serengeti are essential for their survival. As we humans exert so much influence, we must make choices about the kinds of impacts we make. Will the plains continue to support millions of wandering animals? Will lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and leopards have a home in the 21st century and beyond? Will we keep places like the Serengeti? 

Kopjes are small rocky hills that generally covered in trees and shrubs.
They provide habitat and cover for many creatures that venture out
into the grasses by day or night. Some animals even specialize in
staying at these rocky islands in the sea of grass.

Water holes and rivers are essential hydration spots for the animals of the
Serengeti. In the dry season, these are the easiest places to find a wealth
of big animals who need a drink. In the wet season, animals
spread out over the land.

There is so much in the Serengeti, but grass and sky dominate.
Hopefully this beautiful place will be "an endless plain" forever.

Works Cited

Harrington, E. and P. Myers. 2004. "Panthera leo" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

Hunt, A. and P. Myers. 2011. "Panthera pardus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011 at

Law, J. and P. Myers. 2004. "Crocuta crocuta" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

Mulheisen, M. and N. Knibbe. 2001. "Acinonyx jubatus" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

Newell, T. 2000. "Syncerus caffer" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed July 13, 2011

2011. "Serengeti National Park" (On-line). UNESCO World Heritage Centre.  Accessed July 13, 2011.

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