Where Is the Serengeti?
The lioness approaches the herd of wildebeests in plain sight. If she were hunting the wildebeests, she would crouch low and disappear into the tall grass. Her tan coat would help camouflage the lioness. (Camouflage
means to blend in with her surroundings.)
But for right now, she’s only watching the herd.
And the herd watches her back. Nervously. The wildebeests walk on, all the while keeping an eye on the female lion.
The lioness can’t outrun the wildebeests. In short bursts, lions can reach speeds of fifty miles per hour. But wildebeests can run that fast for a long time. So if the lioness is far away from the herd, the wildebeests will be safe. And if the lioness decides to charge them, they’ll have plenty of time to run for their lives.
The lioness walks alongside the herd. Lions prefer to attack when their target is no more than a hundred feet away. With a good running start, they can leap as far as thirty-six feet! But this lioness doesn’t want the wildebeests to panic and run—at least not yet. For now, she wants to keep their attention on her. Slowly, she begins closing the distance between them.
The wildebeests notice, and turn to flee.
The lioness charges, running straight for the herd!
She’s too far back. She’ll never catch up.
But on the other side of the herd, lying in wait in the tall grass, are two more lionesses. And the panicked wildebeests are running right toward them.
Suddenly, the other lionesses spring into action. They jump up into a run and select their target: a lone wildebeest that has separated from the herd.
The lioness that reaches the wildebeest first sinks her claws into its backside. The wildebeest bucks in an attempt to shake the lioness off, but it’s no use.
The wildebeest is one of the largest species—or types—of antelope, weighing up to six hundred pounds. But the lioness is strong. The wildebeest is pulled to the ground. Now a second lioness arrives and delivers the killing blow: a sure and swift bite to the throat.
The wildebeest’s death may seem brutal. But lions and their cubs need meat to survive. Predators, like lions, must hunt and kill prey, like wildebeests.
As the lions feast on their fresh kill, smaller carnivores (meat eaters), like jackals, wait in the background. Vultures circle overhead. After the lions have had their fill, the jackals and the vultures will swarm in to fight over the scraps. Soon, the wildebeest’s bones will be picked clean.
When survival is at stake, nothing goes to waste.
This is life in the Serengeti (say: sair-en-GET-ee), a wide, grassy plain in the east-central African nation of Tanzania. Serengeti National Park was established in 1951. It covers an area of 5,700 square miles—about the size of Connecticut.
Soon after the park was founded, elephants began moving back to the Serengeti. They had not been in the area for many years, having been driven out by hunters. Today, there are thousands of elephants on the Serengeti Plain. The area is also home to as many as two million wildebeests, four thousand lions, and a wide variety of other animals, including zebras, gazelles, giraffes, leopards, and hyenas.
With all these animals, the Serengeti holds the highest concentration of large game and predators on earth. (That means the greatest number of these animals are living in the smallest area.)
In 1981, the Serengeti was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations. It is a place “of outstanding universal value” to humankind. The Grand Canyon in the United States and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia are other World Heritage Sites.
Today, no people—except for a few scientists and park rangers—are allowed to live in Serengeti National Park. It is a wild and special place, practically untouched by humans, and ruled by great beasts. Chapter 1: Endless Plains and Mountain Islands
In the language of the local Maasai people (say: ma-SIGH), Serengeti
means “endless plains” or “extended place.” The Maasai arrived here from Kenya, to the north, about three hundred years ago. They used the grasslands to graze their cattle.
There are around two hundred species
of grass on the Serengeti Plain. There are short grasslands in the south and east, with taller grasslands in the west. Millions of animals—wildebeests, zebras, buffalo—graze here. A single elephant can eat six hundred pounds of grass in a day! The Serengeti’s vegetation feeds the largest herds of animals on the planet.
To the north and west is the savanna, grasslands with trees here and there. Some areas of the savanna are more heavily forested. Here, only giraffes can feed on the tallest leaves in the trees. A number of small rivers, lakes, and swamps dot the park.
The Serengeti lies just a couple of hundred miles south of the equator. The equator is an imaginary line that divides the earth into northern and southern halves.
Areas around the equator receive more year-round direct sunlight than anywhere else on the planet. These places don’t experience four distinct seasons—winter, spring, summer, and fall—like other areas around the world.
There are basically two seasons in the Serengeti: a rainy one and a dry one. During the rainy season, from about October through May, it might rain twenty-two days in a month. Around thirty-three inches of rain will fall during the rainy season. From June to September, it rains only about five inches total—with as few as six rainy days each month.
Areas in the northern Serengeti are the wettest, with about fifty-five inches of annual rainfall. The southeastern short-grass plains are the driest.
The Serengeti is a high plain—between three thousand and six thousand feet above sea level. Because of this, temperatures can get a bit cool at night—between 57° and 61° Fahrenheit—even though the Serengeti is so close to the equator. During the day, temperatures can rise into the mid-eighties.
While the Serengeti Plain is mostly flat, there are some hilly areas. “Mountain islands” of granite rock in a sea of grass also dot the landscape. They are called kopjes (sounds like “copies”) and can be hundreds of feet tall.
Kopjes are like their own little ecosystems within the larger savanna ecosystem. (An ecosystem
is a community of living things within an area, or environment.) These rocky mounds attract a wide variety of life.
Rainwater collects in the rock hollows. Plants and bushes that can’t survive among the grasses are able to grow in kopjes by taking root in their cracks and crevices. Small animals like snakes, lizards, and mice—drawn to the kopjes by little pools of drinking water—make their home here.
The dik-dik, one of the world’s smallest antelopes, is one animal that can be found living around kopjes. These tiny animals stand only about a foot high and weigh up to fifteen pounds. Females are larger than males. Male dik-diks grow tiny horns—only about three inches long!
Dik-diks live in pairs rather than a herd, and they mate for life. To mark their territory, dik-diks rub their faces in the grass. This releases a sticky fluid from a black spot in the corner of the dik-dik’s eyes. So it’s almost like they use tears to set the boundaries of their home!
Kopjes also make great lookouts for larger predators like cheetahs and leopards. From atop a kopje, these big cats can spot prey miles across the savanna. And before leaving to hunt, the cat can hide her cubs in the kopje’s rocky burrows. (Of course, these predators also hunt the small animals that live around the kopjes!)
One unusual little creature that makes kopjes its home is the rock hyrax.
While the ten-pound rock hyrax might look like a prairie dog or guinea pig, it is actually related to the elephant! Like an elephant, the hyrax has tusks and flat, hoof-like nails. One of its toes has a long nail that is used for grooming and scratching.
Rock hyraxes live in Africa and the Middle East, in large groups of up to eighty individuals. They spend most of their time relaxing, lying on top of one another in heaps in their dens or out in the sunlight.
Of course, the hyraxes must remain vigilant. Lookouts keep watch for predators. When danger appears, it’s time to sound the alarm. Hyraxes have a kind of “language,” with more than twenty different noises—from grunts to growls to snorts. Male hyraxes actually sing “songs” using patterns of these sounds to let other hyraxes in the area know: Hey—keep out of our kopje!
The songs help to protect their territory.
Copyright © 2019 by Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.