Wildlife - others
Tanzania’s only wild equid is the plains (or Burchell’s) zebra, an unmistakeable striped horse that often mingles with antelope, especially wildebeest and gazelle. Stallions are larger than mares, standing up to 1.4m high and weighing 250-300kg. It is often seen in large groups, particularly in the Serengeti, but these are ephemeral units, comprised of several non-territorial herds dominated and hotly defended by a stallion with exclusive breeding access to a harem of up to five mares.
- East Africa’s zebras lack the shadow stripes associated with more southerly races, but every individual has a unique stripe pattern, rather like a human fingerprint.
- The purpose of the zebra’s stripes is unknown. Some say that it serves as camouflage, breaking up the body shape in long grass, others that it confuses predators when a herd scatters, or has an unknown role in sexual selection. Equally, it might simply be an evolutionary quirk or a residual feature retained from ancestral stock.
Viewing tip: When a zebra herd closes ranks around the young, or a stallion stares in one direction for a prolonged period, it probably means that a predator has been detected.
Top spot: Densities are highest in the Serengeti-Ngorongoro ecosystem, but it’s also common in Tarangire, Manyara, Arusha, Katavi, Ruaha, Mikumi and Selous.
This endangered rhinoceros is the smaller of two African species, and the only one found in Tanzania. Despite its tank-like build, armoured hide, fearsome horns and bad temper, it is very scarce, with the global population estimated at below 5,000. In southern Africa, where black and white rhino compete, it is associated with dense woodland, but in East Africa it often forages in the open.
- The black rhino is no darker than the extralimital white rhino, whose name derives from the Dutch weit (wide), a reference to its square grass-cropping lips. By contrast, the black rhino has a narrow mouth and hooked upper lip designed for browsing.
- Each of the world’s five rhino species has been IUCN listed as Critically Endangered at some point in the past century, and most still are. This is largely due to commercial poaching for the horn, which is prized as an aphrodisiac in Asia and as a dagger handle in Yemen.
- The black rhino is legendarily mean tempered and might charge at any provocation. The best recourse for any pedestrian in the line of fire is to climb the closest tree.
Viewing tip: Early risers who descend to Ngorongoro Crater with a packed breakfast may well be treated to a close-up sighting of rhino emerging from Lerai Forest to the grassland.
Top spot: Ngorongoro is by far the most reliable site, but black rhino are also present in Selous, parts of the southern Serengeti, and Mkomazi.
Tanzania is the world’s most important stronghold for this intelligent, sociable and playful creature, harbouring an population of at least 100,000, some 60% of which is centred on Selous. The African elephant can be highly entertaining to observe for extended periods, but can also be physically intimidating on account of its immense bulk, fierce trumpeting call and unpredictable temperament. The 1980s was a heyday for commercial ivory poachers, whose activities caused the continental population to plummet from more than a million in 1970 to about 350,000 in 1990. The continental population is thought to have doubled since a CITES ban on ivory trade was introduced in 1990, but it remains in decline outside of protected areas.
- The African elephant is the largest living land animal, typically weighing 6,000kg. The largest individual on record clocked in at 12,000kg, and is now mounted for display in the Smithsonian Museum. It also has the longest gestation period of any land animal at 21-22 months.
- The trunk has several uses – to pick leaves from high branches, to dislodge fruit by shaking the tree, to tear up food, to suck up water, and for play wrestling, courtship and displays of dominance (trunk raised) or submission (trunk down).
- Equally versatile are the tusks, which it uses to dig for salt or water, to tear bark from trees, to pulp wood, to clear obstructions, and in defence. Most elephants are right- or left-tusked, with the more used tusk generally being worn shorter and to a more rounded tip. The longest of tusks on record measured 3.45 m and the heaviest 117kg.
- A mixed grazer-browser, the elephant has a rather inefficient digestive system, and more than 50% of its daily intake of 200kg is defecated without having been digested.
Viewing tip: Elephants typically visit a water source about three hours after sunrise, and will often linger there until late afternoon on hot days, wallowing or spraying themselves with water.
Top spot: Selous for sheer numbers, though Katavi, Tarangire and Ruaha are comparable, and Ngorongoro and Manyara are better for large tuskers. The Serengeti is relatively poor, with the main concentration being in the far north.
The second-largest non-marine mammal in Tanzania is the common hippopotamus, whose combination of purplish-grey hairless hide, pinkish undersides and cheeks, barrel-like torso, and stumpy legs render it unmistakeable. It is the most characteristic resident of Africa’s rivers and lakes, typically seen in territorial groups of 10-20 individuals, which communicate in loud rather comical grunts and frequently yawn to reveal their wide mouth and monstrous canines. Ears, eyes and nostrils are placed high on the roof of the skull, allowing a hippo to spend most of the day submerged, resurfacing every 5-10 minutes to breathe.
- Despite its aquatic lifestyle, the hippo feeds almost entirely terrestrially, typically emerging from the water in the late afternoon or by night to crop some 45-60kg of grass daily.
- Contrary to appearances, it is a poor swimmer, and spends most of its time standing or lying in shallow water.
- Baby hippos are born in the water and must swim to the surface to take their first breath.
Viewing tip: Be very cautious about approaching the water’s edge at dusk or dawn – a disturbed hippo can attain a speed of 35 km/hour, and will mow down anything that gets between it and the safety of the water, with potentially fatal results.
Top site: Katavi is arguably the place in Africa for concentrated hippo interaction, but Selous, Manyara, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and most other reserves offer good hippo viewing.
The name giraffe almost certainly derives from Arabic, most likely zirafah ("the tallest") but also possibly Xirapha (“swift walker”). Both appellations are appropriate – this is the world’s tallest land mammal, standing up to 5.8m high and weighing up to 2,000 kg, and it attains a speed of 50km/hour, betraying a rather odd and amusing gait when it does so. The race present in Tanzania is the Maasai giraffe, which typically sports jagged spots on a yellow-fawn background, but can be so dark as appear almost melanistic in some areas, notably Manyara.
- The giraffe feeds on high grade leaf foliage at heights of 2-6m. Its only competitor for this niche is the elephant, but it has a higher reach due to its long neck and versatile 50cm tongue.
- A giraffe's heart weighs 10 kg and generates double the average mammalian blood pressure in order to pump blood to the brain via the long neck (which, like other mammals, possesses just seven vertebrae).
Viewing tip: Behaviour to watch out for is necking, which is exclusive to males. Its functions range from combat to affection and sexual arousal – indeed, same sex mounting is more frequently observed in giraffes than heterosexual coupling.
Top spot: Densities are probably higher in the northern Selous, where aggregations 50 animals are commonplace. It is also common in Serengeti, Manyara, Tarangire, Arusha, Saadani, Ruaha, Katavi and Mikumi, but is absent from the Ngorongoro Crater and southern Selous.
One pf the most familiar and endearing sights of the African savannah that of a warthog family trotting off with an characteristic aura of determined nonchalance, long tails raised stiffly in the air. This unusually slender, long-legged swine stands up to 80cm high at the shoulder, has a sparsely-haired grey coat that contrasts with its long dorsal mane, large upward curving tusks, and a trio of callus-like facial warts.
- Like their domestic counterparts, warthogs are unfussy diners, eating anything from fruits and crops to carrion and newborn animals, but they are most partial to roots and bulbs, which are rooted out using the tusk and elongated snout.
- When threatened, warthogs reverse into their subterranean burrows, vicious tusks pointing outward to discourage any intruder from following. They sometimes dig the burrows themselves but more often appropriate then from other burrowing animals.
Viewing tip: If you chance upon what looks like an unusually hirsute warthog, it is probably a bushpig, a widespread but seldom observed nocturnal resident of forest and riparian woodland.
Top spot: Probably most common in the Serengeti, but readily seen in most savannah reserves, including Ngorongoro, Manyara, Tarangire, Arusha, Saadani, Mikumi, Katavi, Selous and Ruaha.
Endemic to Africa, hyraxes are superficially rodent-like small mammals that resemble an overgrown guinea pig but are sharper of tooth. Most common is the rock hyrax, which typically lives in rocky or mountainous habitats, forming strongly territorial family groups of around 10-20 individuals. The less common and seldom observed tree hyrax is a nocturnal forest creature that announces its presence with an unforgettable and rather terrifying banshee wail!
- Modern hyraxes are dwarfish relicts of an order that dominated the African herbivore niche about 35 million years ago, when some species were as large as horses. An evolutionary relict from this time is the hyrax’s 7-8 month gestation period, which is highly unusual for such a small creature.
- You’ll often be told that the hyraxes’ closest living relatives are elephants – a fact that loses some of its power to astonish when you realise that the spilt dates back almost as long as the one between cats and people.
Viewing tip: Normally shy, hyraxes can become very tame when they are used to people, as is the case in several lodges built around koppies in the Serengeti.
Top sites: Serengeti, particularly around Lobo, but also Ngorongoro (crater rim), Manyara, Kilimanjaro and Ruaha.