If Noah’s ark had off-loaded into a massive version of Yankee Stadium, the result would have looked a lot like the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. The 102-square-mile caldera corrals great herds of zebras and gazelles and all of Africa’s Big Five. But recently, Tanzania’s chief tourist draw has started to buckle under the pressures of fame.
“In the 1970s, when the crater was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, there were three or four vehicles inside it on any given day,” says Craig Sholley, a vice president of the African Wildlife Foundation. “Now it’s out of control.”
During peak season some 300 4x4s descend 2,000 feet into the crater daily. The local population has also skyrocketed. Today 64,000 people, many of them subsistence farmers, live within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area—double what the ecosystem can support, according to the African Conservation Foundation. Earlier this year, the Tanzanian government sent a team of legislators to meet with area officials, tourism stakeholders, and community representatives to discuss solutions. But whether they decide to relocate villagers or limit the annual number of tourists, the clock is ticking.
UNESCO has stated that Ngorongoro may be relabeled a World Heritage site in danger, unless the destructive trends of overdevelopment and human encroachment are reversed. In the meantime, some tour operators have taken matters into their own hands. “We need to dramatically cut back on the number of tourist vehicles going into the crater,” says Mark Thornton, a Tanzania-based safari outfitter who now encourages his clients to stay in one of the spectacular lodges on the crater rim but to avoid going down in. “The 5,700-square-mile Serengeti, which borders Ngorongoro, offers a lot more space and wildlife to see,” he says. “The crater needs time to heal.”
Photograph by Nicholas Parfitt/Getty Images