In the popular imagination, the Serengeti ecosystem is an ancient African landscape of sweeping golden plains, unchanged for eons. Towering giraffes move gracefully in step. Elephant herds wade through waves of grasses. Lions chase down spiral-horned antelope in gory hunts. Zigzagging lines of wildebeests and zebras are perpetually on the move. And the people who live in the Serengeti, the Maasai and others, if they are acknowledged at all, are generally portrayed as exotic figures clinging stubbornly to archaic pastoral traditions.
These representations bear some likeness to the actual place, but they fail to capture the complexity of a vast ecosystem that ranges from northern Tanzania to southwestern Kenya and is home to thousands of plant and animal species. Even the name, Serengeti—believed to come from the Maa word for “endless plain”—is deceptive. The Serengeti is many landscapes, including savanna, woodland, and riverine forests.
It’s a place like no other on the planet, with the last thriving populations of some animals. And it’s a place where humans have lived in balance with animals since the beginnings of our species. But some of the animals that we have come to know so much about—and many others that remain mysteries—are at risk of disappearing as we humans increasingly lay claim to their habitats and heat the climate.