The urgent need to protect the Serengeti’s intricate web of life

The vast and varied ecosystem of thousands of plant and animal species is a place of astonishing resilience but needs the support of Kenyans and Tanzanians to survive.

Tire tracks left by tourist-filled safari vehicles etch a dusty expanse where lions rest in Tanzania’s Hidden Valley. It’s March, and these apex predators have fed well on wildebeest herds calving nearby—the newborns are especially vulnerable. Later in the year, when the herds have followed the rains north in search of better grazing, lions here struggle to find enough prey, and some inevitably starve to death. It’s the boom-and-bust cycle of the Serengeti region that predators of the plains live and die by.

This is one of five stories that explore the greater Serengeti region and its ecosystem. Read the rest of those stories here.

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.

For scientists like me, the Serengeti is both a time capsule of an immemorial age and a bellwether for our future. As comforting as it may be to see it through familiar images and story lines, we need to understand it as an intricate web of life that depends on landscapes well beyond the parks, reserves, and conservancies we’ve set aside.

Like most East Africans, I never visited the Serengeti as a child. It was for tourists, a place seen by us as out of reach and irrelevant to our lives. But unlike many, I was lucky, even as a child growing up in Nairobi in the 1970s, to see some of Kenya’s wildlife in the wild. To keep order in the house, my mother would lock me and my brother out and tell us not to come home until dinnertime. We’d explore the nearby forest, climb trees, swim rivers, wade through swamps. One day we spotted a cute animal that looked like a gigantic guinea pig, way up in a fig tree. A neighbor pulled up, rolled down the window, and explained that it was a hyrax and that it was a distant relative of the elephant, a fact that blew our little minds.

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(In this episode of our podcast Overheard, we chat with Paula Kahumbu on why it’s up to local wildlife warriors—not foreign scientists or tourists—to preserve Africa’s wild landscapes. Listen now on Apple Podcasts.)

Discovering our fascination with animals, he told us to bring him any we could catch alive, and he’d tell us about them. We brought him snakes, lizards, birds, frogs, mice, and, once, a giant pouched rat, which I was sure was a new discovery. This man of infinite patience was Richard Leakey, the paleoanthropologist, then the director of the National Museum of Kenya.

Several years later, when I was 15, I somehow persuaded my parents to let me join some students on a scientific expedition across northern Kenya, a remotely inhabited place where it was possible to die from thirst, banditry, or lions. For an entire month we were mostly on our own, happily cataloging the plants and creatures we saw. This experience forged a deep desire to spend my life immersed in nature. A few years later, when my mother sent me off to secretarial school, I ran away and went to see Leakey. He found me an internship that launched me toward my dream of becoming a ranger.

I finally visited the Serengeti in my 20s, when I was working for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Young and naive, I once asked American scientists in the Masai Mara National Reserve whether they had any Kenyans on their team.

“Yes, of course,” they said, “our driver and our cook.”

This flouted research permit rules, but back in Nairobi my boss just shrugged. Nobody expected Africans to do research in the bush. Despite such attitudes, I went on to earn a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology. I loved working as a scientist, but some years ago, I realized that all I cherished was under grave threat. So I switched my focus to conservation.

One of my projects is a documentary series called Wildlife Warriors, produced by Kenyans for a Kenyan audience, that highlights our countrymen and countrywomen—scientists or not—who seek to protect our animals. When I first pitched the idea, people said Kenyans wouldn’t watch. But the response has been overwhelming. Last year 51 percent of the country tuned in, and we’ve received emails and letters of support, as well as suggestions for new subjects, from viewers of all ages. The message is clear: Kenyans care about their wildlife.

Everyone needs to care because the stakes are high. The wildebeest migration, which travels a circular path through the Serengeti ecosystem, is under pressure. The annual arrival of more than a million wildebeests on the banks of the Mara River seems proof the migration is robust, but the long-term trends tell a different story. Nationwide, large mammal populations have plummeted.

Jackson Looseyia, a Maasai tour operator and cohost of the TV show Big Cat Tales, told me that within the past decade he and his fellow guides have noticed 10 species that have disappeared or almost disappeared: greater kudu, common duiker, bushbuck, bushpig, giant forest hog, oribi, colobus monkey, sable antelope, roan antelope, and, of course, black rhino. Most of these animals aren’t at the top of tourist lists but are crucial barometers for the health of the ecosystem.

In the 1990s we saw the collapse of the wildebeest migration in the Athi-Kaputiei ecosystem just south of Nairobi. We didn’t even realize what was happening until it was too late. Today the same thing appears to be unfolding on a grander scale in the Serengeti, but now we know what’s happening. And the threat is magnified by climate change. Leakey told me he fears that unless we immediately address this at a global level, we will lose most of our wildlife within our lifetime.

If there is any environment that could withstand the onslaught of warming, it would be the Serengeti ecosystem—a place of astonishing resilience. I believe we can defend this wilderness and preserve it for future generations, but that will not happen unless ordinary Kenyans and Tanzanians demand it.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Since 2010 we have supported 2021 Rolex National Geographic Explorer of the Year Paula Kahumbu’s work protecting species in East Africa. 

Learn more. See related educational resources about this topic—click here to access the National Geographic Society Resource Library for educators, students and lifelong learners.

This story appears in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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