The lion’s den
01 November 2012 | Fact sheet
Ngorongoro Conservation Area World Heritage site, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area, centering around the Ngorongoro Crater, is not only a wilderness area teeming with rare fauna and flora, but also of high cultural value. Established in 1959, the Conservation Area was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1979 for its outstanding natural values and cultural significance. Today it is a leading draw for Tanzania’s tourism industry and a vital link in the national system of protected areas to effectively conserve rare and abundant wildlife populations, secure local livelihoods, and help preserve areas of globally-important cultural heritage.
The landscape of Ngorongoro undulates around weathered hills and valleys carved by intermittent water courses. It contains hills, ridges, gorges and a unique mountain caldera as it rises towards the eastern arm of the Great Rift Valley. For centuries this landscape has harboured nomadic peoples and communities, of whom the Maasai and Datoga pastoralists currently inhabit the Ngorongoro region, and whose cultural, spiritual, social and economic wellbeing is intimately tied to the fertile plains and lakes of the area.
The Maasai in particular have access and user rights to the Ngorongoro region, enshrined in the original Ngorongoro Conservation Area Establishment Act. Despite periods of conflict and disengagement, the Maasai community are active in decision-making and are increasingly taking ownership of management actions for the Conservation Area, for both cultural and natural heritage values.
One of the most astounding natural features of the Conservation Area is the Ngorongoro crater itself. The crater is an enormous depression (26,000 hectares) caused by a massive eruption of an ancient volcano that blasted out the core, leaving just a cracked rim amid the vast surrounding plain. From below, there is little evidence of what lies within, just a windswept escarpment leading up to a horizon of stunted trees and rocky outcrops. However, once up on the crest (1800 metres above sea-level) the crater is revealed; an expanse of natural tapestry dotted with fauna and flora and criss-crossed with streams leading to Lake Magadi, the crater’s main water source.
View images of the World Heritage site
Size and Location
Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers over 800,000 hectares of the vast expanses of highland savannah, woodlands and forests, rising from the plains of the adjacent Serengeti National Park. The crater itself has a mean diameter of 16 to19 kilometres, a crater floor of 26,400 hectares, and a rim soaring to 400 to 610 metres above the crater floor.
Flora and Fauna
The crater itself is teeming with wildlife, including the rare black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibius) and herds of buffalo (Syncerus caffer) and Thompson (Eudorcas thomsonii) and Grant’s gazelles (Nanger granti). It also has the highest density of lions (Panthera leo) of any place in the world. Lake Magadi, as well as other saline water sources in the Conservation Area, blooms spectacularly every year with flamingo flocks. Connectivity with Serengeti National Park and surrounding areas allows for an ebb and flow of seasonal migration and dispersal to help keep up the integrity and numbers of the significant wildlife populations in Ngorongoro.
The crater is also one of several key archaeological sites within the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Excavations within the crater itself reveal many millennia of human use and document the development of stone-age technologies through to the use of iron. Elsewhere in the Conservation Area, findings at Olduvai Gorge have revealed a sequence of evolving proto-human species, including the Homo linage that includes Homo erectus and Homo sapiens. Nearby at Laetoli, actual fossilized footprints reveal a glimpse of the first pre-human steps towards upright movement. It is believed that the area likely contains more as-yet-undiscovered archaeological treasures relating to the evolution and rise of humans as a species.
With such beautiful scenery, vast numbers of wildlife, and rich cultural and historical values, visits to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area form one of the mainstays of Tanzania’s tourism itineraries. Visitor numbers have steadily increased over time since the 1960s. Managing infrastructure and impacts of tourism in the Conservation Area, but also in the surrounding landscape, requires improved planning and investment guidance, as well as provision for sharing opportunities with, and limiting impacts on, local entrepreneurs and pastoral communities.
Threats and how they are being addressed
Many challenges remain for the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and surrounding landscape, including tourism and infrastructure development , the impacts of drought and climate change, illegal poaching of wildlife, human population expansion, and the impact of alien and invasive species on fragile ecosystems and wildlife ecology.
However, renewed conservation management and tourism development strategies are in place and under implementation by the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, with local, national and international partners. With the support of the Maasai community, better fire-management has recently been put in place. Combined with improved grazing regimes, the last decade of such efforts has encouraged more diversity of habitats and grasslands and helped maintain equilibrium in the landscape to better conserve a diversity of species and habitats.