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Located within the crater highlands of northern Tanzania, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area forms part of what is known as the Serengeti-Ngorongoro-Masai Mara ecosystem. Its eastern boundary is formed by the western wall of the Great Rift Valley, while its western boundary adjoins the world-famous Serengeti National Park. To the east lie Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain, and Mount Meru, and to the west Lake Victoria.

Geologically speaking, the landscapes of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area are a combination of both ancient and modern geological processes. The Ol Doinyo Gol mountains and the gneiss and granite outcrops scattered across the Serengeti Plain originated several hundred million years ago. Some 20 million years ago, the eastern side of Africa started to crack and rift, causing the land between the rifts to subside. This resulted in the earth's crust gradually thinning and softening, allowing molten materials to thrust to the surface and form lava beds and, later, volcanoes. Within the Ngorongoro area, the oldest volcanoes -- Lemagrut, Sadiman, Oldeani, Ngorongoro, Olmoti, Sirua, Lolmalasin and Empakaai -- were formed along the Eyasi Rift, which now forms the towering cliffs at Lake Eyasi. In the north, the rift separates the Doinyo Gol mountains from the Salei Plains, but much of the early rift is now obscured by lava.

It is believed that Ngorongoro once rivaled Kilimanjaro in size. The lava that filled the volcano formed a solid "lid," which subsequently collapsed when the molten rock subsided, forming the caldera that we see today. Both Olmoti and Empakaai collapsed in a similar manner, but are not as immense as Ngorongoro. Two volcanoes of more recent origin, Kerimasi and Ol Doinyo Lengai, were formed along the Gregory Rift and lie to the northeast of the Empakaai caldera. Doinyo Lengai, the Maasai's "mountain of God," is still active -- its most recent eruption took place in 1983.

The vast quantities of ash produced by the volcanoes have had two principal benefits: fertile soils for crop production outside the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and the maintenance of the rich savanna grasslands that support the largest ungulate herds in the world. A third and invaluable benefit has been the preservation of an important fossil treasure-trove that has enabled archaeologists and palaeontologists alike to develop a better understanding of the origins of modem man and the creatures that inhabited this part of the world, particularly at Olduvai Gorge and Laetoli.

By two million years ago much of the landscape of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area had been formed but ongoing erosion and deposition continue to shape the earth's surface.

Ngorongoro Conservation Area

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area covers some 8, 280 square kilometers, encompassing great sweeps of open grassy plains, savanna woodlands, mountains, volcanic craters, forests, rivers, lakes and swamps. The southern and eastern slopes of the highlands receive high rainfall, but the western plains lie in the mountains' rainshadow and receive less precipitation.

The approach from Arusha, the tourist capital of Tanzania, takes the visitor to the village of Mto-Wa-Mbu, "river of the mosquito." The road rises steeply to the Mbulu Plateau and on through the densely populated agricultural areas of Karatu and Oldeani, with their rich volcanic soils and abundant water. The cultivated land stops abruptly at the Lodware entrance gate and gives way to magnificent montane forest. After the steep climb the visitor emerges at the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, and catches the first glimpse of one of the world's most famous and impressive wildlife sanctuaries. Within the crater are the sweeping grass plains that are home for part of the year to a vast number of game animals, some of which are participants in the greatest mass migration of large mammals in Africa. The more adventurous traveler may wish to visit the Olmoti and Empakaai craters to the northeast, and the Gol mountains.

Unlike many of Africa's conservation areas, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority is attempting to manage a complex mix of wildlife, vegetation, Maasai pastoralists and their stock, as well as tourists, water catchment areas and other resources. In some ways, this is succeeding. However, ever-growing numbers of indigenous people and their livestock, largely unfettered tourism and pressures around the preserve's boundaries will result in increasing difficulties for those involved with its management.

Chris and Tilde Stuart are well known for the quality of their research in the books they have written. As founders of the African Carnivore Research Programme, which was recently expanded to the African Arabian Wildlife Research Centre, they are involved in research on African and Arabian carnivores and endangered species, and contribute widely on the subject in both scientific journals and popular magazines.

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