Called the eighth wonder of the world and stretching across some 8,300 sq km, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in northern Tanzania boasts a blend of landscapes, wildlife, people and archaeology that is unsurpassed in Africa. The volcanoes, grasslands, and mountain forests are home to an abundance of animals and to the Maasai.
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area became an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It features the Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest unbroken volcanic caldera. Eight million years ago, the crater was an active volcano but its cone collapsed, forming a 610-meter deep crater, with sides so steep that it has become a natural enclosure for a very wide variety of wildlife, including most of the species found in East Africa.
Although quite large, covering an area of 311 sq. km the 20-kilometre wide crater accounts for just a tenth of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which also includes the still active Ol-Ndoinyo Lengai volcano (meaning "Mountain of God" in the Maasai language), which last erupted in 1983.
An estimated 30,000 animals make Ngorongoro Crater the principal attraction on a Northern Tanzanian Safari. This cross-section of wildlife is diverse and dispersed amongst an amazing array of ecosystems within the Natural Amphitheater. Ngorongoro Crater is home to one of the few remaining populations of Black Rhino in Tanzania and just about every other East African mammal - cheetahs, hyenas, jackals, and the magnificent black-maned lions, leopards, serval cats, bat eared fox, wildebeest, zebra, eland, Grant's and Thomson's gazelle, hippopotamus, hartebeest, waterbuck, warthog, mountain reedbuck, buffalo, and elephant.
Birds also abound in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with over 500 species recorded, including important populations of white pelican, and greater and lesser flamingo on Lake Makat in Ngorongoro crater, Lake Ndutu and the Empakaai Crater Lake where over a million birds foregather. Other bird specied include ostrich, Ruepell's griffon, Verreaux's eagle, Egyptian vulture, lesser falcon, Fischer's lovebird, and Jackson's whydah
Contrary to what is commonly thought, the crater is not a self-contained ecosystem and some animals do migrate in and out, though not in significant numbers. Most of the animals are resident and remain year-round, with 20,000 to 30,000 large mammals to be found at any given time within the Crater walls.
Another distinct phenomenon of the Ngorongoro Region is the successful co-existence of the Maasai Tribe with the wild animals. It is not uncommon to see Maasai Moran (young male warriors) walking their cattle herds to the waters of the crater, carrying a spear for defense against the animals. Within Ngorongoro Conservation Area, on the Naabi Plains between the Ngorongoro Crater and The Serengeti, lies Olduvai Gorge, popularly known as ‘The Cradle of Mankind’. It was here that Dr. Leakey and his wife Mary first discovered the remains of Zinjanthropus Bosei, a distant ancestor of man believed to be 1.8 million years old and Australopithecus Bosei, the 'Nutcracker Man', a species that became extinct about 1 million years ago. There were also fossilized footprints, remains of ancient tools and bones from various prehistoric species.