The remote Ruaha National Park, in central Tanzania, offers an outstanding opportunity to see carnivores, in a beautiful and diverse landscape of grasslands, mountains, rivers and swamps. Geoffrey Dean explores this vast wilderness. Picture credit to Foxes Safari Camps
The pride was in no hurry as its eight members padded along the dirt track near the Great Ruaha River one late afternoon in March. The lush grass, several metres high after the rainy season, was glistening from a shower, which was why the two lionesses, five cubs and one male were taking the road. Hunting was not immediately on their agenda. They were relaxed, ambling slowly along, while the cubs — five to six months old — sauntered playfully, stopping occasionally to drink from puddles. We continued to follow them, until about 2km (and 45 minutes) later they finally branched off the path and headed into the bush.
Observing them on the move for so long had been very special, all the more so because it had been just them and us: my driver and I. Ruaha National Park’s remoteness and size are two of its main draws; you are unlikely to come across many other people and you will certainly not encounter clusters of vehicles. What you will see is: lion. The park and its surrounding ecosystem are thought to have the biggest population in Africa. Dr Amy Dickman, who has overseen the Ruaha Carnivore Project since founding it in 2009, estimates that in Ruaha and its neighbouring game reserves there are around 2000, representing some 10 per cent of the world’s lion.
Ruaha’s reputation as a sanctuary for big cats is further enhanced by the fact that it harbours one of four East African cheetah populations numbering more than 200. Its rolling hills and kopjes house plentiful leopard, sightings of which are regular. It is not often that you see lion, leopard and cheetah in one day, but I was lucky enough to do so, despite waist-high grass after what had been a wetter-than-average rainy season. The park also supports around 500 wild dog, the third biggest population in the world, as well as striped hyena, making it one of Africa’s most important places for large carnivores — not forgetting some rare antelope species such as sable, roan and hartebeest.
In addition to its astonishing wildlife, Ruaha is also a place of extraordinary natural beauty and diversity — an unspoilt wilderness of undulating terrain with three rivers running through it. Its lowest point, in the east, is 750m above sea level, and its highest, on the Isunkaviola Plateau in the west, is about 1868m. The temperature is consequently cooler at night than low-lying reserves such as the Selous Game Reserve.
The park is gigantic, covering 20,220sq km, which makes it the second-largest national park in Africa — bigger than the Serengeti and Kruger. The substantial adjoining game reserves of Rungwe, to the north-west, and Kizigo, to the north, increase the whole ecosystem to approximately 45,000sq km. No one knows this land better than Sue Stolberger, who has lived there for the past 21 years. In her book, Ruaha National Park: An Intimate View (A Field Guide to the Common Trees, Flowers and Small Creatures of Central Tanzania), she writes, “The true depth and wisdom of this ancient ecosystem, which is large enough to continue uninterrupted, is beyond comprehension. Every day is a source of wonder. The wilderness here is pretty much untouched since time began. The systems that are in place have been evolving for centuries, and continue to evolve.”
Indeed, Ruaha has a broad range of ever-changing habitats: riverine, swamp, grassland, acacia and evergreen forest. The deciduous miombo woodland that is so common in southern, Central and East Africa, blankets a large region, notably the elevated west of the park. There are more than 1650 types of plant, twice as many as the Selous and four times the Serengeti. Tree species include 30m hyphaene palms, wild olives, tamarinds and fine examples of figs; but it is particularly famous for its baobabs. The park, especially the sandy, well-drained valley floors, houses some truly majestic specimens, a good number thought to be aged between 1000 and 2000 years old, one possibly even older. These bark of these trees is rich in calcium and the soft wood underneath is moist, providing sustenance for elephant, especially in the dry season. The decline in the elephant population due to poaching in the 1970s and ’80s afforded baobabs the chance to bounce back. In some areas, groves of saplings dot the landscape, as if sprinkled like confetti.
The varied landscape obviously makes for some interesting birdlife. As many as 578 avian species have been sighted, including two new ones this millennium: the Ruaha red-billed hornbill and the Ruaha chat. Zoologists have concluded that the park may represent the eastern and western convergence zone for birds and other wildlife. Moreover, many migrants, such as groundscraper thrushes and brown-necked parrots, visit from October to April.
The park’s accommodation is concentrated in the southern quarter, close to the three rivers, the Great Ruaha, the Mwagusi and Mdonya. The former, 100m wide in parts, used to be perennial, but since the mid-1990s has been drying up between September and December because of excessive water use upstream by rice growers. Pressures of a growing human population at Ruaha have also led to conflict with carnivores that have killed local people’s livestock. In 2010-11, for example, spearing, snaring or poisoning around one village killed nearly 40 lions.
To combat this, the Ruaha Carnivore Project subsidises stronger bomas to protect livestock as well as importing Anatolian shepherd dogs from Namibia to give warnings of predators lurking in the daytime. The scheme also provides locals with educational, healthcare and veterinary benefits. Poaching has fallen as a result, but the project, which employs 22 Tanzanians, needs donors, as it costs US$250,000 per year.
Ruaha’s size and remoteness in central Tanzania has meant it has been historically understudied. Large buffalo herds and substantial numbers of giraffe sustain the big lion prides, but the Carnivore Project is vital in helping to preserve their precious numbers in this magnificent, wild jewel of a park.
Did you know?
Ruaha National Park is part of the Rungwa-Kizigo-Muhesi ecosystem, which covers more than 45,000sq km, more than twice the size of Wales. The word ‘Ruaha’ originates from the Hehe word ‘luvaha’, which means ‘river’. The region was on the early trade route used by Arab caravans, and later, by European explorers such as Burton and Speke. It is also home to more than 500 species of bird and 1600 types of plant.
• Getting there Kenya Airways, Ethiopia Airlines, Etihad and Qatar Airways fly to Dar es Salaam. From there, Coastal Aviation (coastal.co.tz) operates flights to Ruaha National Park several days a week. Alternatively, you can fly to Arusha, from where Coastal also has flights to Ruaha. If you would like to self-drive, the park is about 620km from Dar es Salaam, which takes about 10 hours.
• Where to stay There are tourist bandas available for US$20 per person per night near the main airstrip. These are no-frills but ideal for those on a budget; however, please note, the price does not include US$35 daily park fees. Foxes’ Ruaha River Lodge (from US$372 per person), built in 1982, has an outstanding location right on the Great Ruaha River. The smaller, more intimate Mwagusi Safari Camp is superbly situated on the Mwagusi Sand River (from US$420 per person). Mdonya Old River Camp (from US$360 per person) is a comfortable bush escape with prolific birdlife and resident elephant; it is often visited by lion and leopard by night. There are another half-dozen options, including a new top-end hideaway called Ikuka, which opened in July. The highest lodge in the park, at 1069m above sea level, it has stunning views from the escarpment. Park fees are US$35 per night.
• When to go The dry season (May to early November) is ideal, with the best wildlife viewing in July to October. The heart of the rainy season (January to February) may be wet, but the park is at its most beautiful then.
• Health Visit your local GP or travel clinic to find out which vaccinations you need and the best antimalarials to take.
• Further reading Ruaha National Park: An Intimate View by Sue Stolberger.
• To read an interview with the owner of Ikuka, visit https://travelafricamag.com/building-ikuka/