The dry golden grasses swayed elegantly in the breeze, stretching for miles as far as the eye could see. The air was hot and dusty as we scanned the horizon looking for telltale signs of animal movement among the grasses. At times the Serengeti National Park seemed to burst at the seams with wildlife—herds of zebra, cape buffalo, wildebeest, impala and all manner of other hoofed and winged species. Other times we drove for hours with barely a glimpse of these magnificent creatures. Wildlife was out there, no doubt, but camouflage is an amazing thing.
I was visiting Lincoln Park Zoo’s field conservation team in Tanzania along with the zoo’s vice president of conservation and science and a Chicago-based reporter and photographer. The field team works from March–December every year, visiting dozens of villages near the national park. They provide free vaccinations for tens of thousands of domestic dogs as a way of fighting three terribly destructive diseases: rabies, parvo and distemper.
These viruses inadvertently pass from village dogs to wildlife living inside the park. Several years ago the diseases ravaged populations of African lions, hyenas, wild dogs, bat-eared foxes and other carnivores that are essential to keeping the ecosystem in balance.
The diseases don’t just destroy wildlife and the domestic dogs themselves. Rabies also kills hundreds of people in Tanzania every year. Or at least it did before the zoo started its massive vaccination effort, which has inoculated more than a million dogs. Prior to this campaign, many health authorities thought rabies couldn’t be controlled in East Africa. Lincoln Park Zoo has proven otherwise. Thousands of lives (dogs, wildlife and people) have been saved, and rabies has been eradicated in the regions where the zoo is working. Our group was eager to see this remarkable program in action.
Rabies is a wicked disease. During a particularly emotionally riveting day we met two families who had been devastated by rabies. Ten years ago a rabid hyena violently attacked their children in the middle of the night. It was a horrifying scenario that left 11 people severely wounded, lucky to be alive, but forever scarred. Today these folks and so many others can sleep a little bit easier knowing that rabies has been eliminated from their village thanks to the Serengeti Health Initiative.
After days of visiting villages, dogs and meeting with collaborators, one of the true highlights of the visit, at least for me, was entering the remarkable Serengeti National Park. Having devoted the majority of my adult life to working in zoos, the chance to witness lions, leopards, hyenas and so many other wondrous creatures in their native habitat was a dream come true.
The noise of bustling villages, motorbikes and barking dogs gave way to open expanses of quiet serenity the moment we entered the park gate. While wildlife is rarely seen outside the fenceless park, we were immersed in a cornucopia of animals within minutes of entry. Vast herds appeared to be everywhere.
I started keeping a logbook of wildlife sightings, but eventually it became too daunting. I had heard that Serengeti National Park is one of the most impressive places in all of Africa to see wildlife, and I can now attest—it’s true. The park is incredible.
It’s dominated by hoofed species; a visitor will see more zebra, wildebeest, giraffe and gazelles than they probably ever imagined possible. But there’s nothing quite like the surge of adrenaline that coursed through me when we spied a dark shadow making its way through the grasses and a lion emerged. Or the moment when we witnessed from a far distance the unmistakable face of a cheetah quickly emerging from the tall grasses, smeared in blood. He quickly looked around before putting his head back down to busy himself with breakfast before scavengers caught wind of his kill.
Giraffes seemed almost lordly as they sauntered across the horizon. Elephants, while rarely spotted, certainly didn’t disappoint with the great number of babies playing together and young bulls showing off with trumpeting cries to tourist vehicles.
But without a doubt one of the most oddly mesmerizing creatures to witness, watch and admire was the much-maligned hyena. Where lions appear noble, and leopards sleek and beautiful, hyenas seem rather gangly with their awkward gait, mottled fur, insidious so-called laugh and strange sloped backs.
And yet, they are fascinating creatures. Fearsome hunters and highly social, hyenas are one of the Serengeti’s most important carnivores. Their populations were in terrible trouble from rabies and distemper until the zoo stepped in and started removing these threats from the region.
Witnessing these magnificent beasts alive and well was thrilling, and it was also a reminder why the zoo works so hard to keep these diseases at bay. Visit the zoo’s Serengeti page to learn more about this important endeavor—and how you can help.
Check out this video from my time in Serengeti to learn more about this important project: