Serengeti National Park
The Afrikaans 'kopje' (pronounced copy) is the term commonly used in East Africa for the rocky outcrops technically known as inselbergs. They consist of very old granite rock, which, because of erosion and weathering, has broken up into a rough and jumbled surface. In the open grasslands, where the countryside has been more or less leveled off by deposits of dust and ash from volcanoes of the Rift, kopjes stand out against the surrounding plain.
The kopjes are remarkable in that they have their own range of vegetation and wildlife, which, in the case of the open plains, makes them into islands in a sea of grass. On the plains, where there is little shelter from the sun, they provide shade and protection in a habitat free from the dangers of fire and flood.
Although the kopjes vary, some in the open plains being little more than mounds of barren rock, they often support a thriving cover of shrubs and, around the base, wild sisal.
Perhaps the most conspicuous form of wildlife on the kopje is the hyrax, of which two species occur. The Rock Hyrax is larger and browner in color than the Bush Hyrax whose fur is grey. These animals differ in habits in that the rock hyrax grazes the grasses up to 55 m from the kopje base, while the bush hyrax is an outstanding climber and lives on the tender leaves of the umbrella acacias growing nearby.
Both species may live very close together on the same kopje in apparent harmony, although each has separate living holes. These holes are small enough to keep out leopards, jackals, servals and caracals—their main predators.
Hyraxes are notable for being the nearest living relative of the elephant, as shown by anatomical similarities. Both hyrax species live in colonies and within their home ranges there are sunbathing places, lookout points, sand-wallowing places, drinking places and latrine areas. The colonies are divided into families with one male and several young females.
The inaccessible tops of some of the rocks in the kopjes make secure nesting sites for birds of prey, such as the splendid Verreaux's eagle, which has been known to build nests in the Moru Kopjes in the southwest of the Park. This magnificent solitary raptor kills hyraxes, hares and even some of the smaller antelopes. It lays one or two white eggs in a huge nest at the beginning of the rainy season.
Species of aloe as well as the tall lion's ear (Leonotis nepetaefolia) grow in and around the kopjes and are pollinated by Sunbirds as they fly from flower to flower. Blue or yellow hibiscus may also be found near the foot of the rocks.
Often a pair of Kirk's Dikdiks lives at the foot of a kopje. These are extremely small antelope weighing only about 4 kgs. The female is slightly bigger than the male. In color they are drab grey and they have very large, luminous eyes and proboscis-like noses. Only the male is horned. Like the hyrax, they have the habit of depositing their droppings in a selected spot, where large quantities accumulate.
In the northern part of the Park you may catch sight of a pair of Klipspringers. These thick-set, rough-coated antelopes are about the size of goats and adapted for leaping from rock to rock. They stand on the very tips of their narrow, almost cylindrical hooves. Klipspringers are monogamous and mate for several years, living in their own territory, which they mark using scent glands near the eye. If you see three together, one is likely to be a young animal and may have shorter horns. This is the Maasai race of klipspringer in which the majority of females as well as the males are horned.
Slender, Dwarf and Banded Mongooses are frequently seen in the vicinity of kopjes. The slender or black-tipped mongoose is a very slightly built animal about 40 cm long in body, which is covered with wiry grizzled brown fur. It is a solitary species and can be recognized by its habit of carrying its long tail curved up at the tip. Like the other species, it lives on snakes, lizards, rats and mice, bird's eggs and fledglings, grubs, fruit and berries.
Dwarf mongooses are much smaller, only about 20 cm long in the body. They are a dark reddish-brown in color and are usually seen in small groups that frequently live in abandoned termite mounds. The banded mongoose also lives in packs, and is dark brownish-grey with conspicuous bands around the body, which is slightly bigger than that of the slender species. Although they take a variety of other food, they are known to be principally insectivorous. The white-tailed mongoose is a larger, solitary species, which is nocturnal but may sometimes be seen at dawn or dusk.
Snakes, particularly spitting cobras and puff adders, live in the rock crevices and will kill adult hyrax as well as smaller creatures.
Often seen at dusk around the kopjes, hawking for insects or resting on the ground, is the nightjar. Nightjars' feet are adapted for resting on the ground. When perching on a branch they sit along it, not at right angles as other birds do. Four species of nightjars have been recorded in the Serengeti, including the pennant-winged, the male of which carries enormously long streamers on his wings when in breeding plumage.
If you are visiting the Moru Kopjes you may be lucky enough to see a black rhino. Black rhinos were once found throughout the Park, but recently poaching for their horn has drastically reduced their numbers. Rhinos are usually solitary as adults, the most stable association being that of a mother and calf. They are usually found within a home range, the size of which varies depending on vegetation and the density of the rhino population. When a female gives birth to a new calf, she will chase off an older calf that still accompanies her, though if it is a female it may later rejoin them.
Black rhinos are browsers and have pointed prehensile lips adapted for browsing off thorny shrubs. They feed at night and dawn and dusk and rest during the heat of the day. They have a good sense of hearing and smell but their sight is poor at more than 30 meters. As rhinos are not always able to determine the identity of a possible threat, an exploratory charge is often made to cause the disturbance to move, enabling the rhino to locate it.
A distinctive feature is their habit of depositing dung in the same spot, which is then scattered with the hind feet. This undoubtedly has a communication significance and may have a territorial function.
Rhinos can be ill-tempered and charge vehicles, so be prepared to move away quickly if an individual shows signs of aggression.
There are two shallow saline lakes in the Serengeti: Lagaja and Magadi. The Swahili word 'magadi' means soda, and is therefore commonly used for lakes of this kind.
The soda lakes are very shallow, rarely reaching a depth of more than two meters or so at the height of the rains, and often drying up completely by the end of the dry season. They are formed in natural depressions in the land from which there is a very limited outlet. The surface water that fills them carries various mineral elements—chiefly calcium, potassium and sodium. When these lakes dry up, they glitter with a white encrustation of salts, which looks, at a distance, like fallen snow.
From the wildlife point of view the lakes are most notable for both Greater and Lesser Flamingos, which feed on the minute plants and animals that live in the mud of soda lakes. These beautiful birds obtain their food by sieving mud and retaining the very small organisms by means of comb-like structures on the edges of their bills. Because the occurrence of suitable flamingo food fluctuates, flamingos move from lake to lake and their presence on any particular stretch of water is not predictable.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication