Central Tanzania – The Southern Highlands – Ruaha National Park

20th February 2013

The wide distances of Ruaha National Park have a drama and atmosphere quite unlike any other Tanzanian park. Here the land has its own kind of remoteness that seems to emanate through time itself. It is an ancient place in the valley of the Great Rift, where mile upon mile of sandy red earth feels worn and bleached by an age-old sun, and the hilly distances are punctuated with distended elephant-battered girths of countless massive baobabs that live for a thousand years. Such a charismatic combination of ochre-red earth, pale russet grasses and the parched paths of wide sand rivers appeal to all old preconceptions of an archetypal African land.

Part of the present-day attraction of Ruaha is its distant location, which demands a long drive or an expensive flight to get there, and means that the park is consequently hardly visited by tourists, and major tracts of the landscape are still largely inaccessible. Covering 10,300 sq km, Ruaha is the second largest National Park in Tanzania after the Serengeti. It flows down from the high plateau around Njombe River in the northwest and then slopes across a wide valley to the Great Ruaha River in the southeast. Such a vast and fascinating landscape makes it an ideal location for a longer safari, with between four and seven nights recommended, not least to make the flying costs worthwhile. There are presently just two alternatives for permanent accommodation within the National Park, each run by brothers who explored this land as children, but two other sites have been awarded for semi-permanent development to The Selous Safari Company and Coastal Travel. Trips to Ruaha are often combined with the Selous Game Reserve, as the two locations are entirely complimentary for their differences, and part of the same scheduled flight route.

Ruaha National Park – History

The park was originally a part of Rungwa Game Reserve until it was classified as a fully protected National Park in 1964. It now forms an important component of the massive 30,000 sq km of protected ecosystem that covers Rungwa, Kisigo and Ruaha.

Ruaha National Park is named after the Great Ruaha River – and the word Ruaha is the Hehe tribe word for ‘Great’. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s dams were created at Kidatu and Mtera to use the strength of this river to power the majority of the nation’s hydro-electricity – yet many visitors to Ruaha during the dry season today might be a little disappointed when their experience of the Great River is just a meandering trickle, even if it does concentrate the wildlife around the remaining pools. Until recently, the Great Ruaha was never known to run dry, barring one occasion during a serious drought in the late 1970s. But recently, the Great Ruaha has been drained dry in areas of Ruaha National Park for two consecutive years. Its power and might as a perennial water reserve has been depleted by agricultural practices and certain rice-growing initiatives upstream. These are responsible for reducing the quantity of water and creating a present situation that is near-disastrous – especially for the serious ecological threat that it presents to the resident variety of wildlife. The river fish population has already suffered, and crocs and hippos are forced to squeeze into smaller, more rarefied patches of water. Having flourished in the wet season until waters dry and shrink off, the new situation has given the whole park the nature of an annual round of musical chairs.

Since a bridge was built across the Great Ruaha nine years ago, Ruaha National Park has experienced a seasonal transformation, no longer limited to access only during dry months. It is now possible to enter the park all year round, although the River Lodge and Mwagusi close for a couple of months during the long rains in April and May.

Ruaha National Park – Wildlife

The joy of Ruaha is that there are hardly any people there at all, but a variety of heavy-duty wildlife lays claim to its hilly savannah and bush. Ruaha has one of the greatest elephant populations of any African park, and the dry, open hillsides encourage antelope and buffalo to gather into protective large herds. This terrain is particularly good for seeing predators, especially lion and potentially leopard, as well as packs of African hunting dog. The many rivers and swamps around the Ruaha River are alive with huge numbers of hippopotami, crocodile and fish, and the many giraffe and zebra that roam the plains make their way to the shores of the water to drink. Ruaha is the only east African park with both Greater and Lesser Kudu and sable and roan antelopes, and, like the Selous, has an unusual combination of East and Southern African wildlife and birds. The Red-billed wood hoopoe, Violet-crested Turaco and Racquet-tailed roller are among the many coloured migrants, and just a small selection from the 480 species of bird that have been sighted within the park. The wetter months during the first third of the year are the best months for bird-watching, and the beauty of the park is enhanced by the blooming miombo woodland flowers. The miombo woodlands are dominated by 15 species of Brachystegia trees, while the rolling grass plains are covered with various different acacias, spiny Commiphora and plenty of baobab trees; around 1,650 plant species have been identified within the park, the majority of which flower.

Ruaha National Park – Baobab Trees!

The vast and bizarre features of the baobab tree are a striking feature of the African bush. Of all the eight species of baobab worldwide, the African variety, Adansonia digitata, is the largest, and the most impressive. While these trees may inspire a certain awe in most passers-by, they represent a deep-rooted significance in the lives of those people and animals that live around them. The baobab is brimming with life-giving properties that are nutritional, medicinal and practical, and consequently it has earned a popular reputation for being an important, even spiritual tree. Every part of the tree can be put to use; the fibrous, stringy bark can be largely stripped, without killing the tree, and used for string, rope, fabric and netting. Various parts of the tree are used for medicines, to reduce malarial fever and relieve eye infections, gum diseases, boils, burns and dysentery to name but a few, and the fruit has such a high vitamin C content that it is popularly used to combat symptoms of scurvy. A drink made from the bark is said to make a person strong, and one made from the soaked baobab seed has a reputation to protect the drinker from crocodiles. The trunks and cavities store water that enables them to survive in dry areas through the hot summer months, and thirsty elephant batter the trunks to plunder their supply. The baobab can sustain an amazing amount of abuse, and will continue to flower and function even when elephants – assisted by zebra and giraffe – have chewed a hole right through its middle. They live for generation after generation of human life, as the baobab is known to continue to grow for 800 years, and some say even up to 2,000 years. They become the focus of rural village life, as their broad branches and tangled roots provide a naturally comfortable and shady communal area and their longevity ensures their historical place in the community. The massive trunk can grow a circumference of up to 25m round and often becomes hollow, and this area has been used across southern Africa to provide a spiritual tomb for chiefs, and a home to many unknown spirits which are widely believed to inhabit their peculiar gnarly forms.

In past years poaching has been a serious problem, decreasing the famously huge population of 22,000 elephant recorded in 1967 to only 4,000 in 1987. This still represents one of the largest populations in any African National Park, and it is more heartening to know that numbers have recovered up to 12,000 during the last decade as a result of the Park’s very successful anti-poaching action, which has made exemplary efforts to involve local communities. The result of this serious dent to the elephant population now means that there are fewer mature animals that have grown to full size (usually around 60 years of age), and it is rare to see any elephant with a fully developed pair of tusks.

These days it is more common to come across tuskless and small tusked elephants, once an anomaly and yet now represented in a far higher proportion since these survived the brutal culling. This often inspires ruminations on the miracle of natural selection, but it still remains to be seen whether future generations will breed a larger proportion of small tusk and tuskless elephants, or whether the large tusk gene that produced the 8ft tusks plundered by the ivory traders will prove dominant once again. It is more encouraging that the elephant in Ruaha are still breeding enthusiastically and large number of female elephants around the park can be seen with babies.

Their longevity and intimate social structure is complex and they have been proven highly intelligent animals. They show collective grief over death within their groups, often gathering around the dead elephant, and may try to carry the body away.

It remains surprising how the Ruaha elephant populations do not show great signs of nervousness around humans, considering the brutal culling that has occurred here.