By: Farzad Ghotaslou – Art in Tanzania Internship
Ruaha National Park in the centre of Tanzania takes its name from the Hehe word for ‘river.’ The eponymous Great Ruaha River serves as a lifeline for the park’s wildlife. Although it’s the largest national park in the country and rich in wildlife, Ruaha is one of the least busy places to visit in Tanzania, so safaris here feel remote and exclusive.
Ruaha has a bimodal pattern of rain forest; the short rainfall season begins November to February, while the long season is between March and April. The park experiences its dry season between June and October.
In the dry season, visitors can expect to see golden savannah studded with baobabs and misty hills stretching along the horizon. With the annual rains, the grasslands become a lush green and the baobabs bloom.
Waterbuck, impala and gazelle come to the river to drink and predators are never far behind. You may spot lion or leopard prowling watchfully along the banks, or cheetah lying in wait on the plains, while skulking jackal and hyena are on the lookout for an opportunity to catch their next meal.
Ruaha is easily combined with a Serengeti safari or Zanzibar beach break. It also partners well with the Selous. Fly from Arusha or Dar es Salaam to one of Ruaha’s two airstrips.
History of Ruaha National Park
Ruaha does not have an extensive history like other areas in Tanzania. It is thought that early permanent settlers were dissuaded by the semi-arid climate and the high concentrations of tsetse fly. (Conservation efforts have recently reduced the levels of tsetse fly making visiting here a more comfortable experience today!) The transformation of this vast area into a national park was first proposed by George Rushby (a Senior Game Ranger) in 1949. Two years later all the residents were forced out of this protected area and in 1964 Britain elevated Ruaha to full national park status. In 2008 the Usangu Wildlife Management Area was incorporated into the park creating the 20,000Km² Ruaha National Park that we know today.
How to get there
By Air-There are both scheduled and chartered flights into the park mainly from Arusha, Dodoma, Kigoma and Dar-es-salaam. Park’s airstrips are located at Msembe and Jongomero
The park is about 130 kilometres west of Iringa. It is a part of the 45,000 square kilometres Rungwa-Kizigo-Muhesi ecosystem, which includes the Rungwa Game Reserve, the Kizigo and Muhesi Game Reserves, and the Mbomipa Wildlife Management Area.
By road-It is about 130km drive from Iringa town and 625km from Dar-es-salaam city.
The road into the park is passable throughout the year.
Ruaha National Park is renowned for its excellent wildlife-sighting opportunities. Combined with the low numbers of visitors, this makes it a spectacular destination.
The wider Ruaha area hosts 10% of the world’s lion population and has been a Lion Conservation Unit since 2005. It’s not uncommon to find prides of more than 20 lion in the park. Leopard stalk the thicker woodland areas, while cheetah can be found scanning the plains for prey. The wild dog is endangered, but Ruaha is home to almost 100 of them. There are healthy populations of hyena and black-backed jackal too.
The park was formerly known for its large elephant population. It had numbered 34,000 in the Ruaha-Rungwa ecosystem in 2009, before declining to only 15,836, plus or minus 4,759, in 2015.
Elephant are seen in high densities during the dry season, when they gather around the dry riverbed to dig for water with their trunks and front feet. The park is also home to plentiful buffalo, zebra, giraffe, greater and lesser kudu, Lichtenstein’s hartebeest, waterbuck, bushbuck, and impala.
There are more than 570 species of birds, including the eponymous Ruaha red-billed hornbill. Migrant birds from Europe, Asia, Australia and Madagascar arrive during the rainy season between February and April.
In addition, Ruaha is populated by large herds of buffalo, major and minor kudus, Grant’s gazelles, African wild dogs. , ostriches, cheetahs and tawny and black antelopes, as well as more than 400 bird species. The latter are particularly numerous along the Great Ruaha River, which meanders in the eastern part of the park and also offers shelter to many hippos and crocodiles.
The Ruaha is also distinguished by its rugged and magnificent topography, particularly in the Great Ruaha area. The park extends mostly on an undulating plateau at about 900 m of altitude, dotted here and there by rock formations and groups of baobabs, while to the south and west rise mountains that reach a height ranging from about 1600 m to 1900 m. The territory is crossed by several rivers of “sand”, most of which dry up completely in the dry season and whose beds are used by animals as corridors to reach the little water left. The combination of rugged river scenarios, large quantities of animals that can be easily seen (during the dry season) and good solutions for overnight stays make this place truly incomparable.
In high season, the area surrounding the campsites, in the eastern part of the park, is crowded with tourists, but Ruaha is generally less crowded than the northern parks. There are still large unexplored areas and, if you exclude the high season from August to October, it can happen quite easily to have the park all to yourself. Whichever period you come, however, budget as long as you can to visit it: this is not a place to be seen only in passing.
More than 571 species of birds have been identified in the park. Among the resident species are hornbills. Many migratory birds visit the park.
Other noted animals found in this park are East African cheetah and lion, African leopard and wild dog, spotted hyena, giraffe, hippopotamus, African buffalo, and sable antelope. Since 2005, the protected area is considered a Lion Conservation Unit.
Ruaha is a year-round destination, though birders may want to visit when the migratory birds are in the area and photographers, around the rains, when the landscape tends to be more photogenic.
For birders, the best time to visit Ruaha is during the long rains between February and April, when the migrant birds arrive. The wet season is a time when the park is at its lushest, with wildflowers peppering the rich, verdant grasslands. This is also an excellent time for landscape photographers to visit.
The park is characterized by semi-arid type of vegetation, baobab trees, Acacia and other species. There are over 1,650 plant species that have been identified.
The weather in Ruaha
The climate in Ruaha works slightly differently to what you might expect. Ruaha is located to the west of the Udzungwa Mountains, which run roughly north-south through central Tanzania. This geographic divide results in Ruaha having one long rainy season rather than the typical long rains and short rains found in Tanzania’s more famous safari areas. The rains in Ruaha usually start around November or early December, becoming heavier in January and February, and then start to dwindle towards the end of March. Do bear in mind that climate change has been altering the typical weather patterns for some years, so forecasting the weather you will have on your trip can be extremely difficult. However, it’s fair to say that Ruaha can often be a surprisingly good destination in the so-called low season of April and May, with clear blue skies and the park appearing lush and green. With plentiful food after the rains, the animals are likely to be in great condition and this is when many species will be breeding and birthing.
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- Mbomipa Wildlife Management Area. Twma.co.tz. Retrieved on 14 September 2016.
- “Tanzania: 5 Reasons To Visit Ruaha National Park”. HowAfrica.com. Retrieved 2018-02-24.
- “Research”. Ruaha Carnivore Project. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
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- Karl Mathiesen (2 June 2015). “Tanzania elephant population declined by 60% in five years, census reveals”. The Guardian. Retrieved 15 March 2017.
- Adelhelm Meru, Permanent Secretary, Tanzania Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism (2 November 2015). “Press Release: Ruaha-Rungwa Ecosystem Elephant Census Results, 2015”. Retrieved 15 March 2015 – via Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute.