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Zebras, grass and acacias - a typical savanna.
  More about trees
Exotic and indigenous trees
Exotic plants are plants not native to the region where they grow, while indigenous plants are native to the region.
Below are some examples of indigenous and exotic trees and shrubs in East Africa.
· Baobab
· Doum palm
· Coffee
· Tree euphorbia
· Sausage tree
· Flat-top acacia
· Sycamore fig
· Tamarind
· Avocado
· Banana
· Bougainvillea
· Eucalyptus
· Jacaranda
· Coconut palm
· Oleander
· Tea
Safari glossary
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Wildlife & nature:
Savanna to rainforest
Kenya and Tanzania in East Africa have many different types of nature, or bioptopes. Mountain, lakes, rivers and rifts are some obvious features that affect the local fauna and flora of an area. Other local factors are altitude, soil and minerals, rainfall, groundwater levels etc.

This page describes some main types of nature that you may see while on safari in East Africa.

Rain forest, savanna and desert
The African nature can (where it has not been transformed by farming or pastoralism) very simplified be divided in rain forest, savanna or desert/semi desert. Rain forest is found where rainfall is high, and desert/semi where rainfall is low. In between lies savanna (which is, in short, an area where grass grows on the ground).

Besides these basic types of nature, there are many variations, such as mountains with different flora at different altitude, and different flora on the wind-side and lee-side. There are coastal environments with beaches or mangroves, marshes, gallery forests lining rivers etc. The boundaries between biotopes are rarely sharp, but usually transition zones with a mix of components from the surrounding biotopes. The transition zones can even be regarded as separate biotopes.

Doum palm in Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania.

Wildlife habitats
Many animal species are more or less adapted to living in a certain habitat. The hippopotamus, for example, needs to spend its days in water (a river, lake or pool) to escape the sunrays, and it needs grass on land to graze at night. If either water or grass is missing in an area, you will not find any hippos there.

Other species are more flexible and may do well in many different biotopes. For example elephants and leopards are found in varying environments, ranging from semi deserts to montane forests. The elephant may even walk long distances and move between biotopes to fill its needs.

Animal behaviour due to habitat
The behaviour of animal species is adapted to the kind of biotope they live in. Grazing species mostly prefer open land, live in herds and react to threats by running away from them. These species are not very territorial, and thus not very aggressive, as food (grass) is available everywhere around. An example of such species is the white rhinoceros (or grass rhino).

Species that eat leaves, i.e. browsers, live in habitats of shrubs and trees. These food sources are less abundant and less evenly distributed compared to grass in grasslands, and can support fewer individuals. Browsers therefore live in smaller groups or as solitaries, and defend their territories to protect their food resources. As a result, they are more aggressive. An example of such species is the black rhinoceros (or browse rhino). Other browsers, such as the tiny dikdiks, are not aggressive, but depend on camouflage and hiding for escaping threats, and on long-term male-female relationships for safeguarding territories.

Animal whereabouts
When visiting a park that has more than one biotope, you may find different species depending on where in the park you go. Grazing zebras and wildebeest are found in open grassland or savanna, while giraffes, eating shoots from trees and shrubs, are found in shrub- or woodland, or in patches of acacias on savanna. Vervet monkeys may be found in trees close to water, while blue monkeys prefer trees in areas with closed canopies, i.e. forests. The typical picture of a leopard shows the cat resting on a branch in a big tree, and such trees, often lining rivers or lakes, are the place to look for it during daytime. To find hippopotamus, you need to look in the water (but keep an eye on land, too, not to run into a potentially aggressive hippo out for a stroll).

Human activities
Human activities affect nature and the wildlife. For example, the city of Arusha in northern Tanzania is situated in an area that used to be good grazing grounds for wild animals, but is now over-grazed by Maasai cattle and goats. Antelopes and other wild herbivores are seen on rare occasions only. In other areas, trees are cut down for firewood or to make room for crop fields, making it impossible for animals that depend on the trees to remain in that area.

Acacia savanna in Serengeti, Tanzania.

The word 'savanna' is often used to describe not a single biotope, but rather open African landscapes in general.

More precisely, the East African savanna is a tropical open grassland with scattered shrubs or trees, and with an annual rainfall ranging from 200 mm/8 in to 1,500 mm/60 in. The rainfall is concentrated to one or two rainy seasons per year, with dry seasons in between. Besides rain, factors creating the biotope are grazing by animals, bush fires and soil types.

But for safaris, a 'savanna' may be more generally defined as an area where grass is growing on the ground, thus ranging from pure grassland to woodland.

Acacia savanna
The acacia savanna of East Africa is often seen in nature documentaries. It's dominated by open grassland, broken by patches of flat-top acacias or other acacias where underground water supplies are sufficient to support such vegetation, or along rivers, where yellowed-barked acacias and sausage trees are common. Other trees, such as the baobab, may be able to store water and can do well in drier areas.

The acacia savanna is a fairly varied habitat, where many mammal species may live, ranging from both grazing (for example zebras) and browsing (for example giraffes) herbivores, to the big cats.

The seemingly endless plains in southern Serengeti, Tanzania.

Savanna grassland
Grassland is found where rainfall or groundwater is too sparse to support shrubs and trees. Open grassland areas are found in parts of many parks. A park known for its open grassland is Masai Mara in Kenya.

Another type of grassland is found in southern Serengeti in Tanzania. Beneath the thin soil, a hard layer of ash and lava from volcanoes east of these vast grasslands prevents shrubs and trees from thriving, while the grass is doing well.

Savanna grassland is home to grazing herbivores (for example gazelles, wildebeest and zebras) and to some predators (for example cheetahs and lions).

Savanna woodland
Savanna woodland (and shrubland) is more densely vegetated than acacia savanna or grassland, but not densely enough to form a closed canopy. The open canopy allows sunlight to reach the ground, allowing grass to grow.

This is a habitat suited to herbivores living in smaller herds or family groups, such as impala antelopes, giraffes and Grevy's zebras (a zebra species found in northern Kenya). But also larger herds may be seen, for example the vast herds of wildebeest and common zebras, the so called migration, crossing the woodlands and shrublands of northern Tanzania while migrating between Masai Mara and Serengeti.

Miombo woodland
Safari literature uses miombo and mopane to describe two woodland types found in central and southern Africa. Miombo (covering much of Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as parts of south-western Tanzania) has high rainfall (900–1 500 mm/35–60 in) and deciduous trees (i.e. trees dropping their leaves during dry seasons) that are often thick-barked. Brachystegia is a dominant tree genus. Canopies may be closed, and grasses may grow up to 3.5 m/11.5 ft high during the rainy seasons.

Mopane woodland
Mopane is drier (300–900 mm/12–35 in of annual rain) and has up to 1 m/3 ft high grass. It's common from central Zambia westwards to Angola, and southwards to South Africa. The name mopane comes from the African tree Colophospermums mopane, which prefers dry and warm areas, and altitudes below 1,200 m/4,000 ft.

Montane forest.

Forests are areas where water (and other local factors) is abundant enough to support trees growing densely enough to form closed canopies. The water may come from rain, clouds/mist, rivers or groundwater.

Rain forest
The tropical rain forest is a lowland forest receiving 1,500 mm/60 mm or more of annual rainfall, distributed during the whole year. There are no rainy or dry seasons. The trees grow high, and the undergrowth in forests undisturbed by human activities is not very dense. In East Africa, rain forests are found only in western Uganda, apart from a few remaining patches still remaining in other parts.

Montane forest
Montane forests remind of rain forests, but are not as high, have smaller leaves and are found in cooler mountain areas where clouds and mist supply water. Such forests may be found at altitudes above 1,500 m/5,000 ft, and are often evergreen on the wind-side, but deciduous on the drier lee-side. A good example are the Ngorongoro Highlands, where the vegetation differs very clearly from the eastern wind-side to the western lee-side.

Above the tree line, montane forests are succeeded by different types of open biotopes, where moisture and other factors decide the composition of the vegetation. Macro vegetation, for example giant lobelias, are found at higher altitude on East African mountains such as Mount Kenya and Kilimanjaro, while open grasslands may be found in drier mountain areas.

Montane forests are often home to endemic animals and plants (i.e. species found nowhere else). These species have been isolated from other similar habitats by the non-montane biotopes at lower altitudes, and have therefore been able to evolve independently. An example of such a local endemic is a monkey called highland mangabey or kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji), which was recently discovered in a highland area in southern Tanzania. It is not only a new species, but also a new genus (group of species). This monkey can be found only there.

The pods on the sausage tree can weigh up to 7 kg/15 lb.

Gallery forest
A gallery forest grows next to a river or lake in a landscape that otherwise lacks forests. The yellow-barked acacia (Acacia xanthophloea) is a common tree in gallery forests. It used to be called fever tree, as it was wrongly associated with the many cases of fever occurring in the areas where it grew. The true culprit was the mosquito, which is a carrier of malaria and yellow fever, and which, like the tree, thrives close to water.

Ground water forest
The northern part of Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania is dominated by a high forest, which reminds of a rain forest, but receives an abundant supply of water from the high ground water table found in this area. In addition, a number of local rivers and creeks provide surface water for a healthy wildlife population, including the highest concentration of elephants in Tanzania, 700 individuals in roughly 100 km2/40 sq mi. The surface water is also beneficial to the local farming village Mto wa Mbu, producing many vegetables and fruits, and even rice.

Bamboo in an East African garden.

The gardens in and around East African cities and towns are, like lodge gardens, rarely visited by other mammals than the occasional monkey, rodent or mongoose. But the garden environment itself, featuring both indigenous and exotic plants, can offer a rewarding experience. Safari-goers travelling to East Africa from cooler parts of the world may enjoy the huge stands of bamboo, avocado and mango trees, flowering jacarandas and colourful hibiscus. Among the birds, sunbirds, garden bulbuls and weavers are often seen in gardens.

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Page updated 18 February 2009