At roughly 2,000 sq. miles, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (NCA) is one of the largest protected wildernesses in Tanzania. It includes Ngorongoro Crater National Park (102 sq. miles). The unique protected wilderness is very similar to an American Indian reservation. Traditional Maasai are allowed to live in the area (although not in the crater national park) provided they maintain their traditional lifestyle as pastorals, and engage in no sort of development like agriculture. The presumption is that traditional Maasai herders lived successfully among the area’s current wildlife, and providing that doesn’t change, the true character of the area can be well sustained.
The area begins just south of Ngorongoro Crater, continues west towards Lake Eyasi, then north to Lakes Ndutu and Masek, which is the border with the Serengeti National Park. From the crater the area continues east along the Great Rift Valley to Lake Natron and then north and west to the Gol Kopjes of the Serengeti. This area includes Olduvai Gorge.
Much of the area bordering the Serengeti is identical to the Serengeti plains, and actually for much of the year, the great wildebeest migration is technically in the NCA, not the Serengeti. From the crater east and west the terrain is magical, and includes highland rain forests and rich stands of lowland forests interspersed by verdant meadows with many rivers and water sources. The entire area has a very rich biomass of large game. At the east and west edges where the highlands drop to the level of the Serengeti, two important soda lakes, (Eyasi – west; Natron – east), are breeding grounds for hundreds of thousands of birds.
Often researchers, guides and film-makers will refer to these areas as the Serengeti, and for all practical purposes the ecosystems are conspecific. The only difference is that traditional Maasai can live in the NCA, and they can’t in the Serengeti.