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Traveling the Serengeti: Council Bluffs man documents huge animal migration
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Traveling the Serengeti: Council Bluffs man documents huge animal migration

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'Do you like your shadow?' A precious video from the Monarto Safari Park in Monarto, Australia captures the moment baby giraffe discovers her shadow for the first time.

After Kim Gibson of Council Bluffs climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa in 2017, he was determined to return to the area.

“I just got really hooked on the Tanzanian national parks and the wildlife there was really amazing,” he said.

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Some elephants chase the lions away from buffalo in the water. It was still killed later that night.

He traveled back there in August 2020 to watch one of the biggest migrations in the world. Up to 2 million wildebeest and 500,000 zebras travel each year from Kenya to Tanzania. He returned in January and February of 2021 to see where the animals give birth on the plains of the Serengeti before heading back north.

Gibson’s an experienced visitor to Africa.

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Kim at the entrance to the Serengeti National Park.

“My travels have involved agricultural insurance work, hunting African big game, exploration, adventure travel, wildlife viewing in some of the most amazing national parks and wildlife refuges in the world, mountain climbing and charity work,” Gibson said.

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Kim Gibson helps at a school lunch program in Tanzania. It was through Siouxland Tanzanian Educational Medical Ministry.

He has become involved with (STEMM) Siouxland Tanzanian Educational Medical Ministry, a Iowa nonprofit created to develop a relationship bridge between Siouxland and Tanzania by addressing the priorities of spiritual growth, medical care and educational opportunities.

Here’s some observations from his trips:

Gibson discovered Tanzania’s three national parks when he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with son Chase and son-in-law Eric Otte. The summit, Uhuru Peak, sits at 19,340 feet and is the highest point in Africa. Afterward, they visited Lake Manyara and Tarangire National Parks and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the largest unbroken caldera in the world. It hosts the African big 5 (elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo and rhino) as well as large herds of wildebeest and zebra during the annual migration.

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Kim Gibson at Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, Africa.

“For me the crater was one of the most interesting and magical places to view wildlife I had ever experienced and still is to this day,” Gibson said.

* * *

The Serengeti National Park, a world heritage site, harbors the largest remaining unaltered animal migration in the world, spanning southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

The annual circular migration following the rains and grass takes place in a unique setting of endless plains in and outside of the park, which encompasses 12,000 square miles.

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One of the kings of the Serengeti.

The park is renowned for its large populations of lion prides (estimated at 3,000) and is one of the best places to observe the big cats in their natural habitat. Rhino, elephant, wild dogs and cheetahs, four globally endangered species, can also be found there.

* * *

The wildebeest and zebra must cross the Mara River system on their way south and attempt to survive the crocodile- and hippo-infested waters. Gibson saw the wildebeest mass by the thousands for hours along the river banks until a few brave souls took the leap of faith into the river and swam for their lives to escape the jaws of the crocodiles.

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An elephant crossing the road outside the Serengeti. "That's a huge bull elephant," Kim Gibson says. "You can see the size of the tusks."

Part of the circle of life, the banks were littered with carcasses of those that drowned, got trampled and young that got lost. Countless others were devoured by the crocodiles.

“After witnessing hundreds of thousands of animals everywhere you looked and hearing the endless grunts and sounds of the migration, it truly was mind-blowing to me,” Gibson said.

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Kim Gibson eats lunch with the wildebeest behind him.

It was a dry time of the year and difficult for the lions and other predators awaiting the migratory animals. Gibson stayed in comfortable tented camps and had a driver and guide and there were few other visitors. He was invited to visit the Siouxland Tanzania Educational Medical Ministry after a chance meeting on the flight over with one of the founders.

“It really opened my eyes to the drastic needs of orphaned kids in Tanzania primarily due to the AIDS epidemic and the lack of medical and educational opportunities for the majority of the people,” he said.

* * *

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Wildebeest in the Serengeti. "You come across these massive herds everywhere you look," Kim Gibson says.

When he returned in February 2021, it was for another photo safari in the Serengeti, but this time the migration was in the south. The animals were dropping calves and eating lush grasses in the Southern regions of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and Conservation area.

“Another mind-blowing sight as the numbers were off the chart and at times it seemed like as far as you could see on the vast prairie there were black dots everywhere,” Gibson said. “I’m sure we saw the bulk of the migration on this trip and for a couple days in the eastern Serengeti there were probably 1.5 million wildebeest and zebra within our sight during the day as they grazed the prairie.

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Cheetahs like to get up high where they can see over the plains. 

"The migration melody has its own sound and smells with hoof beats, grunts, bleats, animal dung and calls for help as danger is ever present and survival never certain, especially at night.”

* * *

Gibson witnessed several large prides of lions. Every predator was fat and happy as food was now everywhere and easy to get as the young, old and those weakened from the migration were no match.

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Kim Gibson said he spent quite a bit of time trying to find cheetahs, which are endangered.

“During the night it was not uncommon to hear the roar of lions as they hunted and defended their territories as well as the hyenas in search of prey,” he said. “The amount of game and wildlife in the Serengeti is amazing and the only thing we failed to see was a rhino.”

The vast prairies of the Serengeti are one of the last strongholds for cheetahs, and finding one required hours of searching for movement or a small head out in the endless sea of grass.

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A cheetah after killing a baby wildebeest.

“We were really fortunate as we saw 13 on the trip and got to witness a female stalking, chasing down and eating a small wildebeest,” Gibson said. “We even had one cheetah try to climb on the hood of our truck to use it as a lookout and high point to look for its next meal.”

Although the animals were sometimes within touching distance, no one is allowed to leave a truck except at a camp. After dark, guards and escorts were needed to move around.

* * *

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A sunset on the Serengeti.

Much of the Tanzanian economy is centered on tourism. The country, economy and people of Tanzania have suffered greatly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The country has no welfare, unemployment, stimulus checks or government support, Gibson learned on another visit to STEMM, so the people must survive on their own.

“I found all the camps and lodges to be clean, well run, with fantastic food and focused on safety protocols to prevent COVID and protect clients,” Gibson said. “There were very few people traveling so we enjoyed having the Serengeti as our own playground without crowds and being able to enjoy its beauty, vast open spaces and abundant wildlife.”

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A female cheetah with four young. "It's kind of an unusual sight to see that many of them," Kim Gibson said.

Tanzania – Nuts and Bolts

Tanzania is the largest East African country just south of the equator bordering the Indian Ocean. The migration on the Serengeti plains is listed as one of the seven natural wonders of Africa. Once an English colony, it still retains many of those traditions, such as tea in the afternoon. Many speak the English language and the U.S. dollar is well accepted.

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After a long night of hunting, the lions sleep the day away.

Getting to Tanzania is not that difficult and Gibson found the best connections on Delta through Minneapolis, to Amsterdam to Kilimanjaro International airport in Arusha with travel time around 22 hours. The time change is usually eight hours and the seasons the opposite from here.

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Giraffes and zebras are common in the area.

Since the tourist industry is well established, there are countless safari operators offering every kind of trip for any budget. Gibson used Safari Royal out of Arusha  for his bookings and stayed at camps and lodges run by Lemala, which are considered five-star facilities. Two were tented mobile camps that followed the migration.

 “The two permanent camp facilities were really over the top nice with wonderful tented rooms, large lodge eating/bar areas, outstanding food and the service and staff could not have been better,” Gibson said.

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One of the tented camps where Kim Gibson stayed.

Best wildlife experience: They found a Cape buffalo standing chest deep in the water that had been attacked by a pride of 13 lions. The water was his safety, but time was on the side of the lions as they lounged and napped at the water’s edge where he was trapped. Out of nowhere, a large parade of 40 elephants came marching in and literally chased and ran the lions off into the bush to rescue the buffalo.

"The lions retreated and with dusk approaching we had to head for camp but returned the next morning to find a completely eaten carcass and the skeletal remains of our buffalo," he wrote. "At some point, he had to leave the safety of the water and the lions were still waiting."

Funny thought: The Serengeti and vast grasslands reminded Gibson of western Kansas.

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Wildebeest crossing the Mara River on their way south.

“As I was watching an elephant and baby walking across the prairie of grass and captured the picture, I thought of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. 'It’s good to be back in Kansas Tin Man, but how did those elephant’s get here?’"

Huskers forever: He took over Husker shirts for guide Raphael and his family, starting the first Tanzanians for Nebraska Husker fan club.


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Omaha World-Herald: Inspired Living

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Marjie is a writer for The World-Herald’s special sections and specialty publications, including Inspired Living Omaha, Wedding Essentials and Momaha Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @mduceyOWH. Phone: 402-444-1034.

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