HAVING been upgraded to national park status in 2008, Mkomazi is relatively unknown to many Tanzania-bound tourists.
And when compared to the other 14 national parks in the country, Mkomazi is extremely different both in its ecological set up and overall operations and this uniqueness, according to experts, may actually serve as the park's main selling point.
The name Mkomazi, according to Ms Beatrice Yawingi, the park's Tourism Warden, was coined from the two local terms 'Mwiko' meaning a wooden spoon and 'Mazi' a Pare term for water. And sure enough, located in a semi-arid area, Mkomazi is essentially very dry and just like the locals summed up in the name they gave it, there isn't enough water to fill a spoon.
But each of the 15 Tanzanian national parks apart from their respective trademark wildlife species, has own outstanding features, Serengeti is an endless plain, Kilimanjaro is a mountain, Saadan features the coastline, Manyara is essentially a lake, Rubondo is an Island, while Gombe and Mahale are hilly forests.
Mkomazi therefore fits into its own niche of tourism marketing, being a dry land filled with rare species of animals such as the Oryx and the African Coyote (wild dogs) in addition to the usual big five. World famous Serengeti, established in 1959 may boast being Tanzania's earliest national park, but in reality the title should have gone to Mkomazi which was earmarked in 1951, eight years earlier than Serengeti.
However, it is still not clear why Mkomazi never attracted the financial and political support provided for the other reserves such as Serengeti, Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro and was left to be invaded by humans until the late 1980s when the state moved in to reclaim the land.
Mkomazi National Park measures 3,300 square kilometres and in 1989 the Government re-examined the reserve's status and designated it a National Priority Project and since then, its true significance and importance was recognized. Southwards, the park lies at the foot of both the Pare and Usambara Mountains striding Kilimanjaro and Tanga regions and also borders the Tsavo National Park of Kenya, across the northern borderline.
The park, together with Kenya's Tsavo, forms one of the largest and most important protected ecosystems on earth, especially now that it also serves as breeding ground for the endangered rhinoceros species. Mkomazi-Tsavo ecosystem also features its own version of wildlife migration; the area is common ground for migratory herds of elephant, Oryx and zebra during the wet season.
There are nearly 80 species of wildlife suited to the semiarid savannah and these include the Giraffe, Oryx, Gerenuk, Aardwolf, Hartebeest, Lesserkudu, Eland, the Impala and Grant's gazelle as well as the giants Elephant, African Buffalo (Nyati), Lion, Leopard and Cheetah. Mkomazi features the largest population of Gerenuk, Orxy and Long-necked gazelle.
The park is also home to more than 500 bird species including varieties of the so-called birds of prey, such as Wahlberg's eagle, pearl-spotted owlet, martial eagle and secretary bird. When reading about Mkomazi many people always get the impression that Black Rhinos and African wild dogs contained within are freely roaming in the park but which isn't exactly the case.
Both the rhino and wild dog species do exist at Mkomazi but features in well-protected zones that are part of the projects to reintroduce them. The rhinos are kept in a fenced sanctuary within the park which covers two per cent of the total land while the wild dogs are also enclosed.
This is where the other uniqueness of Mkomazi comes in; it is a national park, yes, but once inside visitors will encounter game sanctuaries for the wild dogs and the black rhinos in secured enclosures. A recent visit to the park revealed well-graded roads but also something strange became apparent; Mkomazi features seven man-made dams recently dredged to supplement the park's little available surface water.
Normally alien and human activities are forbidden in national parks, so the idea of having dug-out dams in Mkomazi posed the question of how the park is being managed. It is the first and only park to have this treatment," explained Mr Dominic Tarimo, Mkomazi Protection Warden, adding that with the threats of global warming and its related climate change effects, the Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) has permitted the construction of dams within the park.
"When there is the need to keep the animals in the park, we are left with little choice but do whatever possible to make sure that Mkomazi has sufficient water for the wildlife," he stated. In addition to the six dams, Mkomazi has plans to introduce windmills that will help draw underground water and these added modern wind-driven infrastructures further serve to set the park aside from other reserves.
But 'windmills in the park' if well packaged in tourism promotional materials may further help to drive the Mkomazi visitors' traffic higher than the current paltry 1,200 tourists per annum. When Mkomazi was first established in the 1950s, a number of pastoral families from local ethnic groups were allowed to continue to live there together with several thousands of cattle, goats and sheep.
The then colonial government permitted them to reside there because they had been in the area for many years and were not thought to be a threat to the ecology. They were however evicted when the reserve was established.