Tanzania - Background information

Natural history
People and culture


Tanzania has a rich and fascinating history, but much of the detail is highly elusive. Specialist works often contradict each other to such an extent that it is difficult to tell where fact ends and speculation begins, while broader or more popular accounts are commonly riddled with obvious inaccuracies. This is partly because there are huge gaps in the known facts; partly because much of the available information is scattered in out-of-print or difficult-to-find books; and partly because once an inaccuracy gets into print it tends to spread like a virus through other written works. For whatever reason there is not, as far as we are aware, one concise, comprehensive and reliable book about Tanzanian history in print. However, Philip Briggs's account in Tanzania Safari Guide attempts to provide a reasonably comprehensive and readable overview of the country’s history.

Natural history


More than 300 mammal species have been recorded in Tanzania, a list that includes about 80 so-called large mammals. For most first-time safari-goers, a major goal is to tick off the so-called ‘Big Five’ – and even if doing so isn’t a priority when you first arrive in Tanzania, conversations with lion-obsessed driver-guides and with other travellers are likely to make it one. Ironically, given its ubiquity in modern game-viewing circles, the term ‘Big Five’ originated with the hunting fraternity and it refers to those animals considered to be the most dangerous (and thus the best sport) back in the colonial era, namely lion, elephant, buffalo, leopard and black rhino. Of these, the first three are likely to be seen with ease on a safari of any significant duration. Leopards are more elusive, with the most reliable site in Tanzania being the Serengeti’s Seronera Valley. The only parts of Tanzania where the black rhino remains reasonably visible are the Ngorongoro Crater and Mara River region of the northern Serengeti, but it is also present in a few other reserves.


Lilac-breasted roller Serengeti Tanzania by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image LibraryThe lovely lilac-breasted roller is a firm safari favourite © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

Tanzania is one of the world’s most bird-rich destinations. Indeed, the national checklist, which stood at below 1,000 species in 1980, now stands at more than 1,100 species, meaning that Tanzania now vies with Kenya as the African country with the second-most varied avifauna (after the Democratic Republic of Congo). Casual visitors will be stunned at the abundance and visibility of birds in the national parks: brilliantly coloured lilac-breasted rollers and superb starlings, numerous birds of prey, the giant ostrich – the list goes on. For more dedicated birdwatchers, Tanzania now stands second to South Africa among mainland African countries for its wealth of national endemics (species unique to the country). At present, up to 34 endemic species are recognised, including a couple of controversial splits, three species discovered and described in the 1990s, and four that still await formal description. Six of the national endemics are readily observed on the northern safari circuit, but a greater number are restricted to the Eastern Arc Mountains, together with about 20 eastern forest and woodland species whose core range lies within Tanzania. The forests of the Eastern Arc Mountains must therefore rank as the country’s most important bird habitat, with the Amani Nature Reserve and Udzungwa Mountains National Park being among the most accessible sites for seeing some of the Eastern Arc specials. But virtually anywhere in Tanzania will offer rewarding birding: in many areas a reasonably competent novice to East African birds could hope to see up to 100 species in a day.

For more on wildlife in Tanzania check out Bradt’s East African Wildlife.

People and culture

Hadza people Tanzania by Ariadne Van Zandbergen Africa Image LibraryThe Hadza are the last remaining tribe of hunter-gatherers in Tanzania © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library

The total population of Tanzania stood at 44.9 million in the most recent census undertaken in 2012, and it is now estimated at around 52 million. The most densely populated rural areas tend to be the highlands, especially those around Lake Nyasa and Mount Kilimanjaro, and the coast. The country’s largest city is Dar es Salaam, whose population, estimated at around 4.5 million, exceeds that of the country’s next ten largest towns combined. Other towns with a population estimated to exceed 250,000 are Mwanza, Arusha, Dodoma, Mbeta, Morogoro and Tanga.

There are roughly 120 tribes in Tanzania, each speaking their own language, and none of which exceeds 10% of the country’s total population. The most numerically significant tribes are the Sukuma of Lake Victoria, Haya of northwest Tanzania, Chagga of Kilimanjaro, Nyamwezi of Tabora, Makonde of the Mozambican border area, Hehe of Iringa and Gogo of Dodoma.


Tanzania’s tribal diversity has meant that a vast array of very different – and, for that matter, very similar – traditional musical instruments are employed around the country under a bemusing number of local names. Broadly speaking, however, all but a handful of these variants can be placed in one of five distinct categories that conform to the classes of musical instrument used in Europe and the rest of the world.

The traditional music of many Tanzanian cultures is given its melodic drive by a marimba (also called a mbira), a type of instrument that is unique to Africa but could be regarded as a more percussive variant of the familiar keyboard instruments. The basic design of all marimbas consists of a number of metal or wooden keys whose sound is amplified by a hollow resonating box. Marimbas vary greatly in size from one region to the next.

Popular with several pastoralist tribes of the Rift Valley and environs are small hand-held boxes with six to ten metal keys that are plucked by the musician. In other areas, organ-sized instruments with 50 or more keys are placed on the ground and beaten with sticks, like drums. The Gogo of the Dodoma region are famed for their marimba orchestras consisting of several instruments that beat out a complex interweave of melodies and rhythms.

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