African wildlife in its natural environment under the midday sun will suddenly be plunged into an eerie twilight beneath a cosmic ‘ring of fire’ as Tanzania falls directly beneath the path of an annular solar eclipse — an earth and sky combination that will not happen again in Tanzania until 2031. An annular (from the Latin meaning ‘ring-shaped’) eclipse is almost total, but it leaves a ring of sunlight around the shadow of the moon. Visitors lucky enough to be in the right location could be able to observe animals reacting to the sudden drop in light and temperature, as well as the stunning circle of fire in the sky above them.
Expert predictions: What might people witness?
Wildlife behavior expert and Authentic Tanzania safari guide Sven Liebchen states: ‘During the eclipse, we can certainly expect insects and diurnal birds to fall silent, whilst owls may hoot and frogs call — these animals respond very quickly to changes in light. The behavior changes in larger animals may be more subtle — lions and elephants may be less concerned, though perhaps hippo or the herds of grazing animals will react more obviously.’
Professor Paul Murdin, of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Astronomy, concurs: ‘I witnessed the eclipse in Zimbabwe in 2001. The diminishing light and warmth caused hippos sleeping on a sandbank to wake and disperse into the river, seeking breakfast. When the sunlight returned, they were clearly not sure whether to eat or go back to bed.’ He comments further in a feature in The Telegraph.
Dr. Craig Packer, Professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Lions in the Balance, witnessed a 98 percent light reduction over the Ngorongoro Crater and he recalls: ‘It was over thirty years ago, but I remember as the temperature dropped a swarm of bees was caught mid-flight and literally dropped out of the sky onto my vehicle — thousands and thousands of them huddling to keep their queen warm.’
While most of Africa will see at least a partial eclipse, only those directly on the line of annularity will see the beautiful symmetry of the moon’s shadow aligning with the sun to create that circle of light. It will start in the Atlantic Ocean and move across Gabon, the Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar and out into the Indian Ocean. Most of these places are logistically or politically complex, but experts are citing Tanzania as the destination to watch it from since the country’s dependable weather, invariably clear ‘big skies,’ abundant wildlife and peaceful reputation make it a top tourist destination.
The central line will fall along Western Tanzania, making Katavi National Park the only national park directly on the eclipse’s path and, thus, the ultimate spot to be in on the day. Other places where symmetry will be good, though not absolute, will include the Mahale Mountains and Mbeya.
Terry Moseley (author, former President of the IAA, Fellow of the RAS, and tour astronomer for The Independent Traveller), explains: ‘An annular eclipse occurs when the Moon’s apparent disc does not appear big enough to completely cover the Sun, so a thin ring of the Sun’s outer edge remains. This means that the darkness is not absolute, in this case about 97%, so whilst annulars do not produce the special effects seen during totality, they have an eerie twilight beauty of their own. On or near the central line the ring appears as a circle, and the symmetry is spectacular. Bailey’s beads may also be seen.’
Looking directly at the sun during an eclipse can seriously damage your eyesight. For an annular eclipse, this is true even at the maximum point of the eclipse as there is enough bright light still exposed to cause harm. The only way to view the sun safely is to project its image onto a screen or filter its rays. Safest of all is to use eclipse glasses, but for other ideas, click on NASA’s eclipse guidance.
Staying in Katavi
Only two companies can offer guaranteed accommodation in Katavi National Park during the eclipse. Both offer expert guides, astronomy knowledge and eye safety wear, and plan to provide telescopes and astronomy guides for the big event.
Authentic Tanzania has a Wilderness Camp in the heart of Katavi.