Masai Steppe

Country/territory: Tanzania

IBA Criteria met: A1 (2002)
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Area: 196,000 ha

Protection status:

Site description

The Masai Steppe is a dry plateau of some 3,000,000 ha in north central Tanzania. The area lies in the rain shadow of the Nguru (IBA 59) and Nguu Mts (IBA 60) to the south-east and the Usambara (IBA 70, 71) and Pare Mts (IBA 62, 63) to the east. There is virtually no surface water during the dry season and this restricts the carrying capacity of the land for livestock. Agriculture on the poor soils is entirely rain dependent, with poor years more frequent than good ones. The dominant vegetation is Acacia-Commiphora woodland, with Baobabs clustered on rocky soils below 1,400 m. The landscape is dominated by a series of isolated small mountains and kopjes. The tallest of these, Lolkisale (2,132 m), in the north-west and Lossogonoi (2,124 m) in the north-east, are both crowned with montane forest with avifaunal links to Mts Meru (IBA 1) and Kilimanjaro (IBA 3).

There are extensive stands of Acacia tortilis woodland on the higher plateau and numerous depressions that contain seasonal swamps, some exceeding 10,000 ha in wet years. In the east, the short grass of the Kitwai Plain is reminiscent of the Serengeti as the land drops below 900 m towards Handeni and the coastal lowlands. To the south-west, the town of Kibaya sits on a ridge at 1,900 m. In the south, the habitat is dry Commiphora woodland all the way to the Morogoro-Dodoma road and the foothills of the Ukaguru Mts (IBA 67).

Selecting an IBA site of a realistic size in this vast area has been difficult. Despite numerous visits during the late 1990s, it was not until the pair of Taita Falcons were discovered that the site could be centralised on a particular species. Even now, it is not possible to accurately delineate a site boundary. There are no Forest Reserve or Game Reserve boundaries to follow and the Game Controlled Areas are poorly defined, using roads rather than natural features. Parts of three GCAs are included in the 50 km diameter site selected. Eight peaks above 1,700 m are included, as is the rocky ridge running south from Naberera. The only habitat not included is seasonal wetland, but the data do not exist that could justify the inclusion of wetland birds at 1% levels. If a protected area were to be established in the Masai Steppe, this account should only be considered as a starting point.

Key biodiversity

Until quite recently, virtually nothing was known of the avifauna of this vast area. Both Britton (1980) and Zimmerman et al. (1996) consider the Black-headed Social Weaver to be a vagrant to the area, with a single record from Naberera. It is, in fact, a common and widespread resident with hundreds of breeding colonies involving many thousands of birds (Baker unpublished data). Two Tanzanian endemics occur, both the Ashy Starling and Yellow-collared Lovebird being locally common in association with Baobabs. This site represents the southern limits for such localised dry country species as the Vulturine Guineafowl, White-headed Mousebird, Pringle’s Puffback, Acacia Grey Tit, Pygmy Batis, Scaly Chatterer, Golden-breasted Starling and Southern Grosbeak Canary. The rocky hillsides and isolated kopjes hold populations of Hildebrandt’s Francolin, Freckled Nightjar, Cliff Chat and Rock-loving Cisticola. The large raptors include Martial, Verreaux’s and Tawny Eagles and African Hawk Eagles.

The Masai Steppe is an important wintering area for Palearctic migrants. Sprossers and Iranias occur locally at high densities, as do European Rollers. Among the Afro-tropical migrants, Grasshopper Buzzards and Jacobin Cuckoos are seasonally common while Little Tawny Pipits (which may be resident) and Golden Pipits breed.

Other threatened/endemic wildlife
Many of the Elephants 'wintering' in Tarangire National Park (IBA 10) move back onto the Masai Steppe during the rains. There are also small numbers of Elephants more or less resident on the steppe, from at least Kijungu in the east to the Kikuletwa valley in the north. How many of these animals utilise the site defined above is unknown. Leopards must occur and much of the habitat is typical Lesser Kudu thicket. The East African endemic Pancake Tortoise is likely to be widespread throughout the site.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2021) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Masai Steppe. Downloaded from on 13/04/2021.