The average person is likely to have heard of the ‘Wildebeest Migration' (probably as a result of various documentaries or the Lion King movie) however very often little is actually known about this incredible wildlife event – where it occurs, what it involves etc. Many assume that the migration is all about the dramatic river crossings but there is so much more to this great spectacle. The following is a short, easy to read explanation of the greatest show on earth.
Where does the migration take place?
The wildebeest migration takes place over a wide area across Kenya's Maasai Mara and Tanzania's Serengeti National Park. These parks are one continuous ecosystem divided by an invisible man-made border.
Is it only Wildebeest which migrate?
No, together with the approximately 2 million wildebeest are thousands of zebras and gazelles forming one super herd. Zebra are often found together with wildebeest as the zebra tend to feed on long tough grass stems preparing them for the broad muzzle of the wildebeest, more suited to close short grasses. Contrary to popular belief, lions and other carnivores don't migrate with the grazing animals but feast on them when their paths cross.
Why do the animals migrate?
What the animals are in essence doing is following the rains in search of lush new grass. Taking advantage of the strongly seasonal conditions, the wildebeest are spending the wet season on the plains in the south-east, and the dry season in the woodlands of the north-west. The animals themselves, however, play a role in shaping their environment to their needs just by the sheer weight of their numbers.
The 800 km pilgrimage is an ongoing cycle of movement and dispersal that is not continually in forward motion. The wildebeest need to drink daily and their movement is very much dominated by the accessibility of water and they seem to have a sixth sense in following the storms.
This epic journey has no real beginning or end. The life of a wildebeest is an endless pilgrimage, a constant search for food and water and it doesnt come without its perils, each year over 250,000 wildebeest will die as a result of injury, exhaustion or predation.
The River Crossings
The famous spectacle of the crossing at the Grumeti and Mara Rivers has been well documented by film makers and photographers. Forced on by the power of the herd the wildebeest have no choice but to take a suicidal plunge into the crocodile infested waters often drowning in their thousands.
How can I witness the Migration?
There is no real right or wrong time to visit East Africa see the migration as each season offers its own highlights. It is, however, important to be in the right area at the right time of year.
Jan – Early Mar (Serengeti)
This is the season when the wildebeest calves are born over a 3-5 week period, making it one of the most popular times to visit the Serengeti. As there is an abundance of food around in the form of defenceless young wildebeest, sightings of lions, hyenas, and other predators are particularly good during this time. Thankfully because so many calves are born in such a short time the predators do not have time to eat them all. During these months it is best to choose a camp or lodge in the southern plains of the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Conversation Area.
April / May (Serengeti)
As the depleted southern plains become unable to sustain the endless herds, the migration sweeps west and north. It moves from the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti / Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the long grass plains and woodland of the Serengetis western Corridor, almost to Lake Victoria. This will be the height of the rainy season. It shouldnt necessarily put people off visiting the Serengeti, particularly as the low season rates will be very appealing.
June / July (Serengeti / Masai Mara)
As June arrives the wildebeest have often exhausted the Western Corridors best pastures and the herds begin to move further north. At this point the migration often splits and one column passes west to Lake Victoria, another passing north through the northern Lobo area of the Serengeti. By July the countless herds have amassed along the swollen Mara River - a final barrier from the short sweet grasses of the Masai Mara.
If you are trying to catch a river crossing at this time of year, you should try to locate yourself in either the Serengetis Western Corridor or its northern reaches; however, in some years being on the Kenyan side during these months offers the best views. Be warned that catching a crossing is unpredictable as the timing and duration varies widely each year. In some years where there has been little rain, few wildebeest actually cross the Mara River into Kenya.
Aug – Oct (Masai Mara)
During this time the migration is usually dispersed across the plains of Kenya's Maasai Mara. In some years a large portion of the herds remain in the Serengeti so we would recommend basing yourself in the northern reaches of the park during these months (known as the Lobo area).
Nov / Dec (Serengeti)
During this time the short rains summon the herds south across the Tanzanian border in November and usually by December the wildebeest are once again dispersed on the southern plains of the Serengeti.
Where to Stay?
There are a huge selection of accommodation styles to choose from in Kenya and Tanzania. Mahlatini can offer everything from luxury lodges and classic tented camps to simple mobile bush camps (designed to put you in the best place to catch all the action). The key is speaking to an expert who will have visited the camps and will know the locations well. Almost all of the staff at Mahlatini have seen the migration in different countries and at different times of the year. They will ensure that you will be best placed to catch the herds on the move.
The BBCs Natures Great Events narrated by David Attenborough
National Geographic ‘Great Migrations Born to Move
National Geographic 'Great Migrations'
National Geographic 'Great Migrations'
Great Migrations is a 7 part documentary which aired on the National Geographic Channel in 2010. It focused on animal migrations across the globe, but it was generally agreed that the most incredible part of the documentary was when we got a front row ticket to the Great Migration across Tanzania. The documentary was filmed in HD which made it visually incredible.
It is the 3rd episode of the series which covers the Great Migration, so if you get a chance to watch it then please do!
The series took 2 and a half years to produce, and despite the great lengths the filmmakers had to go to in order to produce the film, none of the crew were injured. The documentary was highly acclaimed and eventually won prime time Emmy for Best Documentary.