If you were to ask the average person on the street if they had heard of the ‘Wildebeest Migration most would answer in the affirmative. Yet ask them ‘where the Great Migration takes place and you will undoubtedly receive a few blank stares or vague mumbled replies, 'Africa' or 'Kenya'. On further probing you would probably find that whilst people are aware that this great spectacle occurs (probably as a result of the Lion King or various documentaries), little is actually known about it. Many assume that the migration is all about the dramatic river crossings but it is so much more than that. The following is an ‘idiots guide so to speak, to the greatest show on earth.
Where does the migration take place?
The wildebeest migration takes place in East Africa between Tanzania's Serengeti National Park and Kenya's Maasai Mara. These two parks form one continuous ecosystem sliced up by an invisible man-made border.
Is it only Wildebeest which migrate?
No, following the approximately 2 million wildebeest are thousands of zebras and gazelles which combine to form a super herd. Zebra and Wildebeest are often found together 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. Lions and other carnivores do not migrate with the grazing animals but feast on them when their paths cross.
Why do the animals migrate?
In essence, the animals are following the rains in search of lush new grass. The wildebeest are taking advantage of the strongly seasonal conditions, spending the wet season on the plains in the south-east, and the dry season in the woodlands of the north-west, but the sheer weight of their numbers means that they themselves play a role in shaping their environment to their needs.
Although the migration is often portrayed as an intense phase of activity the 800 km pilgrimage is actually an ongoing cycle of movement and dispersal. Each year over 250,000 wildebeest alone will die as a result of injury, exhaustion or predation.
The Migration is not a continually forward motion. As the wildebeest need to drink daily their movement is very much dominated by the accessibility of water and they seem to have a sixth sense in following the storms.
There is no real beginning or end to a wildebeest's journey. Its life is an endless pilgrimage, a constant search for food and water.
The River Crossings
The most poignant image of the wildebeest is the famous crossing at the Grumeti and Mara Rivers. This spectacle has been well documented by some excellent photography from the likes of the BBC and National Geographic. 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.
When should I visit East Africa to witness the Migration?
There is never really a right or wrong time to visit as each season offers its own highlights but it is important to be in the right area according to season.
Jan – Early Mar (Serengeti)
This is one of the most popular times to visit the Serengeti when the wildebeest calves are born over a 3-5 week period. The defenceless young provide easy picking for lions, hyenas, and other predators but because so many calves are born in such a short time the predators do not have time to eat them all. It is best during these months to choose a camp or lodge in the southern plains of the Serengeti or Ngorongoro Conversation Area.
April / May (Serengeti)
During these months the depleted plains are unable to sustain the endless herds. The migration, sweeping west and north, moves from the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti / Ngorongoro Conservation Area to the long grass plains and woodland of the Serengeti's western Corridor, almost to Lake Victoria.
June / July (Serengeti / Masai Mara)
By June the wildebeest have exhausted the Western Corridor's best pastures and the herds must move further north. The migration often splits and one column passes west to Lake Victoria, another passes 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 Maasai Mara.
These months are unpredictable for catching the crossing as the timing and duration varies widely each year - in years of little rain very few wildebeest cross the Mara River into Kenya. Generally, you should try to locate yourself in either the Serengeti's Western Corridor or its northern reaches; however, in some years being on the Kenyan side during these months offers the best views.
Aug – Oct (Masai Mara)
From August to October 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)
The arrival of the short rains summons the herds south across the Tanzanian border in November and usually by December the wildebeest disperse on the southern plains of the Serengeti.
Where to Stay?
Kenya and Tanzania offer a huge selection of accommodation styles and 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 BBCs Natures Great Events narrated by David Attenborough
National Geographic ‘Great Migrations Born to Move
Contact a specialist about a Safari in Tanzania