Natural phenomena occur all over the world but few can compete with the annual Masai Mara/Serengeti wildebeest migration. The numbers alone are hard to believe: up to two million animals – wildebeest as well as zebra and gazelles – move clockwise around this enormous ecosystem, driven by ancient instincts to find fresh grazing and water.
It’s drama on a truly epic scale: the migrating herds undergo all manner of challenges and hardships as they move from region to region, and are constantly under attack from predators, none more so than from Africa’s big cats and the notoriously huge crocodiles that lie in wait at various river crossing points.
In response to November’s summer rains, wildebeest start moving in their hundred thousands out of Kenya’s Masai Mara and onto Tanzania’s southern Serengeti plains and the northern Ngorongoro conservation area. Tens of thousands of zebras and gazelles accompany the wildebeest into Tanzania.
The wildebeest spread out across the short grass plains of Tanzania’s Southern Serengeti and northern Ngorongoro conservation area – if the land could support them year round, the wildebeest would never leave this lush, green landscape.
Over a period of about three weeks in February, several hundred thousand calves are born. Pregnant wildebeest give birth more or less simultaneously so expect to see calves from a few hours, to a few days old while on game drives. You might even witness a birth – unlike other antelope, wildebeest do not hide their newborns but encourage them to get on their feet immediately and join the herd where there is safety in numbers.
There is a very high probability of witnessing a kill on a game drive in this period. The calves are easy prey for Africa’s big predators: lions, cheetahs, leopards, spotted hyenas, and rare wild dogs.
April marks the start of the wildebeest migration. In April, the waterholes start to dry up and the southern Serengeti plains have been mowed to stubble by more than a million wildbeest, zebra and gazelle grazing there. As a result, small herds gradually merge into vast columns of wildebeest on the march – it’s a spectacular sight: the mega herd covers the vast plain to the horizon.
Adult wildebeest come into season simultanously – this ensures they give birth in a mass calving in February, which offers their newborns the safety of numbers. The result is spectacular: breeding males bellow and grunt to advertise their presence, chase off rivals and try to round up females to keep them from wandering off. Calves and their mothers call to each other constantly so they don’t get separated in the chaos raising a magnificent cacophony unlike anything else in Africa.
By June, the rut is in full swing and the last column of the mega herd arrives from the southern plains. Combined with the rut, the movement of the massed herds and the constant attacks on all sides by predators, makes this a spectacular time to witness the migration.
Waterholes on the Serengeti plains continue to dry out as winter advances, while over a million wildebeest grazing soon crops the grasslands to stubble. The herds must keep moving, heading north in search of food and water.
August to September
The migration heads north out of the central Serengeti, splitting into two routes. The main group heads into the western corridor crossing the Grumeti River in spectacular stampedes. Enormous crocodiles wait patiently to snatch wildebeest as they surge across the river. The wildebeest continue to move steadily across the Grumeti region, making another perilous river crossing to cross the Mara River and reach the lush grazing in Kenya’s Masai Mara. The smaller group heads directly north from the central Serengeti into the northern plains and from there into the Masai Mara, avoiding the river crossings.
October to November
The sheer number of wildebeest arriving in the Masai Mara area is staggering, as is the variety of resident wildlife – zebra, giraffe, buffalo, elephant, hyena, lion, eland and gazelle to name a few. From August until the summer rains start in November, the Masai Mara is lush and green, and offers the best game viewing in Africa. Once the rains start and the wildebeest have recovered their strength, they begin moving south to their Serengeti breeding grounds which are green and lush once more.