When it comes to the great wildebeest migration it’s difficult to fully comprehend the scale of such an event. This is an epic annual ritual involving more than 1.5 million animals that sees the often underappreciated wildebeest show its true tenacity, and ferocious will to survive against all odds.
It is a staggering journey of more than 1000km (621 miles) that includes countless dangerous river crossings that challenge these animals’ constant battle for survival as well as gruelling meanderings across the plains that led through a perilous gauntlet of waiting predators.
Quite simply, there is nothing else on Earth that comes anywhere near the majestic splendour of great wildebeest migration.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
Each year, one of the most extraordinary natural shows on Earth takes place in East Africa. The Great Wildebeest migration is an undertaking of breathtaking proportions – a sight quite unlike and one that remains with anybody lucky enough to witness it long after the event.
Over 1.5 million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelle and impalas make the daring 480 kilometre migration loop through Tanzania and Kenya. Crossing treacherous rivers where crocodiles lurk, vast open plains where lions hungrily stalk the young. It is a staggering journey – an unmissable experience.
When Dutch colonialists first marvelled at these immense creatures, they named them ‘wildebeests’ which literally translates to ‘wild beasts’ – and if you’ve ever seen their shaggy, unkempt appearance you can see why.
Fossil evidence suggests that wildebeests began grazing on grasslands in the region more than a million years ago. Countless hooves have trodden this earth across a dizziness number of generations, and while they may not appear to be the most intelligent creatures, they come with an innate drive to undertake one of nature’s great journeys every year.
Why do Wildebeests Migrate?
No one knows what triggers the great wildebeest migration. Is it the rain, or is it some instinctive call only the wildebeest can hear? The rains may seem the obvious cause, but naturalists and scientists alike have never been able to pinpoint the precise reasons.
Perhaps part of the magic is that we don’t know the answer – one of nature’s great mysteries that remains beyond our grasp. Whatever the exact reason, the call must be strong enough for the wildebeests to risk a journey year on year that is often fraught with danger.
When the 1.5 million-strong herds make their way across the plains, they appear oblivious to the tourists hovering on the edges, marvelling at the spectacle as these shaggy creatures take centre stage for the greatest show on earth.
Whether it is true grit or pure instinct that drives them, the wildebeests’ commitment to the journey is unwavering as they make their way to the river crossings that form part of the circular route..
Where does the Wildebeest migration occur?
The great wildebeest migration is a roughly circular route that encompasses Tanzania and Kenya while including two of the most spectacular nature reserves in Africa, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara in Kenya.
The annual migration heads south during the rainy season. The heat haze distorts the landscape as the sun pounds the earth. A growing number of wildebeests and zebras flood the plains and it is a time of relative calm for the herds – but not for long. South of the Serengeti, everything is about to change.
The herds move in a broad clockwise direction from the southern Serengeti, through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Grumeti Reserve into the north of the Serengeti.
They then leave Tanzania briefly via the Mara River Crossing to pass through the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, which borders Serengeti National Park, before heading back south to start the journey again.
Dangers on the Migration
Tragically for the herds, much of the route is fraught with danger and for the many hungry predators on the route, the migration offers the chance to feast. Crocodile infested rivers lie across the route, while lions and other big cats stalk the plains. And the hyenas are no laughing matter either.
As the wildebeests head across the Serengeti, they are joined by great herds of gazelle and zebra. Their strength lies in their numbers as it is much harder for a predator to launch an attack on a mass stampede of animals.
Together they will walk and run over 1000 km (621 miles) in the coming months, twice crossing the Tanzanian and Kenyan border. Starvation, disease and exhaustion result in many deaths along the route, providing a veritable feast for opportunistic creatures such as vultures and hyenas.
Migrating herds regroup at the rivers and the streams, instinctively aware that a river crossing provides one of the most serious challenges of the entire migration. The banks are steep and the water level often low, and even a stampeding herd doesn’t always deter the crocodiles. The powerful reptiles simply wait for a straggler to be separated from the herd, often from the ranks of the elderly beasts or the newborn, which are easily disorientated in the chaos.
These creatures are the most vulnerable, an easy meal for the river-dwellers.
And the herd doesn’t wait for those who get lost or are tired. Mother Nature created an unsympathetic camaraderie to ensure the survival of the toughest, at the expense of the weak and the frail. The African bush is a beautiful but harsh environment for those who dwell in it.
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The Great Migration Schedule
Considering it is a wholly natural undertaking, the great migration that sees almost 2 million animals moving at once typically follows a time-honoured pattern.
During calving season, the females of the herd carry calves as they make their way to the birthing plains, and when they reach their destination, up to 8000 calves enter the world every day. On wobbly legs the new arrivals attempt to find their feet and not getting trampled by the herd is the first challenge they face. A mother wildebeest will do her utmost to protect her young from predators, fending them off with her horns.
Here’s a quick breakdown of what you can expect to see and when during the wildebeest migration.
In January, the first rains begin to fall in the southern Serengeti, just as the herds start heading off to the Ndutu area. You also want to scout out Naabi Hill and Lobo. February sees the herds crossing over into the area around Lake Maek and Lake Ndutu.
By March the herds can be found in Ndutu and the Kusini Maswa region, in the southwest of the park, and they are now moving at a much slower pace as they have given birth and need to accommodate their young. Predators of the Ndutu area have a feast on their doorstep making for incredible but sad sightings.
Come April when the big rains come and the herds move through the Ndutu Region, past Simba Kopje, in the direction of Moru, splitting into large groups instead of a single herd, where the park plays host to the lions and the lesser cats, the serval and the caracal.
In May the big rains continue in the Serengeti and the herds move between Moru and Mokoma and toward Lake Magadi.
June finds the herds rearranging themselves into a long line. The rains have settled down somewhat and the herds have spread out. When the leaders reach the Mbalageti River, those who form the tail end can be found as far back as Lake Magadi, or in the southern parts of the Simiti and Nyamamu Hills.
July is mating season. The Grumeti Reserve in the west of the Serengeti provides the ideal location as the herds start passing Fort Ikoma. Crossing the Grumeti River is next, an event somewhat less spectacular than the Mara River, but a challenge, nonetheless. This forms part of the pull northward to the Masai Mara in Kenya.
During August, the herds move up the northern Serengeti. Here they will face their biggest challenge: the Mara River. This fast-flowing river connects the Masai Mara to the Serengeti, and it’s here where the highest death toll of the migration occurs. Sometimes jumping off the steep banks to escape a lion and plummeting to their death or being crushed by the stampede trying to scale the other side of the bank, stragglers, and those that are injured, are picked off quickly by the waiting predators.
Submerged below the waterline with only their eyes visible, the crocodiles strike swiftly, capturing their prey in their powerful jaws and dragging them into the depths where they meet a watery demise. A wildebeest’s best chance at survival is to thunder through the water as fast as possible, hoping to avoid the death traps along their way.
September presents the last of the Mara crossings, and by October the grass is plentiful, a feast well deserved by the migrating herds. The ‘short rains’ start in November and the herds leave Kenya and move south to the Loliondo and the Lobo areas of the Serengeti. Herds disperse into smaller groups and start grazing with purpose. Come December, the siren begins to beckon the wildebeest south, and it all begins again.
Where and when is the best time to see the Great Wildebeest Migration?
The wildebeests are almost always on the move, which means there’s never a bad time to see spectacular herds thundering through the breathtaking African landscape – as long as you keep to their schedule that is.
If you’re thinking about a great migration safari many choose August or September in and around the border region between Tanzania and Kenya. This gives you the best possible chance to see the dramatic river crossing of the Mara River.
Outside of this time, we’d recommend a wildebeest migration safari during the region’s dry season which runs between July and October, when days are warm and clear and the number of animals is plentiful.
The end of the year still provides a decent enough migration viewing, but animal numbers are noticeably less than a few months before. April and May are probably the worst months to attempt a wildebeest migration safari as the animals haven’t left the south yet and the torrential floods that arrive can make travelling a nightmare.
While Mara River may be the best place to witness the migration, there are numerous other excellent choices. Our other favoured spot is the crossing of the Grumeti River that runs across the Serengeti National Park, where thousands of animals bunch up together before making their dramatic river crossings – a sight that you won’t forget any time soon.
What else is there to see besides the Great Wildebeest Migration?
A great wildebeest migration safari provides a glimpse of one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights. An epic journey undertaken by nearly two million animals is not something you see every day, but let’s be honest, this is Africa, if you look around you, you’re surrounded by things you don’t see every day.
It is important to note that not all the animals of the savannah are migratory, and devoting some time to spotting lions, elephants, giraffes and the primates the bush has to offer is deeply rewarding too. In fact, there is a trick in moving counterclockwise to the migration which both allows you fewer crowds, and more affordable travel.
But as we said, while the wildebeest migration might offer you one of the unquestionable highlights, there’s plenty more to see. Whether you want to spend more time exploring the Serengeti mara ecosystem or the Masai Mara, or spread your wings and strike out further afield, Africa offers an astonishing array of spectacular sights.
In terms of Tanzania, the Ngorongoro Crater, a volcanic caldera, is just over 200 km southeast of the Serengeti National Park and is a simply mesmerising UNESCO World Heritage Site, while the regal image of Mt Kilimanjaro is worthy of a visit to the country in of itself, nevermind combined with a bucket list trip that includes the great wildebeest migration also.
Seasons and what to pack for your great migration adventure?
First and foremost, pack your camera. This is an essential piece of equipment, whether it be a small point and shoot, or a professional kit, you will want to capture the action. A map of the route will help to orientate yourself as the herds move along.
When on safari you can never go wrong with a fly deterrent skin cream. Mosquitos nets are normally available at camp, and a natural mosquito spray. Occasionally mosquitos have their way anyway, so remember to pack an antihistamine to treat those pesky bites.
Expect some rain outside of the dry season and perhaps pack an umbrella too for your dash from your vehicle to the camp. Keep a rain jacket handy and wear layers.
You can expect to see afternoon rainfall continue towards the end of March, the so-called long rains. By April a proper rain jacket will be needed, as the long rains continue, while May is the last month of the long rains.
By June the rains will have mostly stopped, except for the odd shower here and there. This is the very beginning of the dry season and we’d recommend packing light clothing.
In July the dry season starts in full force and you’ll want summer clothing and sun hats.
During August the dry season brings the savannah heat, and you’ll want to spend midday reclining in the shade. September is still hot and dry, so don’t forget to pack your hat and sunscreen.
October is the very last month of the dry season and in November the short rain starts, so you’ll want to be prepared with warmer clothes. For December the rains will continue and while the savannah turns to a lush green, you’ll still need that fleece jacket.
So what are you waiting for?
As we mentioned earlier, there are few sights on the planet that can compare to the breathtaking drama that is the great wildebeest migration.
SafariFRANK is proud to offer the chance to witness this awe-inspiring sight as part of our Very best of Northern Tanzania and the Great Migration package. If you’ve ever dreamed of Africa, then this two-week trip that includes a stay in the Serengeti National Park as well as a visit to the astonishing Ngorongoro Crater, is the safari you’ve been waiting for.
Both one of our own personal favourites, as well as that of our customers, this is the safari that you’ll be talking about for years to come.
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