The Great Wildebeest Migration

The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the most sought- after wildlife experiences for wildlife and nature enthusiasts, the great migration refers to the ever-moving circular migration of over a million animals across the Serengeti – Mara ecosystem.

The migration involves constant movement of columns of millions of wildebeests joined by grants and Thomson gazelles and zebras following an age – old route in search of grazing and water.

After calving in the Southern part of Serengeti National Park near the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the animals move through the Serengeti up and around in a clockwise direction towards the Masai Mara in Kenya before returning once again near the end of the year.

Along the way, the migration is characterized of drama as thousands of animals are taken by predators and thousands more are born, replenishing the numbers and sustaining the circle of life.

With this article, you will learn more about the Great Migration and how it moves at different times throughout the year.

What is the Great Migration?

The Great Migration is the largest herd movement of animals on the planet with up to 1,000 animals per square kilometers, the columns of wildebeests are so great that they can be seen from space.

Over 1.2 million wildebeests and 300,000 zebras along with topi and other gazelle move in a constant cycle through the Serengeti – Mara ecosystem in search for nutritious grass and water, the herds are guided by survival instinct, each wildebeests covers approximately 800 to 1,000 kilometers on its individual journey along age – old migration routes.

The herds are always followed by the hungry predators including lions, leopards, cheetah, hyena, wild dog and crocodiles that make sure only the strongest survive in this natural spectacle also known as “the greatest show on Earth”.

The migration circuit takes the animals from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (although not into the Crater itself) in the south of the Serengeti in Tanzania, up through the Serengeti and across into the Masai Mara in Kenya and back again to start the journey all over again.

The journey is beset with danger, the young calves are snatched by predators, the slow in the movement is brought down by prides of lion, brave beast break legs on steep river slopes, crocodiles who also take their share of the stragglers and the weak and exhausted drown.

There are three groups of migrant grazers with different grass eating habits, one group eats the top of the tallest grass, the next group will eat away some of the medium – height grass and it is almost completely eaten and the herds move on.

This means that each group sticks to their own kind with only a small overlap in their distributions, the grasses of the plains are known to have the highest protein content and calcium in the whole of the Serengeti.

Still, it is unclear how the wildebeest know which way to go but it is generally believed that their journey is dictated primarily by their response to the weather, they follow the rains and the growth of new grass. While there is no scientific proof of it, some experts believe that the animals react to lightning and thunderstorms in the distance. It has also been suggested that wildebeest can locate rain more than 50 kilometers away.

How the Great Migration moves throughout the year

Whether the wildebeests are giving birth to calves or attempting to cross the deadly rivers while avoiding predators, the migration is constantly on the move throughout the year and it tends to be in different area during different times of the year.

The Great Migration in January, February and March

In January each year, the migration will be finishing a southward trek moving along the eastern edge of the Serengeti and into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the area’s plains are rich in nutritious grass providing the herds with the best conditions for raising their newborn calves.

Although there is no real beginning or end of this migratory circuit, it is more reasonable to call the birthing “calving season” the start of the migration. Around late January or February, the herds occupy the short – grass plains that spread over the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands and around Olduvai Gorge. Over 400,000 calves are born here within a period of two to three weeks (approximately 8,000 new calves are born every day).

The abundance of vulnerable young calves results into the predators springing into action, hunting with ease due to the sheer number of wildebeests.

For travelers interested in witnessing calving and the drama of big cats on the hunt, this period is the perfect time.

The Great Migration in April and May

After giving birth in February and March, around April the wildebeest herds begin to drift northwest toward the fresher grass of the central Serengeti, drawing with them thousands of zebras and smaller groups of antelopes.

By May, columns of wildebeests stretch for several kilometers as the animals start to congregate by the Moru Kopjes. The Mating season begin toward the end of May and male wildebeests battle head to head, throughout “the rut”, the journey continues at leisure with the wildebeest, zebra and gazelle grazing as they go along.

Gradually the movement gathers momentum and the wildebeest start to mass in the Western Corridor Serengeti National Park, the herds can be seen cross the Grumeti River though it may not be as spectacular as the famous Mara Crossing.

The Great Migration in June and July

During June, the dry season starts with large concentration of wildebeest in the Western Serengeti and on the Southern banks of Grumeti River, each migrating animal must face the challenge of crossing the crocodile – infested river which is the first of the many daunting and tense river encounters.

As June ends and July start, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras continue to head north along the western edge of the park toward an even more risker barrier. The Mara River in the north of the Serengeti, the river crossings are arguably one of the most exciting wildlife events on earth, they usually begin at the onset of high season in July but timing all depends on nature.

The herds will typically be found in the Northern Serengeti, later in July the herds are found in the Masai Mara and it is possible to watch them crossing Mara and Talek River.

The Great Wildebeest Migration
The Great Wildebeest Migration

 The Great Migration in August, September and October

By August, the herds have faced the challenge of crossing the Mara River and are spread throughout the Masai Mara Southern region with main remaining in the northern Serengeti.

In years when the river is in full flow, the panic and confusion at the crossing combined with waiting predators and surging current can cause massive loss of life. But even in years of relatively gently flowing, the crocodiles take their troll on the herds, also there are predators such as lions, cheetahs, wild dogs patrolling the banks ready to ambush any wildebeest that make it to the other side.

There is no single crossing, at some spots there are just a few individuals while others see a mass of animals moving without break for hours.

By September to October, the main chaos has ended and the migrating columns have gradually moved eastward. However, the wildebeests will face the heavy waters of the Mara River once more as they prepare to cross once again for their return journey southward.

The Great Migration in November and December

After the short rains in late October and early November, the wildebeest move back to Tanzania into the eastern limits of the Serengeti past Namiri Plains – an area known for incredible sightings of the cheetahs. By December, the herds spread throughout the eastern and southern reaches.

In the early months of the new year, the grasses in the deep south of the Serengeti are lush with rain. This attract the herds of wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and other plains animals. The cycle continues as the calving season starts once again.

5 Facts About the Wildebeest

  1. Wildebeests are also commonly referred to as Gnus
  2. Both males and females have horns nut those of the mature male are larger and thicker
  3. Wildebeest can live up to 20 years in the wild
  4. Wildebeest calves are able to walk as soon as they are born and can run with the herd when they are just a few days old.
  5. There are two species of wildebeests, blue wildebeests found in Southern and East Africa and the endangered black wildebeest only found in South Africa.
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