The wildebeest Migration

The Great Wildebeest Migration starts in the Serengeti plains , Tanzania as 1.3 million animals embark on the most epic migration on earth. The single greatest mass movement of land mammals on the planet as they chase the African storms in search of greener pastures with a journey fraught with danger. Most meat-eaters hunt kill or scavenge these savannas more than almost anywhere else in Africa and whenever the herds arrive, they Herald a frenzy of feeding unparalleled in nature. This is Africa’s great wildebeest migration as you must have heard of it before.

The Calving Season (Dec – Feb)

The Great Migration in Kenya starts in the southern plains of Serengeti National Park (Ndutu). It is here that the greatest population explosion happens in the calving season of the migrating heards. Wildebeest birth is a quick process; this is a dangerous time for both mother and her unborn calf, with one last push, a new runner joins the herd. Over the season between December and February an average of 8000 claves will be born per day. This sets a record being one of the world’s greatest population explosions.

Wildebeest newly born calves learn to stand faster than any other mammals, their lives depend on finding their feet as quickly as possible.  In just one day the calf will match his mother for speed and agility, it’s an ability written in its DNA as from then on it will be running for its life in the greatest migration on earth. Many calves don’t even make it to the start of this Masai Mara migration, they can probably get suffocated on its first and final journey into the herd.

In the course of the Great wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania, nothing goes to waste, Griffon and white bat vultures or the marabou storks get a look-in to make quick work of the carcass by dusk. While the migration journeys through the plains, it’s no coincidence that the Lions of the short grass choose this time to raise their young and usually judging by the size of their bellies, the cubs haven’t missed out on a meal course. 

Wildebeest form nursery herds where the calves can learn to play, the play is good practice for the great migration to Masai Mara, Kenya to come but they never stray too far from their mothers. A wildebeest calf is reliant on its mother for food protection and guidance throughout its first year. The soils in the southern Serengeti are richer in calcium potassium sodium and phosphorus than anywhere else on the wildebeest migration route.

Absorbed by the grass and passed on to the calf through the mother’s milk, these minerals help build strong bones and muscles. This concentration of minerals may be one of the reason why the wildebeest choose to give birth on these short grass plains in the first place. 

The Start of The Great Migration to Masai Mara, Kenya (March- June)

As the seasons change, so do the rains governing the life in Serengeti National Park, soon enough the green pastures of southern Serengeti dry out forcing the herds to start their migration northwords.It is this gradual urban flow of animals that ultimately ushers in the Great Masai Mara migration. There is no set start time and no set route but gradually an incredible 90% of all the grazing animals that once filled the short grass plains of the South move. 

Wildebeests possess scent glands in their feet so with their heads down it’s a relatively simple process to follow the leading herd. The epic journey that will take the wildebeest up to a thousand miles starts and for the next months, the herds will trail through all the way to Masai Mara, Kenya

Over the next 2 to 3 months the migration will make its way through central Serengeti where another highlight of the journey happens; this is a time the herds mate. The bulls will establish their dominance, mating is such an all consuming test of stamina, strength and endurance. Mating itself takes just a few seconds yet wildebeest have one of the most successful sexual practices of all mammals. An estimated 95% of females will become pregnant during the rut in the process. At this point, the strongest males have ensured their genes have been  passed on to the next generation of migrants.

River Crossings (Grumeti and Mara Rivers)

From Central Serengeti, the migration splits into two with a smaller fraction of the migration making its way into the Serengeti western corridor. Over the next few weeks, they are faced with an obstacle; The Grumeti River in western Serengeti that they will have to cross. River crossings are arguably the most exciting sightings of the migration.

The other fraction of the migration continues northwards into Northern Serengeti where they will be joined later by the herds that continued through the western corridor.

In the Northern Serengeti, the migration if faced by the most challenging is one obstacle; the Mara River comprising of water flooded Rapids, deep fast flowing water filled with crocodiles and the riverbanks cliffs up to 20 meters high. It seems an impenetrable barrier and for many days the herds are mass on the banks of the river.

Soon tens of thousands of animals line the water’s edge as pressure on the bank continues to build, with no where left to run, the animals struggle for space and the first wildebeest jumps over the edge. The rest follow and the Stampede is on, there’s no stopping them now launching headfirst into the river.  The wildebeest take the plunge, a high jump gives them a head start.  

A dive helps them avoid the attention of crocodiles who could be lurking beneath the water along the shore, this current is powerful and the herds are often pushed downstream. Wildebeests are strong swimmers with a vigor to make it across. Hippos on the other hand defend their territory and calves, this is their River and they don’t like having their space invaded. Bigger threats lurk beneath the surface, the Mara River is home to some of the largest crocodiles in Africa.

The front runners of the herd will have reached the other side of the river into Masai Mara National Reserve although the banks are often rocked and as slippery as ice giving the herds yet another challenging getting to the main land.

The Migration in Masai Mara, Kenya (Late July – Sept)

This is what they’ve been matching for, a promised land. The Masai Mara is so productive at this time of the year that from Late July to September the animals will stay put, stock up and regain their strength on the green pastures here. The arrival of the herds is also merry to Masai Mara’s predators that have evolved their own ways of hunting them; Zebra with their rounded mouths graze on the main parts of grass, they have good senses of smell and vision and that means predators must use great skill to catch them. 

Wildebeest don’t compete with zebra for food, they use their flat wide mouths to graze deeper and on finer shoots cutting the grasses off right at ground level. About 150,000 Thomson’s gazelle complete the migration each year along side the wildebeest, they don’t compete with a larger grazers for food because with their delicate mouths they can fish out the chutes the others leave behind. Their small size does make them appealing prey though and one of Africa’s big cats has evolved its own way of catching them, cheetah may be the fastest animals on land but it’s a close race and the fastest most agile gazelles can survive the chase.

Masai Mara receives more rain than anywhere else on route and most of that water falls in the three-month period when the migration is in termed. This is the Mara’s wet season, a single thunderstorm can bring over five centimeters of water. All that water has to go somewhere and the result is a series of Brooks and streams that criss cross the plains tributaries of the Mara River. These form homes for pods of hippos, although not as fast-flowing wide or deep as the mighty mara. 

Wildebeest are built to walk and the truth is their migration never really ends, instead, they track a path around the Serengeti in pursuit of Africa’s rain ripened grass as the seasonal rains move south. The herds must follow and that means once again crossing the Mara River.

Year after year the wildebeest have chosen one spot to cross as they move, Maasai Mara is the most direct route. With sites getting restless agitated they start to approach the water nervously tentatively they edge forward sniffing the ground as if checking for crocodiles. The zebra are first to go in, they have more acute senses and often lead the way at crossings, the wildebeest follow.

This is what the crocodiles have been waiting for, they seem to select particular animals, weak injured or young calves. Crocodiles have the strongest bite of all animals with an incredible crushing force. The herds keep coming, the forward momentum of the crossing draws the remaining animals off the plains. The Stampede continues as the animals run in chaos like a shoal of fish. The middle of the herd seems to be the safest place to be.

Thousands of animals try to make it upon to the other side but the banks are steep and slippery and there are few places where the animals can make it out. At this point, the river is so packed with wildebeest even the crocodiles can’t get out of the way yet still the hunt is on. The front zebra herd should have made it across the river.

In just a few days of river crossings, over 10,000 animals can die, most are not taken by the lions leopards or Crocodiles but are trampled on drowned or simply die of exhaustion trying to find their way out of the water. The Crocodiles feed on the spoils as this may be the last easy meal they’ll have until the herds return in a year’s time. Now the wildebeest have gone back south on the bank and start their long match south back to their birthing grounds on the short grass plains in the southern Serengeti. 

It can be heartbreaking and disturbing to witness events like these, it’s like a lion kill, at Masai Mara Holidays we often witness visitors that want to see a lion kill only until they see a lion kill. What we often hear is the cycle of life but one can’t help to feel very sorry for the victim. This reminds us always that life’s end is always brutal does not matter how it comes.

From a human perspective what does matter though is not to focus on the things we cannot change like the inevitable death but on the things that we can change like life we can ensure to protect, these wildlife locations like Serengeti and Masai Mara for life, we can spread the word that Africa is an exceptional destination with friendly people stunning scenery and unmatched wildlife and you can enjoy all her splendor just by coming here on a safari and becoming part of a movement to protect our natural resources for generations to come long after you and I have left.