One of Africa’s renowned natural events, the Great Wildebeest Migration has earned the title of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’. The wildebeest’s annual circular journey in search of green pastures from Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains to Kenya’s Masai Mara region is both fraught with challenges as well as the wonder of the birthing season. World-renowned photographers have captured this migration on camera while films of the migration illustrate the sheer power of these large herds as they move in the direction of Mara and back towards Serengeti.
Which Animals Migrate?
- Around 2 million wildebeest
- An estimated 200,000-300,000 zebras
- An estimated 500,000-600,000 gazelle and other antelope species such as eland, impala and topi
- Predators such as cheetahs, lions, leopards and hyenas are opportunist hunters that ambush these herds when their paths cross
Why Do The Herds Migrate?
Almost two million wildebeest, herds of zebras and antelope species such as gazelles, impala and topi follow the rainfall, searching for food, which for them is the lush vegetation that occurs after the rainfall. These herd animals also need to consume large amounts of water daily and can be spotted at water sources on their migration path.
The sole purpose of their journey is to find greener pastures and water sources. Once they exhaust the grazing in the region, they are forced to move onwards and continue the annual migration cycle.
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The Great Migration Timeline Through The Months
- January: Late January to the end of March is the Wildebeest Calving Season. The wildebeest herds are spread out over Tanzania’s southern Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The majority of wildebeest females will give birth within 2-3 weeks of each other. At this time, the plains are teeming with animal newborns and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Nudtu’s lush vegetation provides ample nutrition for the wildebeest calves. The herds can be seen around the Olduvai Gorge, spreading over the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Highlands.
- February: The southern Serengeti Plains and Ngorongoro Conservation Area still have plenty of vegetation, which will tide them over until March. The wildebeest calving season also attracts a lot of predators: the big cats and hyenas are ready to pounce upon the newborns.
- March: During the calving season, around 400,000-500,000 wildebeest calves are born every year. These calves learn to walk within a minute of their birth and are ready to join the migration with their parents.
- April: By April, the herds have exhausted the vegetation in southern Serengeti. They resume their journey and head north-west in the Serengeti which has fresh grazing pastures.
- May: May marks the beginning of the mating season, which often sees the male wildebeest locked in a head-to-head battle. Although the wildebeest continue moving during their mating period, they do so at a slower pace, later resuming their regular speed as they congregate in the western Serengeti. The herds of wildebeest, zebras and antelopes prepare to cross the Grumeti River.
- June: June is the beginning of the dry season in the Serengeti and the animals move towards the greener pastures in the north. To reach the northern Serengeti Plains, the herds have to overcome their first hurdle – the Grumeti River crossing filled with crocodiles.
- July: Before crossing the river, the herds spend the majority of July in the northern Serengeti. After crossing the Grumeti River, the wildebeest herds keep moving northward through Ikorongo Reserve, Grumeti Reserve, or the heart of the Serengeti National Park. By the end of the month, they are faced with yet another hurdle – the Mara River crossing. The herds are attacked on two fronts: the ferocious Nile-crocodiles and the predators lying in wait on the other side of the river. Those who survive find their way to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
- August: Although the wildebeest travel in herds, there are still those that move a little farther apart or separate from the herd while at the river crossings there are several different crossing points on both the Mara and Grumeti Rivers. So, although the majority of wildebeest herds have reached the Masai Mara, some are still making their way. Once they arrive in the Mara, they spread out over the Masai Mara northern region.
- September: The herds have already exhausted Masai Mara’s vegetation and are ready to begin their journey back to Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains. They are again faced with the treacherous Mara River crossings.
- October: On their way back towards Serengeti Plains, they have the challenge of crossing the Grumeti River once again.
- November: The wildebeest herds have now moved into the Serengeti’s Namiri Plains, which has an ample concentration of cheetahs, often following the herds hoping for a meal.
- December: The animals move towards and spread out over the eastern and southern Serengeti Plains, around the Lake Ndutu region and prepare to give birth. And so, the cycle begins again.
Grumeti and Mara River Crossings
The wildebeest herds have to cross both of these rivers twice.
- Mara River: the more treacherous and larger of the two river crossings, the Mara River is full of crocodiles. The wildebeest are aware of the crocodile’s presence. However, the power of the herd forces the wildebeest and zebras into the waters as they make their way towards the other side of the river.
- Grumeti River: the river crossing at the Grumeti River isn’t as dramatic as the Mara River. Yet the herds lose many animals to the crocodiles and predators waiting to ambush the animals who have managed to cross the river.
Further Reading: Top 10 Best Wildlife Migrations in the World
Survival Of the Fittest
Around 400,000-500,000 wildebeest calves are born during the calving season, but how many are lost in this journey?
The Great Wildebeest Migration may be one of the greatest spectacles in Tanzania and Kenya, but it takes a heavy toll on the herds. Of the nearly 2 million wildebeest, an estimated 250,000 are lost together with around 30,000 zebras.
The majority are lost at the river crossings, where only the fittest survive. The crocodiles aren’t the only threat; the panic and commotion created results in drownings while even once the herds make it across the river, they have to face the challenge of predators. This time the battle is on the land, which significantly increases their chances of survival.
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