The Great Migration is an exhilarating experience for wildlife and nature enthusiasts. It involves the circular migration of over a million animals across the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, making it a highly sought-after adventure. The wildebeest, accompanied by numerous other animals, follow a traditional path in search of food and water. Beginning in the southern region of Tanzania’s Serengeti, close to the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the animals traverse the Serengeti in a clockwise direction towards Kenya’s Masai Mara, before returning to their starting point at the end of the year. This journey is marked by high drama, with numerous predators targeting thousands of animals while thousands more are born, sustaining the cycle of life and maintaining the population.
What is the Great Migration
The Great Migration is an incredible spectacle, featuring the largest herd movement of animals on the planet. The massive columns of wildebeest, numbering up to 1,000 per km², are even visible from space. The scale of the migration is staggering, with over 1.2 million wildebeest and 300,000 zebra, as well as topi and other gazelle, moving in a continuous cycle through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in search of grass and water. Guided by instinct, each wildebeest covers 800 to 1,000km on their journey along well-established migration routes. However, predators such as lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena, wild dog, and crocodiles ensure that only the fittest survive in this natural wonder known as ‘the greatest show on Earth’.
The journey takes the animals from Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area (excluding the Crater itself) in the south of the Serengeti, through the Serengeti, across to Kenya’s Masai Mara, and back again. The migration is fraught with danger, with young calves and the weak falling prey to predators or drowning in rivers. The three groups of migratory grazers have distinct grass-eating habits, consuming different heights of grass in a sequence until it is almost entirely eaten before moving on. The plains’ grass has high protein content and calcium.
While it is not clear how the wildebeest know where to go, it is believed that their response to weather and the growth of new grass drives their migration. Lightning and thunderstorms in the distance may also play a role, and some experts speculate that wildebeest can detect rain more than 50km away, although there is no scientific proof of this.
Can the annual migration river crossing be predicted?
The annual wildebeest migration cannot be accurately predicted. In fact, even the wildebeests themselves do not know when they will cross. Some wildebeests arrive at the Mara River and immediately swim across, while others spend several days grazing before crossing. Some herds even arrive at the river and turn back to their starting point.
Why do the wildebeest migrate?
The wildebeest migrate in search of greener pastures and water. The seasonal rains influence the growth of grass and availability of water, which in turn determines the timing and direction of their migration. The wildebeest follow a circular route that takes them through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in Tanzania and Kenya, covering a distance of up to 1,000 km. The migration is a natural phenomenon that has been happening for centuries, and it is also a means of survival as the wildebeest must constantly move to find fresh grass and water sources to sustain themselves.
What month is the Great Migration in Kenya?
The migration usually begins crossing rivers to pass into the Masai Mara in Kenya around July each year, where it remains for about 3-4 months until the end of October or the beginning of November.
The Great Migration from January to December
The gathering of wildebeest begins in the southern plains of Moru, Naabi, Kusini, and Ndutu. These areas have short grasses that are abundant in phosphorus and magnesium, thanks to the volcanic ash of the calcrete layer just beneath the shallow soil of the plains. It is advisable to pack waterproof items as thunderstorms in the region can be intense. Early sightings of calving may be observed as a potential reward.
The month of February marks the peak of calving season, and it is a spectacular sight to witness hundreds of thousands of newborn wildebeest taking their first steps amidst the stationary herds. The Ndutu and Kusini plains offer great vantage points to spot them, with sightings possible all the way to the Ngorongoro Highlands. Although sparse showers still occur, this month is generally considered the driest period of the rainy season.
As the calving season nears its end, the herds tend to remain stationary in the Ndutu-Kusini region, although some animals may venture further south into Maswa or east towards the predator-rich Namiri Plains (make sure to keep your camera handy!). The final wildebeest calves are born during intense regional thunderstorms.
In the Naabi and Kusini areas, this is your final chance to witness the enormous herds of wildebeest, along with their young calves, leisurely grazing on the remaining nutrient-rich grasses such as Digitaria, Sporobolus, Andropogon, and Cynodon, before embarking on their long and often dangerous migration to the north.
From this month onwards, the wildebeest will embark on their northward journey, traversing through the Moru Kopjes and towards the Western Corridor. While thunderstorms still occur, they are more sporadic, but provide essential water for the medium-to-tall Pennisetum and Tussocky Themeda grasses that the herds will now be feeding on. These grasses have lower nutrition content, which could explain the animals’ continuous movement northward. Don’t miss the opportunity to capture some great photos of these dramatic thunderstorms.
The Great Migration is at its peak, as the wildebeest move rapidly up through the Western Corridor and Grumeti Reserve. It is also the peak rutting season, and the beginning of the dry season, though there may still be some sporadic showers in the northern region. The animals’ sustenance now largely relies on the growth stage of the nutrient-rich clay anchored Digitaria, Pennisetum, Eustachys and Themeda grasses amidst the woodlands.
The wildebeest seem to prefer the grass on the other side of the Mara and Sand rivers, as crossing them is an iconic event that often features in nature documentaries. Staying at Sayari gives you an ideal vantage point to witness the action. At this point, the front of the herd will have arrived in the Kogatende region of the northern Serengeti, where they will need to cross the treacherous Mara and Sand rivers, which are home to hungry crocodiles.
Typically, the wildebeest herds cross from south to north in search of more nutritious grazing on the northern side, which benefits from earlier showers. However, crossings in the opposite direction also occur. To witness an impressive display of the wildebeest herds, along with groups of zebras and antelopes, visit the Lamai Wedge and Nyamalumbwa Plains.
By September, the river crossing traffic is bidirectional between Kenya and Tanzania, but by the end of the month, the direction of the migration shifts towards the south. This perilous crossing is one of nature’s most astounding and heartbreaking sights, and tens of thousands of animals will perish during the journey. The southern regions are still experiencing drought, with some sporadic rainfall in the northern areas.
As thunderstorms start to appear in the north, the last of the wildebeest herds cross over from Kenya to Tanzania. At the same time, the majority of the animals are heading back down to the Lobo Valley area and Grumeti Reserve, completing their epic annual migration circle back to their calving grounds in the south.
Continuing their journey, the herds are mostly out of the north and moving through the Lobo area towards the central Serengeti. In this region, rainfall is still sparse, resulting in lower nutrition in the grasslands. A fascinating fact is that wildebeest and zebra can coexist on the same grazing land as they feed on different parts of the same blades of grass.
The central Serengeti is now home to various parts of The Great Migration, stretching from the northern Lobo area to the southern Ndutu plains. After a long journey, the herds are finally caught up by the rains, and there are frequent, heavy thunderstorms and showers throughout the area. With the return of the rainfall, the wildebeest are now feeding on the more nutritious Pennisetum, Sporobolus, Andropogon, Cynodon, and Themeda grasses in preparation for calving in the south and the start of their incredible journey anew.