Mother Nature's Premier Show
While in the Serengeti National Park you can see about 70 different types of mammals and up to 500 different species of birds, it’s the wildebeest migration that is truly something to behold. This spectacular phenomenon takes place in a unique scenic setting of spectacularly flat short grasslands dotted with rocky outcrops (kopjes) interspersed with rivers and woodlands. The Serengeti plains harbor the largest remaining unaltered animal migration in the world where over one million wildebeest plus hundreds of thousands of other ungulates engage in a 1,000 km long annual circular trek spanning the two adjacent countries of Kenya and Tanzania migration in search of pasture and water. It is the biggest migration of terrestrial animals on the planet and is considered as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
Known as The Great Migration, it is the stellar highlight of the Serengeti’s wildlife: an annual circular movement of millions of wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle northwards into the neighboring Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and back into the plains of Serengeti. This mass movement of animals is accompanied by predators picking off their kills, while the dangerous crossings of the mighty Mara River make for dramatic scenes of struggle and survival as animals battle strong currents and attacks by huge Nile crocodiles.
The migration happens in phases with the first phase starting at the beginning of the year. It is along the “western corridor” to Lake Victoria that many of the park’s animals migrate. Within the area are nearly 1,300,000 wildebeests, 60,000 zebras, 150,000 gazelles, followed by their predators. At around the same time each year, the mass wildebeest migration starts in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which is found in the southern Serengeti, and they move in a clockwise direction. They move through the Serengeti National Park, moving as a group towards the Masai Mara in Kenya and back to the Serengeti again.
The reason why the wildebeest migrate depends on the availability of grass for grazing. For this reason, the migration starts during the rainy season. Along with being the rainy season, it is also the season in which calves are born within the herd. During the rainy season, from November to May, the herds graze in the southeastern plains within the park. When the time is right, around 260 000 zebras precede the massive 1.7 million wildebeest in the migration. It’s not only zebra and wildebeest that will migrate during this time of the year, as roughly 470 000 antelope will follow the wildebeest procession.
Around 500 000 calves will be born in the weeks before the annual migration and by February the animals can often be seen grazing. The rains generally end by May and the animals begin to move towards the areas around the Grumeti River. They will stay here until about June before they cross the Grumeti and Mara rivers in July. It is the river crossings that offer the most spectacular and often brutal period of the migration when the weakest and the oldest of the herds fall prey to waiting crocodiles in the Mara River.
In late May or June, one major group moves west into the park’s woodland savanna and then towards the north to the grasslands just beyond the Kenya-Tanzania border, into Masai Mara National Reserve. By the start of August, the animals start arriving in Masai Mara where they will stay until the rains come again. Rains can arrive in early November and the animals migrate back to the grassy southeastern planes of the Serengeti from which they initially migrated from and the calving starts again. In total, the animals will walk for 800 kilometers and generally around 250 000 animals will die from thirst, exhaustion, or hunger. Many animals will also be killed by predators during the journey.
Experiencing the Great Migration is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime event that most safari travelers have at the top of their bucket list. More guests head off on a Serengeti tour during the peak of the annual Great Migration than any other time of the year. The Serengeti is famous for this natural event.