The great Wildebeest Migration which is considered by some as part of the 7 wonders of the world and also as Wildlife’s World Cup is one of those safaris you definitely shouldn’t miss out on. This is because no other national parks and or reserves in Africa save for the Serengeti National Park of Tanzania and the Maasai Mara of Kenya exhibits this incredible, thrilling and inexpressible wonder. These parks are the only ones that single-handedly showcase this immense movement and migration of the wildebeests. Here more than 2 million animals travel all the way from the Serengeti National Park to the Masai Mara National Reserve in the month of July all through to the month of October.
This great migration cuts through the Mara River in the area of Maasai Mara which is commonly known for its crocodiles that lay in wait to prey on these wildebeests. This moment is one of those that have come to be most sought after by many. Larger animals wait to stalk, hunt and feed on these animals as they crossover to the Maasai Mara. The National Reserve of Maasai Mara is also known for its high density of lions compared to the rest of the world. This is the reason the BBC Wildlife Channel on the Big Cat Diary has found home here. The Great Migration usually begins from about mid June to mid October. The big cats can usually be seen in the months of February to March while the Christmas period is also a spectacular time.
ABOUT THE GREAT MIGRATION
Everything about the migration happens on the Serengeti Eco System which is close to 40,000 sq km and is characterized by the prevalent routes of the Connochaetes Tuarinus Mearnsi (the White Bearded Wildebeest). This area consists of some parts of the Ngorongoro Conservation area in the southern part, the Maswa Game Reserve and its neighboring Serengeti National Park together with other restricted areas in the center to that also in the western and eastern sector while the Maasai Mara National Reserve is in the Northern section.
The main players are the wildebeests whose numbers are seen to have settled below 1.7 million together with other animals like the Thompson’s Gazelles that go to about 400,000 in number while the Zebras are about 300,000. The Elands which are the least in number are about 12,000 only. These animals key in the migratory process however the predators like the hyenas, lions, cheetahs and leopards which are the least in number also play a great role in this migration.
The truth is there isn’t any united body as the migration because in this case the wildebeests can be seen as the migration itself since for them, the search for water and food is an endless journey and it is for them an unrelenting series of life and death in the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. Very little is predicted when it comes to the migration thus when questions are asked on when the best season to visit and watch this migration are asked, there are a number of different answers that are gotten from different sources. Take for example Scott who said ‘You could spend a lifetime in the Serengeti-Mara waiting for the typical migration. The finer details of the herds’ movements are always different. It is a dynamic process which defies predictions: no two years are ever quite the same.’
The most aspect of the environment to its population is probably the weather and the sequence of 4 seasons annually because it undoubtedly defines and influences the migration. The seasons here are defined reasonably thus from the month of December till February and at times through to March is a typical “short dry season” while the long dry season runs from the month of June all through to September. Longer rains pour in a period of 6 weeks from March to April and sometimes till May while the short rains that most takes fall in a 2 week period are experienced in October to November. Nevertheless there aren’t any assurances on the dates and time provided.
Those that desire to begin the migration in a great place and time, then the months of January and February when the young wildebeests are being birthed is just the time for you. It is this time when over 300,000 calves are born in a period of 2 to 3 weeks after the 8 and a half months of the mating season. This beginning (birth) happens on the short, grassy plains that are scattered all over the Olduvai Gorge and extended over the lesser northern slopes of the Crater Highlands of Ngorongoro far south beyond the range of the wildebeests.
The yearly birth period gives the predators a platform to feast. For the tourists that drive across the plains, it is easy to count the over a dozen lions and more than a hundred hyenas spread about. When the wildebeests give birth to a number of calves during this time, it appears as though the predators have the upper hand. However the latter are during this time fully satisfied and unable to take in more than their limit which isn’t the case if this birthing were to happen after a longer time period.
Though watching any kind of birth is amazing, there is nothing that exceeds the beauty and incredibility of specifically watching the wildebeests during their birthing period. A newly born calf acquires skills and co-ordinates faster than any other hoofed mammal. This can be told from the just 2-3 minutes after which it is able to get on to its feet on delivery. These can be able to run only after 5 minutes have elapsed on being born and thereafter sprint away from a lioness after this. A number of these young ones hardly make it through their 1st year because of reasons like predators for the 1 percent of calves, fatigue, malnutrition and disease. Also, many of these young ones get divided from their mothers during panics that often happen when the herds try to cross barriers like lakes and or rivers. After this, the calves spend days whining and snivelling ceaselessly for their mothers and it is only rarely that they succeed in their quest. Since no female wildebeest is willing to adopt just any calf even at the event of losing her own in the lactating period, the lost young wildebeest becomes easily lost to spying predators like jackals, lions and or hyenas.
The Beginning of the Circle
The short, grassy plains of the southernmost part of Serengeti begin drying out throughout the month of March which brings an end of the short dry season. This is when the wildebeests continue on their journey by heading en route for the Western Woodlands. The question on how they know which direction they are taking has come up a couple of times and there are only 2 credible answers that have been able to respond to this. The first being that these wildebeests pursue places with new grass and rain thus responding to the weather patterns and even though there isn’t any scientific evidence of the truth in this, Harvey Croze; an ecologist and behaviourist writes about how they respond to thunderstorms and lightening and also how shocking it is if the wildebeest ever were to overlook these major indications of change in his book, The Great Migration.
The other tells of how the wildebeests have some kind of instinctive, inborn knowledge imprinted in their DNA a very long time ago. This is how they are able to tell which way to go. Over the years, the wildebeests that strayed away from the rest of the herd were lost to starvation and thirst before they could even reproduce thus only those that took that right path were the ones that brought forth new generations of wildebeests.
There are 3 small lakes; Ndutu, Lagarja and Masek in the western plains in the Olduvai region where the herds go to so as to quench their thirst. At this point, the herds spread out all over the plains while still eating and fattening on the short wholesome grass. They disperse in not just tens but hundreds and thousands to the plains at the western side of Ndutu though the reason as to why they scatter athwart the plains is still unknown. The start of the long rains sees these wildebeests sprinting toward the far-off thunderstorms and only often returning after close to 2 days if there was no assurance in the reality they foresaw.
The herds head to the North Western side and go past the stony outcrops of the Moru Koppies and Simba as the rains begin heading toward Lake Victoria into the woodlands of the mountainous country at the western side of Seronera. This is the time when the yearly rut where a portion of the cows were mated during the course of the month when the herds fused up in the plains and woodlands of Serengeti’s Western Corridor. The highlight of this rut appears to be influenced by the position of the moon which is an excellent bet for those that seek the majority action in the months of May and or June.
The apparently brutal fighting between the territorial males happens in the mating season however there is usually less actual violence and grave injury because since the females pick themselves a mate the males have a slight say even when they vigorously contest.
The herds head to the Northern side after they leave the western Serengeti toward the rains thus crossing into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Their journey is interrupted a couple of times by the different rivers like the Grumeti and the Mbalangeti in Serengeti and the Mara in Kenya. These rivers somewhat peaceful for the most part of the year but they at times get violent as they react to the rainy conditions in their different catchment areas.
The few remote lakes and rivers south of the Serengeti are not only frightening to the wildebeests because of their fear of the deep waters but also because of the hungry creatures that bury themselves deep into the waters. Another grave reason for them to be afraid is the thickets and vegetation that grows around the water bodies and conceals other kinds of predators.
Even though it would be easier for these wildebeests to change course, their inherent instinct that lets them stick to a particular direction no matter the risks involved. An example is the southern lakes Lagarja, Ndutu and Masek which are just a little more than a kilometre long can just be crossed over by going around but because of the instincts these wildebeests have, they’d rather go through the water.
Alan Root a filmmaker in his exceptional documentary on the migration, The Year of the Wildebeest tells of how he watches when; at crossing on the Lake Lagarja, a number of calves are separated from their mothers who after crossing with the rest of the herd go back and swim through the waters to find their young ones. They kept doing this for seven days with the hope of being re-united with their young and only gave up when the wildebeest numbers grew thus the movement had to continue. He says more than thousands of wildebeests died that year though this really did some good in preventing the wildebeest population from increasing uncontrollably.
As the wildebeests get to the Mara River, they get together and wait to cross as their numbers keep on growing. At times they wander away from the water borders for no reason but most times they decide on a crossing point –which varies annually- . This doesn’t go well on some occasions because they apparently pick suicidal places that even with fewer predators, can easily drown their hundred wildebeests.
When they get to the grasslands of the Maasai Mara, these wildebeests again go back to their routine of fattening and feeding and benefiting from the dotted distribution of the green pastures and the inaccessible rains. Every aspect of the life of these wildebeests and their behaviour is intended to save time. This goes to the extent of delivering and mating while on the move.
Wildebeests migrate mostly because they desire to fill their stomachs and given their large numbers, it is easier for them to outmarch bigger numbers of predators since these find it hard to move far off distances. This is because these predators are territorial and it is hard for them to take over other territories let alone abandon their own. It is also quite hard for the predators to move farther away from their young ones thus they can’t follow these wildebeests as they move.
The Close of the Circle
As the short rains pour in late October on the short grassy plains of the Serengeti, seasonal waterholes are filled and a flush of growth is brought out. This is the time when the wildebeests start to head back to the south again. They go through Serengeti’s eastern woodlands and with about 90 percent of the females heavy with calf, go through the forested country in tight groups before scattering and spreading out on reaching the open plains.