Our East Africa specialist offers his guide to one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife events
Circle of life: our guide to the wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania
he lead animal was twitching and snorting, his hooves kicking up the dust. He seemed uncertain. Crouching forward ready to jump and then easing up again and backing away. For a half hour this went on. Poised and ready, nervous and dithering. You could almost feel the indecision in the air. Should I jump? Is it safe? And then, perhaps encouraged by those waiting behind him or perhaps pushed, he jumped. The impact of his splayed legs hitting the water seemed to flick a switch, and suddenly they all came. At first, they jumped by the dozen, but within seconds, it seemed hundreds were pouring down the river bank, and the air was thick with dust and the bleating of terror. The churning waters swept many downstream to their doom and then, as the waters turned thick with blood, the crocodiles seemed to rise from nowhere and strike.
Kenya and Tanzania’s famous wildebeest migration, which has been fodder for wildlife documentaries for decades, has been called one of the wonders of the natural world. The footage of wildebeest massing on the banks of the Mara River, each plucking up the courage to take a leap of faith into the swirling river waters, has almost become the very image of wild Africa.
But this river crossing, which occurs only at very specific times in June-July and September-October on the Kenya-Tanzania border, has become so symbolic of the migration, that most people don’t realise migration is a year-round circular movement that encompasses the entire Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Each year, in February, another event takes place, right in the far southeast of the Serengeti, that’s every bit as heart-in-the-mouth spectacular as the river crossing. And, what’s more, it’s a lot easier to witness (you have to be very patient and have a good dose of luck to see a large river crossing).
Before I reveal more, let’s take a quick geography and ecology lesson. People often talk of Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara as if they were different, unconnected places, but they are in fact a single massive ecosystem divided from one another only by an arbitrary line drawn on a map. Not needing annoying bits of paper like visas and passports, wildebeest are free to cross between the Serengeti and Mara at will, but the question is: Why do they bother to keep up such a nomadic lifestyle? The answer is water. Rainfall is highly seasonal throughout the greater Serengeti-Mara region, and when some areas are parched dry and have little in the way of nutritious fresh grass, other areas can be wet, green and fertile. Wildebeest, like most animals, prefer to eat food that’s fresh from the market, so to speak, and find themselves engaged in an eternal, year-round circular movement keeping up with the rains and searching for fresh grass.
The wildebeest migration is one of the last great mammalian migrations on the planet. Although it’s hard to put an accurate figure on the total number of animals involved in the migration, a commonly banded figure is 1.4 million wildebeest, as well as half a million Thomson’s gazelles and about 200,000 zebras.
Aside from the sheer number of animals involved in the Serengeti migration, what makes this one stand out above all other migrations of large mammals, is the ease with which it can be seen. The wildebeest roam about wide open plains offering excellent visibility, the climate is pleasant, the host nations are safe and welcoming, there are superb camps to stay in and some of the world’s best wildlife guides will reveal the migration in all its glory to you.
But what of the migration’s second great spectacle? Well, right now, as you sit there reading this, hundreds of thousands of soon-to-be mummy wildebeest are in the remote and little visited eastern parts of the Serengeti, and they’re all heading south. This time, though, it’s not just rain and the promise of fresh grass that’s drawing them onward. They’re heading to the short grass plains of the birthing grounds in the far southeastern corner of the Serengeti. It’s here, over the space of two or three weeks in February and early March (this is nature so dates aren’t locked in stone), that the wildebeest give birth. If you can’t be witness to the river crossings then this is the next best thing. No, correction, this is in fact an even better spectacle. For the wildebeest, the reason they want to give birth here and nowhere else is because the calcium- and magnesium-rich grass of this area aids milk production, and also because the short grass makes it much harder for predators to hide. These ideal conditions mean that some 80 per cent of the expectant mums give birth here in the same two- to three-week period. That’s around 400,000 wildebeest calves born within days of each other. Or, to put it another way, 8,000 wildebeest are born each and every day in one small area. Perhaps it’s no surprise to hear that this part of the Serengeti has one of the highest densities of large predators in the world. However, the wildebeest aren’t dumb. Not only do they try and saturate the meat market by all giving birth at once, but they also know that around 8.30am to 9am, it starts getting very hot in the southern Serengeti. Too hot for lions and their cronies to easily run and hunt. So, it’s at this moment of the morning that a huge majority of the wildebeest babies are born, thus giving the youngsters maximum time to find their feet and build some strength before the hungry hunters re-emerge from the shadows later in the evening.
Even so, all those wobbly-on-the-feet newborn wildebeest do provide easy pickings for the large numbers of big cats and hyenas that live in this area. And for a wildlife-watching safari tourist lucky enough to be in the southeast of the Serengeti at this time, this is what makes the birthing plains the site of a wonder of the natural world. As the sun rises and burns the grasslands orange, you will see life and death played out in gory detail right before your eyes.
Here, on the savannahs where man himself took his first steps, you have a better chance of witnessing the wonder of new birth than anywhere else in East Africa. And here, where man first learnt to hunt and kill, you have a better chance of watching lions, leopards and hyena finding their prey. This, then, is why the greatest wildlife show on Earth is not the wildebeest river crossings, but the whole drama of the wildebeest nurseries.
Where to stay
A number of safari companies have mobile camps that move between the northern and southern Serengeti with the wildebeest. These are generally the best places to stay as they tend to be very small and intimate (around 6 to 8 tents is normal), and offer exceptional accommodation and food in a suitably authentic bush-camp atmosphere, as well as superb safari vehicles and great wildlife guides. The following prices are per person per night full board, including conservation fees, taxes and safari activities.
Rates at Asilia Africa, about the best of them all, are from $758 (Dh2,783). The Bush Rover which has Landrovers with luxury tents complete with bathrooms mounted on the back of them, costs from $615 (Dh2,258) per night including taxes. If you want to see the river crossings into Kenya’s Masai Mara, excellent bases in Kenya are Cottar’s 1920’s Safari Camp (from $615 [Dh2,258]), Saruni Mara ($576 [Dh2,115]) and Mara Plains (from $576 [Dh2,115]).