I saw the Great Migration in progress on the central Serengeti plains a few weeks ago. It really was an awesome sight. The wildebeest in this case were dwarfed in number by the zebra, whose herds are apparently increasing every year. I counted at least a million or so. Seriously, it was a sea of braying, neighing stripes as far as the eye could see. I have no idea how many, but I have never seen a crowd like that before.
A lioness came right by our 4X4, on the hunt (see my short video). The sea of zebra parted in panic, but she gave up (too much Serengeti vehicle traffic) and they went back to standing around resting their heavy heads on each others' backs. The wildebeest grazed on happily between the mass of stripey bodies.
Sarumbo, our driver and guide, knew everything about anything we spotted, heard, smelled and touched. So after bouncing around for a few hours on a game drive the following day, he stopped the Land cruiser in the midst of zebra and wildebeest galloping across the road in front of us, and asked us "do you know why wildebeest and zebra migrate together?" We popped our heads back into the safari jeep, grabbed a bottle of water and settled in for our umpteenth fascinating wildlife lesson for the day. Here's what Sarumbo told us:
Why Zebra and Wildebeest Migrate Together
- Wildebeest are short grass grazers, their mouths are shaped so they can grip the juicy shoots. Zebra have long front teeth and can sheer off the long grass. When entering a new area, zebra basically mow the lawn for the wildebeest to enjoy, and then follow up nipping at the bits left behind.
Zebra have good memories and can remember the direction of the migration, best places to cross the rivers etc. Wildebeest tend to just jump in and hope for the best, which is why they are often an easy target for the hungry crocodiles. Zebra will watch an individual cross safely before they all charge in. So it's beneficial for wildebeest to be on the march with zebra since they are more careful travelers.
Wildebeest happen to be able to "smell" water. Wildebeest need to drink at least every other day so they have an overdeveloped sense of smell for it. Given how dry the Serengeti looked just after the rainy season already, it's obviously a very beneficial thing to have friends who know how to sniff out a drink.
Zebra have better eyesight and hearing so they are quicker to sound the alarm when a lion or hyena comes prowling around. In some cases it is also thought that lion prefer wildebeest meat (they could just be easier to hunt), so it may help zebra to mingle with a tastier prey.