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The Great Annual Wildlife Migration

The Great Migration of Wildebeest and Zebra

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Migration of wildebeest at river, Kenya

Crossing the Mara River

Getty Images/ Tom Brakefield
The great annual migration of millions of zebra, wildebeest (gnu) and other antelope in East Africa tops almost every list of safari experiences. When you plan your trip, you'll need information about the annual migration, the best times to witness this wildlife spectacle, where to stay, and when to see it in Kenya and Tanzania.

The Migration

Each year around 1.5 million wildebeest and 300,000 zebra (along with other antelope) gather up their young and start their long trek from Tanzania's Serengeti Plains, further north to Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. They go in search of food and water. Their journey runs in a clockwise circle and the animals cover a distance of around 1800 miles. It's a tough journey, and every year an estimated 250,000 wildebeest don't make it.

One of the most spectacular sights of the migration is when the herds gather to cross the Grumeti River (Tanzania) and the Mara River (Kenya) from July through September. As the herds cross, crocodiles are lying in wait for any weak and feeble ungulates that can't cope with the strong currents or lose their mothers.

But the river crossings aren't the only spectacle. Just witnessing hundreds of animals on the plains is a sight in itself. Particularly because they attract many of Africa's impressive predators. Lions, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs follow the herds and give safari goers excellent chances of seeing a kill in action.

Being a natural event, the migration changes year to year in both timing and location. Use the information below as a general guideline.

The Migration in Tanzania

In December through March the Serengeti plains and the Ngorongoro Conservation areas in northern Tanzania are home to giant herds of wildebeest, zebra and other ungulates. This is calving season. Most of the wildebeest calves are born in just a three week period, usually the beginning of February. Calves attract predators and this is an amazing time of year to watch impressive lion kills. It's also quite spectacular to see almost half a million little wildebeest being born and running alongside their mothers.

The southern Ndutu and Salei plains are the best areas to see the large herds during this time of year. The best places to stay include Ndutu Safari Lodge, Kusini Camp, Lemala Ndutu Camp and any mobile tented camps in the area.

By April/May the herds begin to migrate west and north to the grassier plains and woodland of the Serengeti’s western Corridor. The rain during this time of year makes it difficult to follow the herds during this stage of their migration. Many of Tanzania's smaller camps in fact shut down due to impassable roads.

By the end of May, as the rains stop, the wildebeest and zebra gradually start moving north and individual groups begin to congregate and form much larger herds. This is also the time the wildebeest mate. Western Serengeti is the best place to watch the migration unfold.

By July the herds reach their first big obstacle, the Grumeti River. The Grumeti river can get deep in places, especially if the rains have been good. This is the first of the spectacular river crossings you can witness. The depth of the river makes drowning a distinct possibility for many wildebeest and there are plenty of crocodiles to take advantage of their distress.

Camps along the river during this time make for an incredible safari experience. The best places to stay are The Serengeti Serena which is a central, easily accessible lodge for viewing the migration at this time. Grumeti River Camp, Migration Camp and Kirawira Camp are also options. Seronera and Moru area campsites are the best for those on a budget. Kleins Camp is also ideally situated.

More information about Tanzania's Serengeti and more about travel to Tanzania including getting there.

The Migration in Kenya

By late July, the grasses of the western Serengeti are turning yellow and the herds continue north. After crossing the Grumeti River in Tanzania the wildebeest and zebra head to Kenya's Lamai Wedge and the Mara Triangle. Before they get to the lush plains of the Mara, they have to make another river crossing. This time it's the Mara River and that too is filled with hungry crocodiles.

The best places to stay to watch the migrating wildebeest tackle the Mara River include CC Africa's Kichwa Tembo and Bataleur Camps, the Mara Serena Safari Lodge, and Sayari Mara Camp.

September through November, the Mara plains are filled to the brim with large herds of ungulates, naturally followed by predators.

Best places to stay while the migration is in the Mara include the Governors camps and Mara Serena Safari Lodge. In Tanzania, the Kirawira camp, and Grumeti River Camp.

There are plenty more places to stay inside the Masai Mara Reserve and just outside the Reserve (equally good for wildlife spotting).

By November/December the rains start in the south again and the herds begin their long trek back down to the Serengeti plains in Tanzania to have their young.

During the short rains of November the wildebeest migration is best viewed from Klein’s Camp. Campsites in the Lobo area are also good.

Interesting Facts

  • Wildebeest are also called Gnu because of the grunts they make which sound like "gnu" "gnu".

  • Wildebeest young are almost all born during a three week period (an estimated 400,000 each year). This overwhelming supply of potential food for predators means more of them survive.

  • Wildebeest are born to run. They can run alongside their mothers just minutes after they are born.

  • Zebra and wildebeest graze in harmony because each animal prefers a different part of the same grass.

  • No two zebra look exactly the same.

  • It is estimated that around 250,000 wildebeest die while on the migration circuit.

  • The migration is a natural phenomenon that only started in the 1960's.

Recommended Safaris to see the Migration

If you have questions about planning your safari, you can see all my safari articles here, and you can also always e-mail me.

Sources

  1. About.com
  2. Travel
  3. Africa Travel
  4. African Safari Information
  5. The Great Migration of Wildebeest and Zebra in East Africa - East Africa's Wildebeest Migration

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