Each year, over a million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelles, migrate en masse across the open plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. This year-round phenomenon makes for a magnificent sight, perhaps the greatest wildlife show on earth.
The annual migration is in aid of the everlasting search for fresh grazing, and is entirely dependent upon the variable rainfall patterns which occur each year. In late January / February every year, synchronized birthing sees hundreds of thousands of calves being born within a few weeks of each other on the southern short grass plains, an area largely void of surface water. These calves are a miracle to watch, being able to walk within the first few minutes of their lives, and run with the herd within the hour – they need to as there are predators waiting at every turn.
In general towards the end of March, as the nutritious grass has been consumed, the wildebeest instinctively start heading in a northerly direction towards the central and western corridor where they spend the period of the long rains. The zebra often lead the way, as they prefer the longer grass whilst the wildebeest and gazelles prefer the shorter grasses. Many of the major predators, such as leopard, lion and hyaena are territorial and therefore do not pursue the migration, but when the migration is ‘local,’ it can be a plentiful time of year for them and they await the annual arrival with eager anticipation.
As the dry season commences, they head north to the permanent waters of the Mara River. Just why the migration cannot walk around the eastern flank of the river is unknown but as they reach the banks, dramatic scenes unfurl and a spectacular show begins. Steep banks, waters filled with large crocodiles, and predators waiting in the thick vegetation complicate matters further. The wildebeest arrive at the crossing points in their thousands, and an air of anticipation steadily grows. The promise of fresh grazing on the other side of the bank is too tempting for the herd, and despite the dangers, they charge across the river.
It is one of the highlights of the migration, as they try and reach the other side alive. A large crossing of thousands of animals can be an epic experience and go on for an hour or more. The sounds of running hooves, the mayhem of the splashing as they plunge into the waters, and the incessant ‘lowing’ and bleating of the wildebeest can be deafening. If you are ever lucky enough to witness a crossing, the sheer drama of the migration will blow you away.
And then, as the scent of the November rains begin to fill the air, the drama of the Mara River is over and the migration begins to move back south, back to the short grass plains where pending parenthood awaits.