The two words ‘Great Migration’ give rise to a common thought. Millions of wildebeest alongside hundreds of thousands of zebra amongst a few other species crossing the formidable water of the Mara river.
This thought is not wrong but there is so much more to it. The continual milling chaos of the year round great migration is rightfully known as the greatest wildlife spectacle on earth. Showcasing scenes of millions of wildebeest and zebra moving across the open plains of the Masai Mara and the Serengeti and of course crossing the mighty Mara River are synonymous with the wildebeest migration.
This mass, cross country movement does not just happen. There is a reason for it all and so let’s start the explanation there.
What Drives The Great Migration?
The simple answer is rainfall. With rainfall come new grass growth.
These animals follow in the wake of the rains that fall across the Serengeti ecosystem (which spills over from Tanzania into Kenya and includes the Masai Mara) and nourishes the land. As a result of these rains, the seemingly endless plains are transformed into a sea of green as short grasses sprout up.
These shorter grasses contain higher levels of protein, sodium, calcium and phosphorus, and provide the wildebeest herds with some of the best quality graze on the African continent.
Phosphorus is a crucial element for all life forms, but is particularly important for lactating female wildebeest. As a result during the rainy season, wildebeest select grazing areas that contain particularly high phosphorus levels.
To sum it up, the herds essentially follow the rains as they fall across the ecosystem in search of the best quality grazing.
Where Does The Great Migration Take Place?
The southernmost extent of the Serengeti Ecosystem is generally considered to be the Ndutu plains and the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands. From here, the system stretches north, across the Tanzanian border into Kenya where it reaches its northernmost extremity of the Masai Mara National Reserve, spilling over into the surrounding conservation areas.
Many people do know that the Great Migration is actually a year round, continual movement and takes place in a clockwise circle through Tanzania's Serengeti and Kenya's Masai Mara. If you look at it from a very simplistic point of view, the Great Migration is made up of massive herds of wildebeest, zebra and other ungulates walking in a very big circle. Make no mistake, the incredible scale of it is most definitely something to behold and bucket list worthy. But again, looking at it from a very basic point of view, on their own these animals are pretty calm and just keep on grazing and walking and grazing and walking.
The Great Migration Movement Broken Down
It is quite convenient that the calving season coincides with the first couple of months of the year so that is where we will begin our breakdown of the monthly movements of the wildebeest. It is important to note that the great migration is a natural phenomenon and these monthly breakdowns are based on historical trends.
January, February and March
During the early months, the migration will be finishing its southward trek with most of the adult females heavily pregnant. The herds move along the eastern edge of the Serengeti and into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Here they will be welcomed by green, nutrient rich plains, providing them with the best conditions for raising their new born calves.
Other than birth and death, there is no real beginning or end to this migratory circuit. Due to this it seems reasonable to call the wildebeests’ birthing season the start of the migration. The herds occupy the short-grass plains that spread over the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands and around Olduvai Gorge during late January into February. Some 400,000 calves are born here within a period of two to three weeks, or on average, 8,000 new calves every day.
The abundance of vulnerable young calves means the surrounding predators also spring into action, hunting with ease due to the sheer numbers of wildebeest. If exciting wildlife interaction like this interests you, feel free to look into our Best Of Serengeti safari.
April and May
A few months later, with the new additions to the herds strong and fit enough, the movement begins. Triggered by the rains that are moving, the herds begin to drift northwest. This movement will lead them toward what by then will be the fresher grass of the central Serengeti, drawing with them thousands of zebra and smaller groups of antelope. Columns of wildebeest stretch for several kilometers as the animals start to congregate by the Moru Kopjes in May. Mating season begins toward the end of May and male wildebeest battle head-to-head. Throughout 'the rut, the journey continues at leisure with the wildebeest, zebra and gazelle grazing as they go along.
Gradually, the movement gathers momentum and the wildebeest start to mass in the Serengeti’s Western Corridor. At this ime of year, visitors will have the chance to watch the wildebeest cross the Grumeti River. The herds form in huge numbers along the pools and channels of the river, which they have to cross in order to continue on their journey. These crossings are not nearly as spectacular as the crossings witnessed along the Mara River as the Grumeti is not a continuous stretch of water at this time of year but there are still enough wildebeest to provide the Grumeti crocs with a veritable feast.
June and July
Our camp in the Masai Mara, “Enkishui” comes to life from mid-June and remains up and running into November. Prior to the herds moving into and then shortly after moving out (late October-November) of the Masai Mara we offer a Masai Mara Experience safari.
June is the start of the dry season with large concentrations of wildebeest in the Western Serengeti and on the southern banks of the Grumeti River. Each migrating animal must face the challenge of crossing the crocodile-infested river the first of many daunting and tense river encounters.
By the end of June moving into July, the herds continue to head north along the western edge of the park toward an even riskier barrier, the Mara River in the north of the Serengeti. These river crossings are arguably one of the most exciting wildlife events on Earth. They usually begin at the onset of the high season in July and when we offer our Great Migration safaris into early October. Please also do bear in mind that these herd movements/timing all depends on nature.
The herds will typically be found in the Northern Serengeti early in July and continuously move north. Depending on the rains these herds will either continue north and attempt to cross the Mara River. From here they continue to move north before being funneled into the Mara Triangle by the Oloololo Escarpment.
The other route these herds may follow is to cut North East and cross the shallow sand river that borders Kenya and Tanzania. As they continue to march further into the Masai Mara National Reserve, they will come across a large hill we refer to as ‘Lookout’. This hill forces the herds down towards its foothill along the Mara river.
The Wild Eye Camp is situated just north of this hill on the opposite bank of the Mara river providing our guests with major build-ups and/or crossing action in our back yard.
Our prime location on the banks of the Mara River in the southernmost reaches of the Mara Triangle Conservancy makes it possible for us to explore the banks of the Mara River at first light. This puts us in the perfect position to photograph the massive herds of wildebeest as they build up and ultimately start crossing the Mara River and usually have these sighting to ourselves for the first and last few hours of each day. The Mara Triangle Conservancy is separate to the Masai Mara National Reserve and rules and regulations around the number of vehicles in a sighting as well as others that are strictly enforced, making for a far more enjoyable guest experience.
August, September and October
Come end of August, most of the herds would have faced the challenge of crossing the Mara River and are spread throughout the Masai Mara. Please know that these crossings also don’t only happen once. These animals will cross the river from Mara Main to the triangle and back multiple times a season at the various crossing points along the Mara river. It is literally a continual back and forth and with the absolute panic and confusion at the crossings combined with waiting predators in and outside the water as well as the surging currents comes massive loss of life. The reason for the importance of this loss of life will be explain a bit later in this blog.
By late September to October, the chaos continues but is drawing to an end with the majority of the migrating columns having gradually moved eastward. However, the wildebeest will still face the heavy waters of the Mara River yet again as they prepare to cross the water for their return journey southward.
November and December
After the East African short rains in late October and early November, the herds move down from Kenya and into the eastern limits of the Serengeti and by December, they are spread throughout the eastern and southern reaches.
In the early months of the new year, the grasses in the deep south of the Serengeti are lush with rain. This draws the herds of wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and other plains animals. The cycle continues as the calving season starts once again.
The Importance Of The Great Migration
The simplest definition of an ecosystem is that it is a community or group of organisms that live in and interact with each other in a specific environment.
Every single ecosystem you come across on this planet along with everything within it, rely on each other for survival. Everything is in a fine balance. Remove one aspect and it’ll all fall apart.
One might wonder, what are the mass herds of wildebeest/zebra’s roles in the environment they find them self in.
A few points in a long list will be, a food source, a host to larvae of the bot fly, controlling the environmental conditions the find them self in.
The latter probably being the most important for the Serengeti ecosystem. It is just incredible to see how these huge herds literally mow down the tall, lush grass when moving through the plains. At first, this seems destructive but if you look deeper, you’ll understand why this is so important for the environment.
When these animals move and eat thousands of kilograms of grass every day, they rid the moribund material building in various areas. When grasses become moribund, it means that they have grown to their maximum but all the above ground material dies off and suffocate any new shoots at ground level. The grasses basically “grow themselves to death”. Now when these herds move through an area, they eat parts of this ‘moribund’ as well as the more open/clear areas preparing the ground for new growth. Not only do they do this but most palatable grass species can only thrive when over grazed which these herds do really well.
Another way these animals benefit the environment they find themselves in is being alive, continuously moving, fertilization and ploughing machines. Yes they beat a lot, but with that comes tons of fertilizer that gets tramped back into the soil as the millions of hooves march through the plains.
Lastly, getting back to the importance of the major loss of life. Unfortunately some need to die in order for others to survive. So not only are these deaths a food source to the many predators in the area but they also make way for the new life to come in the ‘start’ of the Great Migration.
For many people around the world the Great Migration epitomizes the ultimate African safari experience and is still one of the quintessential bucket list items that any wildlife and nature enthusiast should tick off of their list at least once.
The thrill and excitement of watching one of nature’s most incredible wildlife spectacles unfold before your eyes is something that you will cherish for years to come. The prime location of the Wild Eye Mara Camp on the banks of the Mara River, combined with friendly staff, expert guides and dedicated photographic facilitators ensures that this once in a lifetime safari exceeds your every expectation.
We hope this blog has served its purpose and that you have a better understanding of how this one circle of life works.
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