A million wildebeest moving as one extended carpet of biomass is quite something to behold.
Throw in a quarter of a million zebras, thousands of Thompson’s gazelles, elephants moving through the throng and attending predators dotting the surrounding termite mounds, just waiting for an opportunity to strike, and you truly do have one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.
Yet as the name suggests, this is a migration. The herds migrate. They travel long distances, following the rains and resultant good grazing. After giving birth in the southern Serengeti near the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, they journey on a clockwise loop through up the Serengeti to the Masai Mara in Kenya, before heading back south again and repeating the process.
Although there might be yearly variations in exactly what weeks the herds move in because of what rain has fallen, for the most part the migration is fairly predictable, and knowing where the wildebeest will be and when is obviously quite important if your safari is meant to be timed to see them. Arriving in the Ndutu Plains area in July will only get you a view of a couple of resident wildebeest bulls, while one million of them are fording the Mara River 150km to the north. Timing, it seems, is everything.
Here then, is where to expect the herds at what time of year…
January – March
At the start of each year, the migration will be ending its southward journey, moving along the Serengeti’s eastern edge and into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The grazing here is rich, providing the herds with the best conditions for raising their newborn calves.
Although the migration is essentially one continuous circuit, it seems reasonable to refer to the wildebeests’ birthing season as the start of the journey. Around late January or February, the herds occupy the short-grass plains that spread over the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands and around Olduvai Gorge. Almost half a million calves are born here within a period of two to three weeks, or nearly 8,000 each day.
The abundance of vulnerable calves provides a glut for the predators, so the action is non-stop as lions, cheetahs and hyenas all feast on the bounty.
April – May
After birthing their young, around April the wildebeest herds start to move north-west toward the newer grasses of the central Serengeti, accompanied by thousands of zebras and other antelope. By May, long columns of wildebeest stretch for several kilometres as the animals start to congregate near the Moru Koppies, a scenically stunning area of the park. Mating season begins toward the end of May and wildebeest bulls compete for rights to the females, all the while as the herds continue to drift northwards.
Gradually, the movement gathers momentum and the wildebeest start to mass in the Serengeti’s Western Corridor. A number of seasonal camps operate in this area, which open only at this time of year to take advantage of the great migration’s passing. The herds form in huge numbers along the pools and channels of the Grumeti River, which they have to cross in order to continue on their journey.
The Grumeti is much shallower than the Mara River so does not deliver quite the same spectacle, but the crossings are dramatic nevertheless. This can be a great time to visit the region as it is still deemed to be low-season, so generally offers excellent value for money.
June – July
As June moves into July, the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra continue to head north along the western edge of the park toward an even riskier barrier then the Grumeti: 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 high season in July, but timing all depends on rainfall and when the herds arrive in the area. It can vary by a few weeks either way but in general, late July is prime.
The herds will typically be found in the Northern Serengeti and over the border into Kenya’s Masai Mara.
At this time of year, daily river crossings can be seen at both the Mara and Talek rivers,
August – October
Once the herds have negotiated the river crossings they are generally spread throughout the Masai Mara’s northern region, with plenty of them remaining in the northern Serengeti. Years with heavy rains that result in fast flowing rivers take their toll on wildebeest numbers, but even in years of relatively gently flowing water, the crocs have an impact, as well as the resident lion prides. There is no single crossing: at some spots, there are just a few individuals fording the river, while others see thousands of animals moving without break for hours.
By September to October, the main chaos has ended and the migrating columns have moved eastward.
November – December
After the East African short rains in late October and early November, the wildebeest head south from Kenya and into the eastern edge of the Serengeti past Namiri Plains, an area renowned for incredible cheetah sightings. By December, the herds are spread throughout the eastern and southern reaches of the Serengeti, back down towards the Ngornogoro area (although they don’t actually enter the crater itself).
In the early months of the new year, the grasses in the deep south of the Serengeti are lush after the rains. This attracts the wildebeest as well as countless other plains game. The cycle commences as the calving season starts once more.
That is the great migration in a nutshell. Although witnessing the crossings in the dry season is the spectacle it is renowned for, the truth is any time of year can be spectacular.
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