The Great Wildebeest and Zebra Migration

Your guide to the Great Wildebeest Migration …

The endless plains of Kenya and Tanzania are the setting for the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle; the Great Wildebeest Migration. From the vast Serengeti plains to the champagne coloured hills of Kenya’s Masai Mara more than 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra and gazelle, relentlessly tracked by Africa’s great predators, migrate in a clockwise direction over 2,800 kilometres each year in search of rain ripened grass.

There is no real beginning or end to a wildebeest’s journey. A wildebeest’s life is an endless pilgrimage, a constant search for food and water. The only beginning is at the moment of birth. An estimated 400,000 wildebeest calves are born during a six week period early each year – usually between late January and mid-March.

The Migration pattern is never the same each year. It changes every year, and it all depends on the rainfall. Sometimes the Migration will be off by 50 kms from where the animals are expected to be, and sometimes they will be as much as 200 kms away from there original pattern that has now been studied over many years. Some years it is 2 to 3 weeks early, other years 2 to 3 weeks late. No one can fully predict what may be seen where at any given time, and this is part of the magic and the mystery of the awe-inspiring natural wonder that is The Great Migration. 

January
The winter rains in Tanzania’s southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, triggers the growth of lush new grasses that are irresistible to East Africa’s wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle populations. They congregate in the area as a result, alongside elephant and other iconic species, in turn drawing in hungry big cats from far and wide. This is the start of the calving season.

February
February sees a bounty of newborn wildebeest calves come into the world. Tragically vulnerable to being picked off by predators, up to 90% are born in just three weeks, giving them the best chance of survival through sheer weight of numbers. Somewhere in the region of 8,000 wobbly calves appear each day, which are a delight to watch being born and taking their first steps just a few minutes later.

March
As February becomes March, local rain showers trigger the wildebeests’ migratory instincts and the huge herds begin to move, for some calves within just a few days of birth. They cross the southern Serengeti in a clockwise direction, cropping the fresh grasses as they go.

April
Throughout April the migration continues to drift northwards, in expectation of the ‘long rains’ that the building clouds say will break any day and continue on and off until the beginning of June. The huge number of individual animals involved means that its columns stretch from the trimmed vegetation of the southern plains and through the Moru Kopjes towards the Serengeti’s Western Corridor. The coming of the rains does little to affect safari operations, except to limit access to some of the boggiest areas on the plains, with the Seronera area camps keep wildlife lovers close to the action.

May
By the time May comes around the bulk of the Great Migration herds have reached the Western Corridor, which stretches towards Lake Victoria. It equates to an area just 80 km long bordered to either side by hills. As they reach the banks of the Mbalageti and then the Grumeti Rivers they temporarily pause, waiting for a critical mass to form before taking on the steep banks, strong currents, and lurking crocodiles.

June
The river crossings are now in full swing, with long columns of wildebeest fighting for the relative safety of the centre. They swim across as quickly as possible, knowing crocodiles lie within striking distance. The adrenaline of the crossing is heightened further by the testosterone drifting through the herd’s males as they battle for the right to mate with the now-receptive females.

July
The surviving members of the herd now turn back east, and then north, to tackle what is perhaps the most famous singular event in the Great Migration, the crossing of the Mara River. Flowing from Lake Victoria, the river cuts across Tanzania’s northwesternmost corner before crossing the unfenced border into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve. Now flooded from the rains, viewing this quintessential safari spectacle is similar on either side of the border.

August
The frenetic crossings of the Mara River continue into August, and while this is undoubtedly one of the best times to visit Kenya for the Great Migration it is also one of the busiest, with nearby lodges fully booked throughout the month.

September
After all the activity of August’s river crossing, September can seem like something of a lull in proceedings. Some of the immediate tension that built with predators lurking in the river and on its banks now wanes. While still aware of the daily threat they face, the wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle now seem content to feast on the fresh young shoots that brought them here in the first place. As a result, the Mara’s plains are studded with endless slowly shifting bodies and the sound of happy ungulates. However, lions, leopard, and cheetah are never far behind.

October
The allure of fresh grass, which the great herds pick up from vast distances with their impressive sense of smell, draws them back across the Kenya-Tanzania border from the Maasai Mara into the Serengeti. As the dry season progresses, the rivers lose much of their volume and a lot of their fearsome reputation. These natural bottlenecks still provide perfect viewing opportunities, with the added allure of new born zebra foals joining the journey.

November
The slow trek back south continues. The animals have a tough task to balance – they need to return to the southern Serengeti for the explosion of new grasses that come with the season’s ‘short rains.’ But get there too early, and they’ll struggle to find enough nourishment for themselves and their calves, which are still less than a year old. It makes November one of the best times to visit Tanzania for the migration.

December
By December most of the two million animals that make up the Great Migration have made it back to the far south, with the eastern Serengeti and central Seronera region more than suitable bases to enjoy the show. The animals fatten themselves up as much as possible, knowing the magical movement of millions is set to begin again very shortly.

5 Interesting facts about wildebeest

  • Wildebeest are commonly referred to as Gnus.
  • Both males and females have horns. Males have larger and thicker horns.
  • Wildebeest calves are able to walk as soon as they are born. They can run with the herd when they are only a few days old.
  • Wildebeest can live up to 20 years in the wild
  • There are two species of wildebeest. Blue wildebeest are found in Southern Africa and East Africa. Black wildebeest are only found in South Africa

Frequently asked questions about the Great Migration

What is the Great Wildebeest Migration?

The Great Wildebeest Migration is the world’s largest animal migration. Every year, over 2 million animals (wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle) migrate clockwise across the Serengeti (Tanzania) and Masai Mara ecosystems (Kenya). In their daily struggle for survival, they must cross crocodile-infested rivers, avoid predators, and deal with natural disasters such as droughts and flooding.

Depending on the time of year African Safaris Ltd books a variety of camps along the migration route to give you a front-row seat to all of the migration action. Serengeti Northern Camp, for example, is close to many Mara River crossing points in the Northern Serengeti. There are a number of mobile camps in the Serengeti that move to two or three different locations each year to be close to the action of the migration, while other camps are in a fixed location and provide additional amenities such as swimming pools.

What is the best time to see the Great Wildebeest Migration?

The Great Migration can be seen all year. The first few months of the year provide exceptional predator encounters in Tanzania’s Serengeti because this is the calving season for wildebeest, and newborns are easier targets. By July, the herds have moved north into the Serengeti’s central Serengeti, where the wildebeest make their first river crossing and risk their lives against crocodiles. In August, the herds cross into Kenya’s Masai Mara, and near the end of the year, the herds return to the Serengeti, where the animals prepare for the next calving season and predator attacks.

Will I see a river crossing?

Many visitors expect to see river crossings with tens of thousands of wildebeest (and the occasional crocodile) battling it out in the ultimate National Geographic scene. In reality, wildlife videographers and photographers will camp out for weeks to witness just one of these river crossings. As a result, the likelihood of you seeing a river crossing is quite is low (though not ruled out!) unless you plan to spend more than 3 nights in the Mara or the Northern Serengeti.

Which is better for seeing the migration – the Serengeti or the Masai Mara?

The Serengeti is known for their open plains, as well as the epic experience of seeing the wildlife of Ngorongoro Crater. It is a special experience if you visit between January and mid-March and are lucky enough to catch the calving season (wildebeest young are almost all born during a three-week period – an estimated 400,000 each year!).

The Masai Mara in Kenya, on the other hand, is much smaller in size compared to the Serengeti at 15,000 square kilometres. The Masai Mara is only 1,500 square kilometres, and so once the migration enters the Masai Mara, the concentration of wildlife increases dramatically. One thing is certain: the Masai Mara truly provides the quintessential safari setting that many of us have spent years fantasising about!

If you’re going to East Africa, we suggest you visit both wildlife areas. This will of course depend on your time and budget.

Can the river crossings be predicted?

No one, not even the wildebeest, knows when they’ll cross! Some arrive at the water and swim over immediately; others arrive and spend days grazing, and still others arrive and return to where they came from. Nobody can predict the crossings, and we wish we could. This is why, if you want to see a river crossing, you should spend as much time as possible on safari.

Why do wildebeest migrate?

It is widely assumed that the Great Migration in Africa is primarily determined by the response of the wildebeest to weather. They move in response to rain and the growth of new grass, essentially following a natural instinct to find food in order to survive. Some experts believe that distant lightning and thunderstorms trigger the wildebeest, but there is no scientific evidence to support this theory.