Month-by-Month Guide to the Great Wildebeest Migration
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Every year the ecosystems of the Serengeti (Tanzania) and the Masai Mara (Kenya) play host to the Great Wildebeest Migration, the planet’s most extraordinary natural spectacle. Up to two million blue wildebeest and zebras travel 800 to 1 000 kilometres in a never-ending clockwise circuit in search of grazing. This epic mass movement is so large it can be seen from space.
Dubbed ‘the greatest show on earth’, the wildlife numbers defy imagination: about 1,7 million wildebeest and 300 000 zebras are the main characters in this natural spectacle, as well as other herbivores including about 500 000 Thomson’s gazelles and 18 000 eland. With resident predators including approximately 4 000 lions, 1 000 leopards, 225 cheetahs, 3 500 spotted hyenas and 300 wild dogs, predator-prey interaction is intense. Every year about 250 000 wildebeest and 30 000 zebras die, also falling victim to hunger, thirst and drowning, or being picked off by the huge Nile crocodiles that infest the rivers that they must cross.
To plan the best Great Migration safari experience, it helps to have a good overview of what you can expect to happen and when. While the exact timing of the migration depends on rainfall, the general pattern of the event follows an ancient route.
The mega herds move in a clockwise direction, from the southern Serengeti, through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the Loliondo Game Controlled Area and up through the Grumeti Reserve before crossing the Mara River into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve north of the Serengeti. As the season changes, the herds wheel south to head back to the short grass Serengeti Plains.
With the first rains arriving (expect spectacular thunderstorms), wildebeest begin to gather in the southern plains of the Serengeti. The mineral-rich short grasses are packed with nutrition, ideal for the by-now heavily pregnant wildebeest cows.
As many as 8 000 wildebeest are born a day in February, and – even though the new-born calves can walk within three to seven minutes – many fall prey to lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and jackals. The herds are largely stationary in the southeast Ndutu area as the new-borns gain strength, feeding on the abundant new grass around Lake Masek and Lake Ndutu and as far as the Ngorongoro Highlands.
Although the calving season is drawing to a close, the massive concentration of wildebeest is still mostly to be found in the Ndutu and Kusini area, some animals extending as far south as Maswa and east towards Namiri Plains. The Serengeti’s mobile camps are a good option to get you right up close to the action.
The herds divide into large groups as they start to leave Ndutu during the first half of April, drifting towards the Moru area in search of the fresher grass of the central Serengeti. Their pace slowed by the young calves, with columns of wildebeest stretching for miles as they amble across the plains in the Kusini and Naabi areas. Rain falls mostly in the evenings, and the plains are slippery.
A constant quest for more nutritious grass and water draws the wildebeest north through the Moru Kopjes towards the Western Corridor, feeding on the taller but less nourishing long grasses. The calves are older and stronger, allowing the herds to pick up their pace. Mating season – called the rut – starts towards the end of May.
The beginning of the dry season sees the rains abating with sporadic rain showers in the north, and the herds moving swiftly up through the Western Corridor. They are spread out, with the front-runners reaching the Mbalageti River while the stragglers may still be found in the southernmost corner of Simiti and Nyamuma Hills. It’s peak rutting season from now into July.
You’ll find the herds in the Grumeti Reserve in the west of the Serengeti moving swiftly north, requiring them to cross the fast-flowing Mara and Sand rivers. These river crossings are an epic – and also tragic – sight as the wildebeest press through in vast numbers, with big cats, hyenas and Nile crocodiles gorging themselves on unlucky animals. The crossings see the highest death toll of the migration, killing many thousands of wildebeest. Nature’s cycle of life is a hard one, as each death means food for crocodiles, birds and predators.
Catch the tail end of the Mara River crossings as the migration moves from the northern Serengeti towards the Masai Mara in Kenya. The Lamai Wedge offers prime river-crossing action and spectacular sightings of mega herds of wildebeest as well as zebras and gazelles.
The weather is hot and dry with just sporadic rain showers in the north. As the animals seek out ever more nutritious grazing, they will cross in both directions between Kenya and Tanzania. The vast open plains of the Masai Mara are teeming with game. Towards the end of the month, however, the migration starts to turn back south.
Thunderstorms begin in the north with the onset of the short rains starting in late October. While most of the herd is on its way down towards western Loliondo and the Lobo area and into the eastern limits of the Serengeti, you can catch the tail end crossing the river from the Masai Mara back into Tanzania.
Heading for the central Serengeti, the great herds organize themselves into smaller family groups and graze their way through the Lobo. Rain is scarce, and the grass is not as nutritious as it could be.
The onset of the short rains sees the herds head into the eastern and southern reaches of the Serengeti, although the herds are now dispersed between Lobo in the north and Ndutu in the south. The short grasses responds to the rainfall by growing lush and nutritious, perfect for the pregnant cows that will start calving in a couple of months, and start the cycle all over again.
Talk to us…
Whether you wish to time your Great Migration safari to coincide with a particular migration event, or need to vacation at a particular time of year, talk to us. Our team at Nziza Hospitality will ensure you are superbly situated for an extraordinary experience.