Great Serengeti Migration Unravelled

Herds of Wildebeest and Zebra during Serengeti Migration

Wildebeest Migration, Dunia Camp, Asilia

Each year, around 2 million wildebeest, zebra, and some Grant’s & Thompson’s gazelle, eland, and impala set off on their mammoth journey around the Serengeti in search for better grazing areas and to give birth to their young. During this cycle of life, on an epic 800 km journey, more than half a million young animals are born and some 250,000 animals die of thirst, hunger, and exhaustion, or are killed by the many predators following this feast.

The Serengeti migration is one of the last of its kind, an awe-inspiring spectacle attracting many visitors from around the world. Unfortunately, it can also lead to great disappointment, if people are not properly informed and expecting to see river crossing at the wrong time of year. To get the most out of your Serengeti migration safari, it is important to understand the general recurring pattern of this great migration.

Although the migration movement, as discussed below, is the general annual cycle of life, as with any natural phenomenon this is rarely ever the same. In terms of when and where the herds appear at any given time, this can vary dramatically from year to year. The wildebeest and zebra are chasing the better grazing conditions, that are determined in turn by rainfall. They take full advantage of the seasonality of the rainfall in this part of the world. Essentially they spend the wet season (Dec-May) in the open plains of the south-east and the dry season in the woodlands of the north-west Serengeti and Masai Mara (June-November).

As the birthing period during the wet season is probably the most easy to predict in terms of timing and location, since the herds are at their most sedentary, we will start the migration movement with the months of new life.

The Migration Month-by-Month

Map of the Wildebeest and Zebra Serengeti migration pattern during December, January and February

December: The herds of wildebeest and zebra are moving from the Masai Mara south, more or less along the Loliondo boundary in the east, into the south-eastern Serengeti – the Gol and Ndutu area. This is when the birthing peak of zebra foals starts.

January: The herds have now moved a little deeper into the southeastern Ndutu Plains and zebras are continuing to give birth in these rich and fresh feeding grounds.

February: The wildebeest give birth virtually simultaneously within a period of about 3 weeks. An estimated 300,000-500,000 calves are born within this small time frame, creating a true feast for the predators roaming the plains at the same time. However, the lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas alike, can only consume a limited number of the sheer number of young animals about.

Map of the Wildebeest and Zebra Serengeti migration pattern during March, April and May

March: The herds are roaming around the Ndutu Plains and the northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands & Olduvai Gorge, regaining strength and replenishing reserves for the long journey ahead.

April: The plains of the southeast are starting to dry out and have become depleted by the massive herds of herbivores. The intense rains begin and the great migration is about to start once again. Instinctively the animals know the direction and slowly start moving through the more central Seronera area in the direction of the Western corridor. On their journey, they tend to scatter across the plains, seemingly for no apparent reason and rather randomly, so locations can vary widely from day to day.

May: Heavy rains continue to fall over the Serengeti. For a while the herds move along the Mbalageti River until they arrive at the Grumeti River in the Western Corridor, where they face their first hurdle. Some of the migration will not pass through the Western Corridor, but will head straight north from the Seronera and Moru Kopje area.

Map of the Wildebeest and Zebra Serengeti migration pattern during June, July and August

June: While the heavy rains are slowly coming to an end, the herds of wildebeest and zebra are now congregated on the southern banks of the Grumeti River. Fearing the steep banks, fast flowing waters, and huge resident crocodiles of the Grumeti River, the herds are finding the courage somehow to cross this life threatening obstacle.

July: The vast majority of the herds have crossed the Western corridor and are making their way further north into the Grumeti Controlled Area. Smaller numbers are moving towards the Lobo area.

August: The pilgrimage for fresh grazing ranges and water continues further north. The main part of the herds are now migrating into the Ikorongo Controlled Area and the first animals are reaching the Mara River, ready to move into the Masai Mara (part of the Serengeti ecosystem on the Kenyan side of the border).

Map of the Wildebeest and Zebra Serengeti migration pattern during September, October and November

September: Many of the herds of wildebeest and zebra have arrived at the fresh Masai Mara grasslands. Others are still frantically trying to cross the most feared and serious obstacle during the whole of the migration – the Mara River. Spectacular to witness, but hash and brutal at the same time. In the panic and confusion of crossing the river, many animals break legs or worse and the young are regularly separated from their mothers, while the crocodiles and other predators lie in ambush to take their pick.

October: The migration is now based in the Masai Mara, where water is available throughout the year. October is a very dry month, temperatures are rising, and grazing becomes depleted. Some of the herds are already heading south and others have stayed in the northern Serengeti all along.

November: The short rains have started in the southern Serengeti providing new grass. This triggers the return of the vast herds back to their breeding grounds. The animals migrate through the Klein’s, Lobo and Loliondo areas back to the southeastern Serengeti to give birth to a new generation of wildebeest, zebras and other antelopes. The cycle of life is once again ready start all over.

Please remember, the migration is a natural phenomenon and can not be guaranteed, as it is hardly ever the same from year to year. When planning a Serengeti Migration Safari, expect to see lots of wildlife, including plenty of herds of plain game and an abundance of predators. If you witness the migration in its full flow and maybe even a river crossing, consider that a pure bonus.

Author – Louise de Waal

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