Set apart as one of the most spectacular wonders of the natural world, The Great Migration is the annual journey taken by millions of wildebeest, zebras and other plains game animals migrating clockwise through the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya’s Maasai Mara in search of good water and green pastures. It is an iconic event that has been celebrated internationally for decades by photographers, wildlife enthusiasts and safari aficionados.
Whether it has already made your travel bucket-list or this is the first time hearing about it, these 12 fascinating facts about The Great Wildebeest Migration will make you wish you were in the Maasai Mara right now.
1. It is more than just the wildebeest herds
The Great Migration sees over 1.5 million wildebeest, 20,000 zebra and a host of other antelope species, such as impala, eland, and Thompson’s gazelles, travelling across the rolling savanna plains and hills of Eastern Africa. The dry season causes the vegetation in the Maasai Mara and Serengeti to thin out, forcing these ungulates to move in search of better grazing lands and water. The journey kicks off around March each year, when the falling rains change the level of phosphorus and nitrogen in the air, which attracts the migrating herds.
2. The baby boom is incredible
In just a few weeks, half a million wildebeest are born each year in the Serengeti between January and March, with February witnessing the highest calving rate of around 8 000 wildebeest born every day. The abundant new grass and fresh water serve as the ideal conditions for the wildebeest to give birth. The herds will hang about in one area during the birthing period and until the calves can stand, thereafter moving northwards in a clockwise direction.
3. Newborn calves must learn to run to survive
While the wildebeest calving season means adorable sightings of wobbly babies for safari-goers, this is the time when the herds are most vulnerable to predators as new calves are easy targets. Fortunately, the wildebeest typically drop their young at midday, which allows the babies time to gain strength before nightfall. Wildebeest calves learn to run within two minutes of being born, while most human babies take between nine and 12 months just to walk.
4. The journey spans hundreds of miles
The animals travel a total of around 800 kilometers or 497 miles during each cycle, making this the largest overland migration in the world. The herds move in a clockwise direction – up from southern Serengeti, through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area into the Loliondo Game Controlled Area and then the Grumeti Reserve. They leave Tanzania briefly to spend time in neighbouring Maasai Mara in the north, before heading back south to start the journey again.
5. The ecosystem needs the migration
This migration is of critical importance to the health of the region’s ecosystem. The cycle of grazing enables grass to grow, be eaten and then replenish when the animals move on to follow the rains. Without the natural balance of migration and consumption, the broader Maasai Mara and Serengeti landscape would not look and function as it should. Furthermore, the wildebeest provide food to the predators and scavengers that rely on the migration for their survival.
6. Several tons of grass is eaten every day
A massive amount of nutrient-rich grass is required to feed the millions of hungry herbivores journeying across hundreds of kilometers of plains. They follow the rains in order to find the juiciest grass that will enable their species to survive and thrive. In fact, between 4 000 and 5 000 tons of grass is consumed per day.
7. Wildebeest and zebra rely on each other
A wonderful symbiotic relationship exists between zebras and wildebeest, which enables the harmonious grazing and survival of both species. Wildebeest are very selective eaters and only feed on the shorter parts of the grass, whereas zebras are bulk grazers and not as picky about grass choice. As the zebras’ graze, they shorten the grass, which in turn makes it palatable for the wildebeest to eat.
8. The herds work smartly together
While the migration may seem like a chaotic frenzy of movement, research shows that a herd of wildebeest possess what is known as ‘swarm intelligence’. This is where collective, coordinated behaviour results from small groups of individuals interacting with each other and their mutual environment. In the case of wildebeest during the Great Migration, this means the drive to systematically explore and overcome an obstacle as one.
9. It is all about instinct, not leadership
Since the wildebeest have no natural leader, the migrating herd often splits up into smaller herds that veer off in slightly different directions, while still circling the main group. This generally happens when there is plentiful food over a wider area as well as during river crossings. So even though all the herds move in the same direction, it is unlikely that they will be congregated in one place at the same time.
10. New life and death are part of nature’s cycle
Over the course of The Great Migration, about 250 000 wildebeest and 30 000 zebras are killed annually due to predators, thirst, hunger and exhaustion. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the Mara River, which is deep, flows fast and, in many places, walled in by steep embankments. Sometimes the herds plunge off the banks and be killed from the fall or crushed by the volume of the panicking wildebeest trying to get to dry land on the other side.
11. The Mara River crocodiles take a year-long fast
Despite being some of the largest Nile crocodiles in Africa, those in the Mara River can wait up to a year for their next meal. Crocodiles can control their metabolism and heart rate in order to put themselves into a state of near hibernation without the need for food. When the herds reach the Mara River, the crocodiles will drown their prey by clutching them in their strong jaws and then pulling and twisting them below the water.
12. Maasai Mara migration sightings balance action and peace
While nothing is guaranteed in the wild, the best time to experience The Great Migration in the Maasai Mara is usually from around August to November. In August and September, the exhilarating Mara River crossings take place, while October and November are more peaceful months as the animals are seen casually grazing on the open plains.
Calvin Cottar is Director and Owner at Cottar’s 1920s Safaris. Cottar’s 1920s Safaris is an award-winning luxury 1920s safari camp and private bush villa located in the famous ‘seventh’ natural wonder of the world, the Maasai Mara in Kenya, and owned and managed by the oldest established and continuing safari family in Africa.