The key to experiencing one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife migrations is to think of it as a never-ending show happening across East Africa’s most impressive parks and reserves. Below is a Guide to Africa’s Great Wildebeest Migration.
What is the Great Migration?
Throughout the year, East Africa’s wide-open grasslands are the setting for the Great Migration as millions of wildebeests, Burchell’s zebras, antelopes and other herd animals make the trek from the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya. While significant numbers into the multi-thousands (mega-herds) do clump together, more often there are smaller herds spread throughout a region or multiple regions. All of these herds make the trek with two things in mind: fresh grazing lands and water.
Though it is sometimes referred to as annual event, the Great Migration is actually a fluid and continuous, year-long journey of animals migrating through Tanzania and Kenya. In total, this circuit spans some 1,200 miles. Yes, dramatic river crossings are part of the migration, but they are only a small part of a far more complex chain of events that play out from season to season across two different countries. These events include mating rituals, calving and the shifting fortunes of the herd, all of which are influenced by the subtle changes in rainfall that occur year over year.
Where and when is the best time to see the Great Migration?
The answer to the most common question about this epic movement of animals chasing water and food across two countries with two different ecosystems is anything but simple. Rain patterns have the ultimate say in the herds’ plans and movements, but generally speaking, the Great Migration typically follow a similar path year over year that begins in Tanzania’s Serengeti and ends in the Masai Mara in Kenya.
December–July Calving Season
From December through early March, the herds are mainly found in the Serengeti in Southern Tanzania. Wildebeests tend to congregate in February, when they give birth to up to 500,000 calves over a two- to three-week period. The reason for concentrating in the south is to give their calves the richest milk, as the soil and grass is rich in potassium, calcium and phosphorus from the volcanic eruptions of two to three million years ago. Wildebeests prefer to calve here, without fear of predators that typically lurk in taller grass.
April to May marks the season of long rains. The herds begin their trek north across the central and western Serengeti, grazing hungrily as they go. The food supply begins to vanish. By April, most of the grass is gone. As the Serengeti dries up, the herds follow the Grumeti River west.
From June to July, the herds are grazing their way through the Serengeti’s western corridor and continue to push north towards the Masai Mara. By June the Grumeti River is low, often leaving crocodile-infested pools as the only water source in the area, and both wildebeests and zebras drink almost three gallons daily. Come July, the herd can be found in the northern reaches of Tanzania, near Kenya’s border. At this time, the herds also hasten their approach to the Masai Mara as the reserve receives rain from Lake Victoria, about 70 miles away.
August – September: Dramatic river crossings
Large portions of the migration tend to arrive into the Masai Mara by August, when traffic jams and crossing at the Mara and Talek rivers are apt to reach their frenzied climax. August is probably the best month to catch a crossing, but take a book and plenty of patience, as it is a waiting game. Feast-or-famine crocs lick their chops for four months of the year in total, though they can survive on fish and the fat in their tails for a year or more.
From October through November, the herds start to leave the Mara and turn south. Ever on the move for greener pastures, they begin their return to the Serengeti for the start of Tanzania’s rainy season. By early October, the Masai Mara grasslands are pool-table flat. The million-beast march starts the winding journey south, consuming approximately 5,000 tons of grass a day.
Best way to experience the Great Migration?
A well-designed East Africa safari in Kenya, Tanzania or both can put you right in line with the action. Pioneers of the modern luxury safari offering everything from Tailor Made private safaris to Luxury Small Group Journeys, Diurnal Tours knows exactly where to be and when for the Great Migration. Start with these top-selling Diurnal Tours Travel Packages.