The Great Wildebeest Migration follows long and meandering paths through the Masai Mara and Serengeti ecosystems in treks that are necessary yet perilous.
Masai Mara Game Reserve, located in Kenya, shares a lot in common with Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. First, both parks overlap seamlessly, only separated by the Mara River. Secondly, the Mara and the Serengeti are known for their high concentration of wildlife. Thirdly, both parks are most famous for one thing- the iconic wildebeest migration.
Contrary to popular perception, the Great Migration isn’t a one-month event. Instead, it takes place all year round. And to make the most of your Masai mara wildebeest migration safari, you need to understand where the herd will be at different times of the year.
In this article, James Gatheru, a safari guide for AjKenyasafaris.com, shares everything you need to know to plan a successful wildebeest migration safari this year.
Why And How Does The Great Migration Happen?
The animals will be in Serengeti between November and June when the grass is plenty. They migrate to Masai Mara game reserve in Kenya between June and November, just as the Serengeti drys up and starts raining in the Mara.
Contrary to popular belief, the Great Wildebeest Migration isn’t strictly a wildebeest affair. It also involves thousands of other grazers, such as zebras, Thomson’s gazelles, antelopes, and even buffalos. The 2,900 kilometers journey happens in a clockwise movement, as the animals meander through the Serengeti before advancing north and crossing into the Masai Mara.
Since the migrating herd move in response to rain patterns, it’s difficult to accurately determine the paths that the animals will follow each year. But one thing is for sure – the herds will cross the Grumeti and the Mara rivers, which lie directly across the migratory routes.
Another thing worth noting is that the animals don’t all cross the rivers at once; neither does the crossing happen the moment the first herds make it to the riverbank. Herds that have migrated before still have distressing memories of crocodiles to grapple with. Therefore, they can spend days grazing by the riverside, sometimes even retreating from the riverbanks for days. But sooner or later, one brave animal will take the leap of faith, and millions of others will follow suit.
Scores of the migrating herds are devoured by the Nile crocodiles inhabiting these rivers while hundreds of others panic and stumble into the river, where they die from the ensuing stampede. Apart from the savage Nile crocodiles, other animals perish due to the sheer depth of the rivers.
Before crossing, the herds are known to test the depth of the water, taking their chances in the shallowest parts of the river. However, their poor judgment of depth usually sees them jump into the deep ends of the river, drowning in their numbers.
The other challenge that these herds have to contend with is the threat of predation by the big cats. As the animals move, lions, leopards, cheetahs, and even wild dogs and hyenas are always on their trail. And while big cats typically don’t hunt beyond their territories, there are thousands of them spread throughout the entire ecosystem.
Most of them prefer to lurk around the rivers, streams, and other waterholes within the park, where the herds must come to drink sooner or later. The only time that big cat sightings are almost impossible is during the very wet seasons. During these months, you can only witness ambush attacks, which seldom last a minute.
The Great Migration in Months
December to March
The herds congregate around the southern plains of the Serengeti and into the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The best place to sight the herds is around Lake Ndutu, which also happens to be the best spot to catch a glimpse of the big cats.
But since this is also the calving season, high-chase hunts are rare. Instead, the big cats, which are known to be opportunistic hunters, prefer to go for the newborn calves.
April to May
During this time, rainfall peaks in Tanzania, forcing the wildebeest to advance north and into the southern Serengeti plains. Other herds can wander as far as the Western Corridor and the central regions of the park, near Seronera.
A few herds might even make it to the Grumeti River, though they don’t usually cross but bide their time waiting for larger herds to arrive.
June to July
These two months mark the mating season and are some of the best periods to catch the migration. The mating season is one of the noisiest periods in the journey. The testosterone levels in the bulls spike as they compete for females. As such, they occasionally lock horns and wash the plains in the dust, much to the pleasure of the big cats. Lions, leopards, and other predators take advantage of the confusion to go for easy prey.
The running battles that characterize the mating season eventually see the wildebeests spread throughout most of the park. Some herds head into the Western Corridor, where they cross the Grumeti River, then leave the park and enter into the Singita Grumeti Reserves. From here, the herds traverse the Serengeti’s western corridors, passing through the Ikorongo Game Reserve. In July, the front runners make their way to the Kogatende area. The herds that don’t make it to the Kogatende area follow the northern routes, passing through the Seronera, Lobo, and ultimately arriving at the Bologonja river area.
At this point, splinter herds break away from the main herds and wander far and wide, looking for greener pastures.
August to October
From late July to mid-August, the herds cross the Mara River. Most of the herds occupy the lush plains of the Masai Mara while some of them remain at Kogatende in the Northern Serengeti.
As the rains don’t fall exclusively on one side of the Mara River, grass tends to be greener in a relatively large radius around the riverbanks. Therefore, the crossing of the Mara River tends to be an everyday spectacle.
While most of the herds advance towards the northern plains of the Mara, some prefer to graze by the riverbanks. Again, splinter groups emerge and wander through the Mara plains.
November to December
As if by instinct, all the herds that had crossed into the Masai Mara start to graze towards the Mara River. And as the grass turns yellow on the Masai Mara, it begins to rain on the Serengeti side of the ecosystem, and that fuels the animals’ drive to move further south.
The animals congregate around the Mara River and the crossing begins again. The herds scatter into the lush greenery of the Ndutu plains. Around early December, the animals move closer to Lake Ndutu in readiness for the calving season.
At this time, the Great Wildebeest Migration has run its full cycle.
The Great Wildebeest Migration is an annual event. In fact, it’s a continuous journey. The best way to keep pace with the moving animals is to camp at lodges that lie directly along the migratory paths.