The Great Wildebeest Migration

Who doesn’t love to get away from it all? Every year, families around the world head off on a holiday.

Now imagine taking millions of your family, friends and neighbors on a trek across the endless plains, over hundreds of kilometers, fording rivers and avoiding predators. Well, that’s the magnitude of ‘The World Cup of Wildlife’ or the Great Wildebeest Migration!

The mega herd begins to assemble for their northern migration; Photo Courtesy: Amoghavarsha

Each year, nearly two million wildebeest with supporting roles from huge numbers of Thomson’s gazelle, zebras and elands, make a journey from the Serengeti national park in Tanzania to Masai Mara in Kenya in search of fresh pastures.

The Circle of Life!

This is not a single, definable event, but like the description in the Disney movie ‘The Lion King’, is part of the ‘Circle of Life’.

The circle begins when the wildebeest cows drop their young in a synchronized birthing that is a natural spectacle. This happens near the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the southernmost point of the migratory range.

A newborn wildebeest is a wonder in itself. It gets up on its feet a couple of minutes after birth, can keep pace with the rest of the herd in less than ten minutes and attains speeds to outrun a lioness soon after. During the short dry season that follows, the mega herd assembles in the southern Serengeti and the Great Migration begins. This is a major environmental event, but animal behaviorists still cannot figure how wildebeests know when to begin their trek or even where to go.

Order in chaos!

From Olduvai the herds head west in search of water, feeding on the new grass across the plains. They follow the distant thunderstorms, instinctively knowing that where the rain is, so will food and water be. They don’t have a natural leader, so the mega herd often splits up into smaller herds going in different directions. Despite the seeming chaos, wildebeests possess ‘swarm intelligence’- where the smaller herds come together to overcome obstacles as a single formation. Extraordinary!

From the western Serengeti, they head north into Kenya and the Masai Mara Game Reserve. For travelers seeking a little adventure, this reserve is one of wild Africa’s treasures, offering a kaleidoscope of color and life with the wildebeest adding a touch of drama. The herd has now reached the most dangerous part of their journey; crossing the Mara River that has turned into a swirling torrent by sudden rains. As the herd looks to find a safe crossing, crocodiles cruise the waters looking for a quick snack. Finally, the bravest animals take the plunge and thousands follow in a deafening rush of sound and fury.

Simba contemplates the "Circle of Life" as the herd grazes on the fresh grass; Photo Credit: Amoghavarsha
What's at the end of the rainbow? Plenty of food and fresh water for the wandering wildebeests; Photo Courtesy: Amoghavarsha

Completing the Circle of Life!

On the grasslands of the Masai Mara, the wildebeest spend time feeding and fattening on the fresh, green pastures. Predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards and hyenas prowl the vast savannah and enjoy a season of plenty too!

Short rains return to the Serengeti bringing fresh growth. Following their stomachs, the wildebeests begin their return heading south again, trekking through the eastern woodlands and scattering across the open plains. The Circle of Life has completed another turn.

Visiting the Masai Mara had been a long-time dream for the acclaimed Bangalore-based wildlife photographer and environmentalist Amoghavarsha – who provided the photos for this article. He says, “My first encounter with the Masai Mara was everything I had imagined and more… I was spellbound by the landscape. The beautifully sunlit savannas across the horizon and the acacia trees standing in silent vigil add to an experience that is beyond words.”

Edited by Dominic D’Cruz