The Great Wildebeest Migration Explained

by | May 19, 2023 | Travel Guide

The Great Wildebeest Migration Explained in the Serengeti
The Serengeti Ecosystem, spanning across Tanzania and Kenya, is home to one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife events on Earth – the great wildebeest migration. Every year, millions of wildebeests, along with zebras and gazelles, embark on a remarkable journey across the vast plains, rivers, and woodlands in search of greener pastures. This phenomenon, celebrated as one of nature’s grandest spectacles, captivates the hearts and minds of travellers and wildlife enthusiasts from around the globe.

What is the great wildebeest migration?

The great wildebeest migration is an annual movement of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles in search of fresh grazing opportunities. It is a massive migration that spans thousands of kilometers and involves over 1.5 million wildebeest, and other animals.

Why do the wildebeest migrate?

The migration is primarily driven by the availability of food and water, as well as the instinctual need to find suitable breeding grounds. Weather, rainfall and grass growth all play a part. The journey begins when the dry season sets in, and the grazing lands in the southern Serengeti start to deplete. As water sources dry up and the grass becomes scarce, the wildebeests instinctively start their journey northward in search of greener pastures and permanent water sources. The rains play a crucial role in determining the timing and direction of the migration. As the wet season arrives in the southern Serengeti, the rejuvenated grasslands attract the wildebeests. They gather in massive herds, ready to move. Following their instincts, the wildebeests set off towards the northwest, crossing the central Serengeti and entering the western corridor, around the Grumeti River.

When does it start and what direction does it follow?

The great wildebeest migration follows a seasonal pattern, and the exact timing can vary slightly from year to year. Generally, the migration begins in the southern Serengeti around December or January when the short rains start. As the grasslands become depleted, the wildebeests start their trek towards the northwest. From late February to May, the herds move through the central Serengeti and into the western corridor, crossing the Grumeti River. They spend June in the western corridor as they slowly cross over into the Grumeti Game Reserve as well. By mid-July, the wildebeests reappear in the Serengeti National Park in the northern Mara region. This is when the great Mara River crossing takes place, as the herds navigate the treacherous waters, facing potential dangers from crocodiles and predators. It is not until September that the wildebeests crossover into Kenya, entering the Maasai Mara National Reserve. They spread out across the reserve, taking advantage of abundant grazing opportunities. By October, the herds start their journey back from the Maasai Mara via the eastern Serengeti, as the dry season approaches. They begin crossing the central Serengeti, heading south towards the Ndutu Plains.

Where can I see the migration during the year?

To witness the great wildebeest migration at different times of the year, it is important to know the seasonal locations of the herds. You can read more about it in our “Best time to visit the Serengeti for game viewing” guide. Here’s a quick summary though:
December to March: The herds can be found in the southern Serengeti and the Ndutu Plains.
April to June: The migration moves through the central Serengeti and into the western corridor, around the Grumeti River.
July to October: The herds appear in the northern Mara region of the Serengeti National Park and then cross over into the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
November to December: The migration returns to the central Serengeti, heading south towards the Ndutu Plains.
It’s important to note that exact timings may vary depending on rainfall patterns and other environmental factors. Consulting with local guides and tour operators can help you plan your visit to maximize your chances of witnessing this extraordinary natural spectacle.

How do the wildebeest and zebras coexist?

During the great wildebeest migration, wildebeests and zebras coexist through a unique division of feeding habits. Wildebeests are grazers, feeding on shorter grass, while zebras are mixed feeders, capable of consuming coarser and longer grasses as well as browse. This division of dietary preferences reduces direct competition for food between the two species.

Wildebeests and zebras share grazing areas without significant overlap. Wildebeests focus on shorter grasses, while zebras utilize taller grasses that grow alongside them. This allows them to find sufficient food resources and coexist within the same general vicinity.

The migratory nature of the herds further reduces competition. As the herds move across the Serengeti plains, they create a mosaic of varied grass heights through grazing and trampling. This mosaic provides opportunities for both wildebeests and zebras to find suitable grazing patches nearby.

The coexistence of wildebeests and zebras during the migration demonstrates their ability to adapt and find ecological niches that minimise direct competition. This mutual relationship also extends to their defence against predators, with zebras acting as sentinels and wildebeests relying on their warnings. Together, they contribute to the success and sustainability of the migration, thriving within the dynamic Serengeti ecosystem.

What other animals migrate with the wildebeest?

The great migration in the Serengeti involves several species of animals, with wildebeests being the most prominent participants. Alongside wildebeests, the following animals also partake in the migration:

  • Zebras: These iconic black-and-white striped animals migrate alongside wildebeests. They form a mutually beneficial relationship, utilizing different grazing preferences and providing additional eyes and ears for predator detection.
  • Thomson’s Gazelles: These small and graceful antelopes join the migration, following the wildebeests and zebras in search of fresh grazing areas and safety in numbers.
  • Grant’s Gazelles: Another species of antelope, Grant’s gazelles, can be seen migrating in large numbers, moving with the wildebeests to find food and avoid predators.
  • Impalas: Although not as numerous as wildebeests or zebras, impalas also partake in the migration, taking advantage of the abundance of food and the safety offered by the large herds.
  • Topis: These medium-sized antelopes with distinct reddish-brown coats can be found migrating alongside the wildebeests, grazing on the plains of the Serengeti.
  • Elands: The largest antelope species, elands, can also be seen during the migration. They move with the herds, benefiting from the fresh grazing opportunities that arise along the migration route.

Often, apex predators such as Lions, Cheetahs and Hyenas will shadow the migration since it offers great hunting opportunities.

Nature at its best

The great wildebeest migration is a testament to the wonders of the natural world. The sight of millions of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles moving across the Serengeti plains is a sight to behold. It is a testament to the resilience and adaptability of these remarkable animals as they navigate treacherous obstacles in search of sustenance and survival. Experiencing this annual phenomenon firsthand is a truly unforgettable adventure that connects us with the beauty and complexity of nature.

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