Ex­ec­u­tive Travel: The Spec­ta­cle That is Kenya's Wilde­beest Mi­gra­tion

FICCI Business Digest - - Contents - * Taru Bahl is a New Delhi-writer.

Vi­su­als of mil­lions of mi­grat­ing herds do­ing the an­nual cross­ing of the croc­o­dile-in­fested Grumeti-Mara River from Tan­za­nia's Serengeti Na­tional Park into Kenya's Ma­sai Mara Na­tional Re­serve be­tween July and Oc­to­ber, is stuff ev­ery wildlife en­thu­si­ast dreams of ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. The spec­ta­cle that is the Wilde­beest Mi­gra­tion, is hailed as one of the 'Seven New Won­ders of the World' hav­ing all el­e­ments of an ex­cit­ing edge-of-the-seat thriller. End­less plains of east Africa pro­vide the set­ting for the long­est and largest over­land mi­gra­tion in the world with 1.5 mil­lion wilde­beest, also called 'gnu' lo­cally, and al­most a quar­ter of a mil­lion other wildlife that in­cludes ze­bras and gazelles, mi­grat­ing in a mostly con­tin­u­ous clock­wise cir­cle in search for new grass.

Starv­ing an­i­mals seek­ing food from a rain de­prived area of Seren­gati in Tan­za­nia cross over in a fren­zied state through Mara river that di­vides the an­i­mal park to en­ter Kenya' s Ma­sai Mara, which is flush with freshly filled wa­ter bod­ies and veg­e­ta­tion. As the wilde­beest cross over, sup­ported by thou­sands of ze­bras and gazelles, there are hun­gry croc­o­diles and rhi­nos ly­ing in wait in the swollen river, wait­ing to swoop in on their prey. As the river ac­quires a brown-red hue, there is a flurry of move­ment with dust fly­ing, an­i­mals run­ning hel­ter skel­ter and lions, hye­nas, leop­ards, chee­tahs and lesser preda­tors lurk­ing in the back­ground, wait­ing for them to step out of the river. Apart from great photo op­por­tu­ni­ties, the scenes that play out are fas­ci­nat­ing, with traits of an­i­mal be­hav­iour re­vealed in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. How they move in packs, herds and prides; what they do to pro­tect their turf; and how the ecosys­tem is pre­served – is a learn­ing no book or TV show can com­pletely match. The 'great mi­gra­tion', is then an end­less march of life, death and re­birth for mil­lions of an­i­mals who tra­verse a jour­ney of 350 miles in search of food.

The un­fold­ing of the Great Wilde­beest Mi­gra­tion

To date there is no sci­en­tific proof of how and why the wilde­beest em­bark on their year-round jour­ney that has no real begin­ning or end. A com­mon ex­pla­na­tion is that they fol­low the rains which prom­ise growth of grass. Gen­eral guidelines de­ter­mine the 'best time' de­pend­ing on what you want to see. Most opt for July and Oc­to­ber which is when the wilde­beest start mov­ing. The five main stages of the mi­gra­tion start with the calv­ing sea­son in the short­grass plains of south­ern Serengeti (late-Jan­uary to mid-March) mov­ing to north of cen­tral and western Serengeti dur­ing the long rains in April and May; cross­ing Grumeti and Mara rivers and ar­riv­ing in herds in Ma­sai Mara (early Au­gust); and fi­nally mak­ing the jour­ney south back into Serengeti in Novem­ber. In a typ­i­cal year, the mi­gra­tion reaches Ma­sai Mara early Au­gust and by Septem­ber-De­cem­ber, wilde­beest start leav­ing Mara and north­ern Serengeti to reach Ngoron­goro Con­ser­va­tion Area and south­ern sec­tor of the park. Once there, they give birth to their young and the cy­cle re­sumes.

A typ­i­cal day in the Mara

The first game drive is as early as 6:30am in win­ters and ear­lier in sum­mers. You spend the day in the bush with the lodge pack­ing a boxed pic­nic lunch. The driver takes you into the bush and be­gins search­ing for a herd at an area well-known for be­ing on the mi­gra­tory path. Most sa­fari go­ers end up see­ing the Big Five, namely, the lion, leop­ard, ele­phant, rhinoceros and Cape Buf­falo. All sa­fari guides cum driv­ers are fa­mil­iar with the ter­rain and in con­stant touch with other driv­ers, so head­ing to the pre­cise spot where a sight­ing can be made is a lot eas­ier. As your ve­hi­cle gets closer, you will find 15-20 other ve­hi­cles also mov­ing in. Clearly, a lot of what you get to see and learn about an­i­mal be­hav­iour will de­pend on your guide. If it is the mi­gra­tion you want to see, you could spend hours near the river, wait­ing for the pre­cise mo­ment when they will cross over. The day ends around sun­set after which parks close. Usu­ally peo­ple stay 2 nights and pack in 4 game drives.

The de­ci­sion of whether to go to Tan­za­nia's Serengeti or Kenya's Ma­sai Mara is of­ten one that needs to be an­swered. With Seren­gati's 30,000 sq km ra­dius mak­ing up for 90 per cent of the ecosys­tem, this is where most of the ac­tion takes place. Com­fort­able and lux­ury ac­com­mo­da­tion, how­ever, is more eas­ily avail­able in Mara. Serengeti's larger area means more ground to cover. Con­versely, Mara's smaller 1,500 sq km has a larger con­cen­tra­tion of game, but can get over­crowded. Which park to visit will de­pend on when you go. The best op­tion is to ex­pe­ri­ence both parks by book­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion on ei­ther side when the herd is on the move. An­i­mal lovers spend an en­tire year, mov­ing lo­ca­tions fol­low­ing the mi­gra­tion but for the reg­u­lar per­son, a more re­al­is­tic trip time is 10 days to get a good feel of the event.

How was the 2018 mi­gra­tion dif­fer­ent?

It is of­fi­cial now that the Great Mi­gra­tion did not hap­pen in 2018. A closely guarded se­cret till end Septem­ber by lo­cal tourism in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials for the fear of los­ing book­ings, the news is fi­nally out, at­tribut­ing the 'non event' to cli­mate change. Specif­i­cally, a pro­longed rainy sea­son kept pas­tures in Tan­za­nia's north­ern Serengeti greener for longer and fires sus­pected to have started by lo­cals along the paths taken by the mi­grat­ing Wilde­beests in the neigh­bour­ing coun­try con­trib­uted to the stag­gered trickle of an­i­mal move­ment. Re­gard­less, most sa­fari go­ers still had the sight­ings of a life­time, sim­ply be­cause the Mara has such an abun­dance of wildlife.

The only word of cau­tion is to shed all ro­man­tic no­tions and go with re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions since the mi­grat­ing an­i­mals do not move in a con­tin­u­ous stream to­gether and mostly break into groups and move at their own pace. Most pho­tos that we have seen are mis­lead­ing since they are taken dur­ing the cross­ing. To wit­ness a cross­ing you not only need a lot of pa­tience, but also a strong con­sti­tu­tion since the river gets full of bloated dead an­i­mals and the stench is un­bear­able.

The Serengeti-Mara ecosys­tem with its vast ex­panse of the sa­van­nah grass­lands is noth­ing like the In­dian wildlife parks which are cov­ered with thick fo­liage. Go­ing on an African sa­fari is never a dis­ap­point­ment for you can see more wildlife than you ever imag­ined and get am­ple chance to in­ter­act with lo­cal Ma­sai in their many­at­tas (tra­di­tional, mud-roofed houses) buy­ing sou­venirs that are dirt cheap. Rest as­sured, Kenya's wildlife en­sures that cli­mate change and moody mi­gra­tion trends will never be a spoiler.

Photo: Va­sundhra Chugh

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