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