Say 'Wildebeest Migration', and most travellers picture hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra brave crossing predators' paths and charging into croc-infested rivers. This is what most of us think we know about the Migration, one of Africa's most spectacular wildlife phenomena. And while you'd be perfectly correct in leaping to these mental images, their journey involves a whole lot more.
The heaving herds do fill the plains and rivers do provide locations for treacherous wildebeest crossings, but there are a few Wildebeest Migration facts to keep in mind to avoid disappointment.
Wildebeest Migration Fact #1:
In East Africa, the 'long rains' generally soak the ground in April and May, and the Serengeti plains spring to life with masses of sweet, delicious grass. This is the signal for wildebeest and zebra to start moving into the central Serengeti, mowing the abundant tender grass along the way.
Broadly speaking, this is exactly how it works. Except when the rains are late. Or early. Or if it rains again unexpectedly and some (or all) of the herds turn back to feast on the fresh new grass.
By June, the wildebeest and zebra should be in the Central Serengeti and getting ready for the toughest part of their odyssey: river crossings (about June to August). But not even the wildebeest know when they're going to cross. Some arrive at the rivers and swim over immediately, while others might spend days hanging around grazing. Some even arrive and turn back to where they came from!
Like so much in nature, it's safest to leave the idea of a firm schedule behind when it comes to the Wildebeest Migration. If you hope to see special events like a wildebeest crossing, it's best to plan as much time on safari as possible.
Go2Africa has been planning Wildebeest Migration safaris since 1998. We've helped thousands of travellers to be in the best possible place at the best possible time for the best possible price. If you're looking for expert planning advice, get in touch with one of our Africa Safari Experts.
Wildebeest Migration Fact #2:
Wildebeest Crossings Are Popular, But Not for the Faint-Hearted
River crossings are considered the highlight of the spectacle: few other sights beat them for sheer drama and adrenalin value. Will crocodiles snatch the courageous gnu that leaps in first? Will the animals be able to scramble up the increasingly treacherous and slippery riverbank? Will weak or injured wildebeest be able to swim across at all?
Popular perception is that the wildebeest are galloping along at top speed and just crash into the water, following a sort of autopilot herd instinct. This isn't the case at all. Often, a herd will reach the river at a casual, leisurely pace … and then hang out on its banks for days, frustrating the crocs and tourists alike.
Nobody knows how and why they suddenly decide to cross, but some sort of primeval signal is given. The first intrepid pioneers will then scuttle down the often very steep sides and rocky riverbanks. You will naturally be rooting for these brave forerunners, but you'll likely witness heart-breaking moments too. An animal can often break a hind leg trying to climb a bank or lose its precarious grip and fall back down onto others, injuring them all. This is what makes a wildebeest crossing a true spectacle – the ecstasy and agony of survival, unedited, unfiltered, in raw true life.
If you aren't comfortable or prepared to witness animals getting injured or killed by predators, rather opt out of the river crossings. That being said, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra cross the rivers, so the odds of success are much greater. You're more than likely to witness a colossal herd successfully cross a river in a captivating, centipede-like motion.
If you do want to see a wildebeest crossing, on the other hand, it's vital to book your safari up to a year in advance to get a lodge on or as close to the river as possible. The animals do have historical crossing areas and you may spend days staked out in the hope of seeing the action – it's therefore also important to allow yourself as much time on safari as possible.
Wildebeest Migration Fact #3:
Predators Hunt Newborns During Calving Season
The calving season usually occurs from February to late March, when about 8 000 wobbly babies are born every day. Because the babies can run as fast as their moms within 48 hours, there are very touching scenes of tiny wildebeest speeding along and of zebras nuzzling their foals.
But be warned: no aspect of the Gnu Migration is for the squeamish. Predators feast on newborns and you'll likely witness action-packed scenes of calves being run down by cheetah or snatched by lions. The pressure of predators is one of the reasons why nearly half a million wildebeest are born so close together. It's nature's numbers game. While many become the prey that sustains lion prides, enough survive to secure the future of the great herds. It may be a well-worn cliché, but the Wildebeest Migration is truly what 'the circle of life' is all about.
If you aren't prepared to witness baby animals getting killed by predators, consider going on a Wildebeest Migration safari during another time of the year. It's an ever-moving journey with various other events that occur throughout the year.
If you are comfortable with real-life National Geographic scenes, this is a great time to go on safari. Wobbly young calves learn to run, and moms and babies across the plains spend time bonding. Of course, predator action is guaranteed during calving season and involves heart-stopping chases. But the predators don't always 'win': zebras can deliver a kick powerful enough to crack a lioness's jaw, and wildebeest can out-run their hunters. Where the predators do succeed, you can look forward to scavenger action: it's a great time to see vultures out in force as they perform their critical job of wilderness housekeeping.
Wildebeest Migration Fact #4:
The Gnus Don't Migrate Together in One Big Herd
Yes, about two million wildebeest and zebra follow the rains on a 3 000-kilometre (1 900-mile) journey, but they don't travel all together all the time. Half of them would starve if they did!
They split into what are known as 'mega-herds', which consist of thousands and thousands of individuals travelling on slightly different routes in more or less the same direction. After the rut (mating) season from about April to May, those that did not mate often break away from the others and form their own herds that travel through the central Serengeti. The animals form huge columns – sometimes up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) in length – that can be seen across the plains.
Members of mega-herds can be quite spread out, with the forerunners arriving at a new place sometimes a day or two ahead of the stragglers – kind of an 'early warning system' for safari guides.
Being in the right place at the right time often depends on what exactly you want to see. Here's a guideline (with approximate dates) of events:
|Calving (Birthing) Season||February to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Rutting (Breeding) Season||April to May||Western & Central Serengeti|
|Grumeti River Crossings||May to June||Central Serengeti|
|Mara River Crossings||July to August||Northern Serengeti & Masai Mara|
|On the Move||November to January||Masai Mara & Northern Serengeti to Southern Serengeti|
Wildebeest Migration Fact #5:
Most people think that the Migration only takes place between July and October, but that's not the case. It's actually a fluid, year-round movement with various but equally exciting events. The popular river crossings usually coincide with safari's high season (June to October), hence the perception that this is the only time of the year to see the Wildebeest Migration. Although the river crossings are absolutely riveting, they're only a small part of this epic journey.
To understand this natural phenomenon, you have to ask, 'Why do wildebeest migrate?' Well, the Gnu Migration is dictated primarily by the wildebeest's response to the weather. It's triggered by East Africa's rains, and the animals follow their ancient instincts in search of fresh grazing and water. This epic journey takes the wildebeest across the Masai Mara, all the way south into the Serengeti and to the edge of the Ngorongoro Crater, before circling up and around in a clockwise direction. Here's a month-by-month breakdown:
If you want to go on safari between June and October, book early – at least a year in advance. Remember, this is safari's high season when the popular river crossings happen, so lodges and camps fill up fast.
Arrange your timing carefully. The Migration is a year-round journey and some of its events, like the river crossings, cannot be predicted. Find out all you need to know in our complete guide to the Wildebeest Migration.
Don't overlook the unsung joys of the low season. For starters, the animals spend November to March returning to their starting point in the southern Serengeti. This means you will still be treated to epic scenes of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra crossing the wide open plains of the Masai Mara on their return to Tanzania. No matter when you see it, the sight of mega-herds on the move is always exhilarating.
Ready to Start Planning Your Migration Safari?
Every true adventurer should witness at least one aspect of the Wildebeest Migration at least once in their lifetime. For sheer scale, there is no other animal phenomenon on the planet that beats it.
Although there’s a traditional high season, the truth is that the Migration never stops. The ebb and flow of the mega-herds happen throughout the year. That means you can see the Migration year-round, so choose the season and destination that best suits you, and let us tailor-make your trip of a lifetime: