Perhaps the Great Migration of the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara was the muse for Sir Elton John when he penned the Circle of Life, as this spectacular event can not be described in any other way.
“In the circle of life
It’s the wheel of fortune
It’s the leap of faith
It’s the band of hope”
This greatest of all-natural spectacles is a wildlife phenomenon that safari-goers have to experience at least once in their lifetime. Starting in the Ngorongoro area in the south of the Serengeti in Tanzania, it loops clockwise towards and through the Maasai Mara in Kenya before twisting and turning back to where it all started.
Driven and dictated by the rain, the Great Migration is regarded as the biggest overland event of its kind anywhere in the world with 1,300,000 wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 500,000 Thomson’s gazelles tempting fate in search of greener pastures. Following close behind within sniffing distance or waiting on the horizon with gaping mouths, predators like lions, hyenas, and crocodiles are all eager to stake their claim in this journey of life and death.
The blue wildebeest, or gnu as the animal is sometimes referred to, is the most abundant big-game species in Tanzania and Kenya. With a stable population size of more than 1,500,000 individuals, its conservation status is regarded as “Least Concern”.
During the Great Migration, wildebeest are on the move day and night as they search for enough sustenance. The long stretched-out columns are a familiar sight as these animals amble along at a slow trot and with bobbing heads.
This annual spectacle influences the existence of these animals. Wildebeest have an average lifespan of 20 years, about half the time that they can exist for. The mortality rate of calves, born in the first couple of months of the year, are sometimes as high as 50%.
• Around half a million wildebeest are born in the Serengeti each year—between January and March—sometimes as much as 8,000 calves a day.
• Wildebeest have no natural leader and instead split into smaller herds that congregate around a mega-herd.
• Almost 300,000 animals will not see the light of day again as they fall victim to predators, as well as exhaustion and drowning.
• Wildebeest and zebra do not compete for food as they consume different chunks of the same grass.
• Carnivores, like the more than 3,000 lions in the Serengeti, and the countless crocodiles in the Mara River, are spoiled for choice when it comes to prey.
For front-row seats to this dazzling wildlife drama, safari-goers have the options of the Serengeti in Tanzania and Kenya’s Maasai Mara. The biggest act plays itself out in the Serengeti, regarded as one of the seven natural wonders of Africa, between November and July in and around the national park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and Grumeti Reserve.
The Maasai Mara, from the native language and with Mara meaning spotted, visitors will see the most action from August to October, with the Greater Mara ecosystem encompassing the Mara Triangle and a handful of conservancies like Ol Chorro Oirowua, Maji Moto. and Olkineyi.
The best time to bear witness to one of the greatest natural phenomena on the planet is between July and September. This is when the herds of wildebeest make their way from the Serengeti in Tanzania over the Grumeti River, on towards the Mara River and into Kenya and the plains of the Maasai Mara.
From October to December, the millions of animals start to move back again towards the south of the Serengeti where the first rains of the season will fall in January. Between February and June, the cycle of life and death will start anew with thousands of calves being birthed, only to desperately try and escape the jaws of the many lions prides following close on their heels.
Ngorongoro Conservation Area is a world-class tourist destination. The area was established in 1959 as a multiple land-use area, with wildlife coexisting with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists practising traditional livestock grazing.
Maasai Mara National Reserve plays a major role in the Great Migration, where millions of wildebeest traverse the vast plains annually. The National Reserve is located in southwestern Kenya and borders Tanzania, making it a popular spot on a safari bucket list.
The Serengeti National Park is famed for its annual wildebeest migration when some 8 million hooves cross the open plains. More than 1,500,000 wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle join this trek driven by the need for fresh grazing.