The Great Wildebeest Migration, the longest and largest overland migration in the world and one of the “Seven Natural Wonders of Africa”, comprises around 1.5 million Wildebeest, 200,000 Zebra, 350,000 Thomson’s Gazelles and 12,000 Eland making an epic circular journey of approximately 2000 miles in search of “greener pastures”. The Migration is not a single occurrence; it is a never-ending cycle which begins for a Wildebeest with its birth and ends with its death. Wildebeest are born in a mass birthing (known as “calving”) which takes place during January and February on the plains near the Ngorongoro Crater and the Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania, at the southernmost extent of the Wildebeests’ range. Nature has ensured that, to increase its chances of survival, a newborn Wildebeest calf is able to stand within 2-3 minutes of birth and run with the herd within about five minutes! It is believed, from recent fossil discoveries, that Wildebeest have been grazing the Serengeti for more than a million years.
Towards the end of the short Dry season, in March, the grass plains of the southern Serengeti start to dry out and the Wildebeest continue – or commence – their journey, intuitively following the rains and fresh grasses first westwards towards the small, seasonal lake of Ndutu (Lagarja), and then northwest towards Lake Victoria. From here the herds gradually head north into the Masai Mara – and more of the life-or-death river crossings that prove such a draw for tourists from all over the world. The Wildebeest converge at the Mara River in their thousands and gather on the plains and banks beside it, waiting to cross. The cacophony as they call to one another is unprecedented. Their numbers can grow for days at a time and observers will often wait in suspense beside the river, anticipation building, until – for no apparent reason – the Wildebeest turn from the river, as one, and move away! Eventually, however, the herds will select a crossing point (frequently more than one), and the intrepid journey to the opposite bank will begin. It is still not known what prompts them to turn back or to cross – or even where they will choose to cross in any given year.
Usually, the Wildebeest begin their journey south again by late October, when the first of the Short Rains reach the plains of the Serengeti, bringing fresh growth and brimming seasonal waterholes. Rutting having taken place in May and June, the majority of the cows will already be heavily pregnant – and so the cycle continues on in perpetuity.