“The only beginning is the moment of birth” writes East African author Jonathan Scott of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders: the wildebeest migration.
Many people imagine that a migration has a start and an end point. But for 1.5 million white-bearded wildebeest—and their supporting cast of 350,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 200,000 zebra, and 12,000 eland—the endless loop through the Serengeti and the neighboring Masai Mara literally never ends.
Like with every other beast in Africa, their behavior is driven by the search for food and water. This great mass of ungulates chase the cycle of rain from plain to plain, feeding on newly grown grass and quenching their thirst in newly fed streams and rivers. Naturalists say that this constant chase is the only predictable thing about the great migration, its exact route varies year to year, which is often a disappointment for safari-goers who long to witness this phenomenon.
It’s hard to believe that even a gathering of almost 2 million can be hard to come across but it’s all thanks to the massive stage across which the migration unfolds. Its 15,000 square miles, known collectively as the Serengeti Ecosystem, stretches from the Ngorongoro Crater, westward through the Serengeti, and into the Masai Mara in Kenya.
During January and February of every year, 300,000 to 400,000 calves begin their endless journey right out of the womb. Incredibly, the newborn can walk within just two to three minutes after birth. It gets its bearings enough to run with the herd within just five minutes. This birthing period lays out a buffet for predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas. Luckily, the huge numbers work in the wildebeests’ favor. There are far too many calves to go around, so most of them survive.
After birthing, the epic journey continues its endless cycle for the adults, but it’s just beginning for the newborns. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what guides the wildebeests toward the growth of new grass and sources of water. Some believe they react to thunder and lightning in the distance. Over millennia, they have learned that where there’s thunder, there’s rain and food. Others go deeper than this, pointing instead to an instinct etched into their DNA over countless generations. The herd as a collective whole has learned where food sources are abundant and where they are lacking. Basically, the wildebeests know where to go and where not to go.
They go where the land is fertile and teeming with life and nutrients. Generally, they follow a clockwise circuit from the southern Serengeti westward to Lake Victoria, where more than half a million cows mate within just a few weeks during May and June. As they head north into Kenya and the Masai Mara, they’re met with some of their most treacherous obstacles: the annual torrential swelling of the Mbalangeti, Grumeti, and Mara rivers. Wildebeest not only fear the water itself, but also what may lurk beneath its surface and amidst the vegetation on the rivers’ banks.
Scientists know that wildebeests fear the water because they’ve observed a great hesitation from them in crossing. Their numbers might build up by the tens of thousands on a river’s bank before they have no choice but to forge ahead. Then one of the greatest dramas in Africa plays out as crocodiles lunge and thrash for their meals, or as the weaker wildebeest are caught by the river’s current and washed away to their deaths. It may seem tragic that hundreds or even thousands are lost, but without this natural cycle, the wildebeest population would explode to unmanageable numbers in just a matter of a few years.
Come October, the herd has come full circle across the Masai Mara and back south into the Serengeti. Cows are heavy with calves waiting to enter the world. And the cycle begins anew. Come experience this incredible act of nature and see these incredible animals in the wild with Discovery Tours on the 11 Day The Serengeti & Beyond: A Tanzania Safari.