You watch with baited breath as one of the millions of migrating wildebeest tentatively steps towards the edge of the Mara River. You can almost feel its hope as it braves being the first to cross the croc-infested waters into Kenya. Camera at the ready, heart pounding in your chest, you watch as it steps in, followed by herds of other wildebeest and zebra and the action begins.
In reality, the wildebeest are the migration itself, there is no real beginning or end to their movements as they relentlessly search for food and water. The endless, extreme cycle of life and death for these animals is marked only by certain movements throughout the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem and these specific times can be an absolute thrill to witness and photograph.
Whether you are keen to watch the wild river crossings between the Serengeti and Masai Mara, or ‘the birthing’, which sees anything from 300,000 to 400,000 calves born almost at the same time, we can put you in the right place at the right time.
Where and when
The wildebeest migrate year round and as they are wild, it is not at all guaranteed they will be at the same place at the same time each year. However, there is a ‘routine’ to their behaviours that we can predict according to the weather and seasons.
At the southernmost point of their range, within the short grassy plains of the Ngorongoro Crater highlands, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest cows give birth to thousands and thousands of calves, all within the space of a few weeks. Between January and February, up to 400,000 calves have been known to be born, a truly spectacular event in nature. Of these calves, many won’t survive; predators eat their fill, picking them off from the crowd and preying on lost calves whose fightened herd has scattered, then fatigue and malnutrition will consume many more. The sight of wandering lost calves, bleating for their mothers is not an uncommon sight at this time, especially since they can be on their feet and even running with the herd within minutes. Surprisingly, only a very small percentage are actually eaten by predators due to the their high numbers.
Following the grains and grass and in search of water, they make their way, alongside zebra and other game, towards the west, where between May and June, they mate. At this time you can expect fights between males as they vie for the attention of females.
The River Crossings
Around June, the river crossings begin, a natural event that proves to be one of the most sought after sightings, and iconic images of the Great Migration. The wildebeest arrive at the Mara River in tens of thousands, ready to face the ultimate in terror for them; for water not only conceals predators such as crocodiles, but the vegetation can also be concealing land predators. They wait, and we can’t always find the reasoning, but the numbers build before one will finally begin to cross. The thrashing that follows provides unmatched excitement for any safari goer, however the crossing point can be unpredictable, so we recommend using one of our mobile camps for the best spot.
From here, they graze on the fine grasses of the Mara until around September / October when they must face crossing back across the river to Tanzania, many heavily pregnant, to begin the whole process again.
Fossils have shown that this process has been happening for millions of years. As they follow the sources of food and water between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya, they seem to have it down to a tee. Their high birthing numbers, all at the same time, ensure that predators can gorge, many can die of fatigue, starvation and disease, yet there are enough wildebeest remaining to follow the trail to Kenya. They face their fears, crossing dangerous waters and coming face to face with hyenas and big cats, their numbers decreasing until they birth again.
The threats they face help balance out the population of wildebeest, keeping it constant. Can you imagine what the plains of Tanzania and Kenya would be like if the wildebeest had no threat, but 400,000 being born per year?
How can I see the Great Migration?
To see the migration, you have to experience a mobile safari camp, at least for some of your trip. These camps set up in the right place, ensuring the best sightings possible, and minimise travel time to the action itself. In Kenya, Nomadic Mobile Camp is an excellent choice for following the migration or Kimondo Camp in the Serengeti is a great choice in Tanzania. There are also camps that are in excellent locations for certain parts of the migration already, such as Lamai Serengeti and Naibor Camp.
Best time to go
Birthing – January and February
Mara River crossings - July