The phenomenon for which Serengeti is probably most famous is the annual wildebeest migration, which sees over two million animals — roughly 1.5 million wildebeest, 400,000 other antelope, and 200,000 zebras — travel clockwise in a 300-mile circular pattern that covers much of the Serengeti plains and dips briefly into the Masai Mara in Kenya. There is no set beginning or end to the migration; it is a constant process for the majority of the wildebeest living in this area, although small groups of wildebeest and zebras do not join in.
For new calves, the migration starts in the southern plains in January and February, which is the birthing season. Amazingly, nearly all of the wildebeest in Serengeti give birth within one 2-3 week period, during which around fifteen thousand calves will be born each day. Since the calves are very vulnerable to predators, this synchronized birthing protects the herd from losing too many calves in one year. It also helps that wildebeest calves are able to stand up two or three minutes after birth and able to run after five minutes.
In March, the wildebeest usually start to move west as the southern plains dry out. They circle the lakes located in the western Serengeti and then head north towards Kenya, usually crossing the Mara sometime over the summer and then heading back to the eastern Serengeti in mid-fall after the rains start.
Scientists have not been able to determine how long the migration has been going on or how the wildebeest determine their route, but it is believed that they are able to sense rain, in part by reacting to lightening and thunderstorms in the distance. The migration is driven by weather rather than by specific location or time of year, so the specific timing and track varies from year to year.
We got lucky and happened to hit part of this year’s track on our way into Serengeti. We saw huge masses of wildebeest grazing in packs and lines that went on as far as we could see in some places.
There are so many wildebeests that the zebras are almost hard to spot, but they’re definitely there. Wildebeests and zebras make good travel partners because they feed on the same kind of grass, but on different parts of it and because wildebeests are better at finding water, but zebras are better at spotting predators.
When we went back the same way just two days later, the masses had moved on and we only saw a few stragglers remaining.
In Ngorongoro, we also saw both zebras and wildebeest, although in much smaller numbers. There are some herds that don’t follow the migration, and there is enough grass and water in the area to sustain those small numbers of animals.
I love looking at zebras because they look so surreal to me, as if someone spray-painted a bunch of ponies as a prank. This one was very amenable to being photographed — unlike most others, he was not at all afraid of our safari vehicle and posed for lots of close-ups before he sauntered away.
I think that these photos of wildebeest grazing and resting in the Crater are two of my favorites from the entire trip — I love the colors.