The annual wildebeest migration is surely one of the most spectacular sights on the planet – the sight of almost two million wildebeest, gazelles and zebras migrating from the Serengeti in Tanzania to Kenya’s Masai Mara. Undoubtedly, the greatest wildlife drama on Earth is the Great Migration. Just like every great drama, the Migration is filled with suspense, heartache and vindication, as the animals make the perilous 1,800km journey. Although almost two million set out, they are followed closely by predators, and more than 250,000 wildebeest die during the migration.
Quite simply, it’s one of nature’s most incredible spectacles.
If seeing the Great Migration is on your ‘must see’ list, you’re not alone. It is one of Africa’s biggest tourist draw cards, and many more people watch it via live stream online. Of course, actually seeing it in person is the premier way to experience the true magic of it.
When is the Great Migration?
Wildebeest continuously travel between Masai Mara and the Serengeti, so in reality the Great Migration is happening constantly, for most of the year. Their movements tend to follow a pattern, however in recent years extreme weather (such as a lack of rain in the Serengeti) have caused changes to their usual behaviour. It is therefore not possible to predict the path of the Great Migration with absolute certainty, but there are some general trends.
The Migration cycle begins in January, as calving season arrives in the south of Tanzania’s Serengeti and continues through to around March. During this time, tens of thousands of calves are born, making it a simply magical time to visit. However, it can also be a tragic time as weak calves are preyed upon by keen predators.
As the year progresses towards June, the wildebeest begin to head to the north of the Serengeti for the next phase of their migration. Generally, as July rolls around, the herd has begun to arrive in Kenya’s Masai Mara, and by August the wildebeest and accompanying giraffes and gazelles are hundreds of thousands strong in Kenya’s most famous National Park. By approximately November, the wildebeest again move south towards the Serengeti, in preparation to begin the calving season again in January. As such, it is possible to observe wildebeest migration all through the year, depending on where you are planning to safari – you may just want to plan when and where you travel based on the migration’s usual patterns.
What can you see during the Great Migration?
As mentioned, January and February in the southern part of the Serengeti brings calving season, when hundreds of thousands of calves are born in a span of just two months.
However, perhaps the most famous image of the Great Migration is that of wildebeests crossing the river en masse, hoping to escape the jaws of their major predator, the crocodile. In reality, water crossings are relatively rare, and enthusiasts may camp for days or even weeks to make sure they don’t miss a major crossing. However, you may be lucky – especially if you visit in between August and October, when there are the most river crossings. Of course, staying somewhere close to the river helps, and there are several great camps that are semi-permanent and move with the migration to give you the best shot at seeing this wonderful sighting.
Crocodiles are not the only predators who prey on the animals making the perilous migration. Other wildlife – including cheetahs, lions and leopards – similarly stalk the Great Migration, waiting for their chance to prey. This means that if you visit an area during its migration, there is a greater chance of seeing the circle of life at work. Of course, for every wildebeest that falls to their natural predators, many more make it safely to their destination. There is truly something awe-inspiring about that fact in itself.
So where to go – the Serengeti, or the Masai Mara?
Many people ask whether it is best to see the Migration in the Serengeti in Tanzania, or Kenya’s Masai Mara. Due to the cyclic nature of the Great Migration, if you have a particular time of year that you must visit and you are desperate to see it, the decision may be out of your hands. The good news is that both the Serengeti and Masai Mara are stunningly beautiful, and you will certainly not be disappointed by either!
If you have more flexibility and prefer to decide between the two parks, you may want to consider what kind of safari experience you’d like. The Serengeti is synonymous with safari – it was the first National Park to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage Status and it inspired the Lion King. It has wide, open savannahs dotted with trees and rocks, creating the quintessential safari landscape. The Serengeti also has the benefit of lying close to several other national parks – notably, the Ngorongoro Crater which is the world’s largest inactive volcanic crater and an incredible sight itself.
On the other hand, the Masai Mara is smaller, which means the density of wildlife is greater. While in the Serengeti you may have to travel quite some distance in pursuit of wildlife, in Masai Mara the distances are likely to be shorter. In addition, Masai Mara is slightly quieter than the Serengeti, meaning less rival safari vehicles to compete for the best spots!
Another option is to see both – especially during the periods when the wildebeest are moving between the two (such as between August and October which is when our group tours run). Moving between the two parks is fairly straightforward, although it does mean entering both Kenya and Tanzania, and you can either take the expensive option and fly (c$550) or be driven across the border which may seem like the long-winded option, but when you consider that essentially you are doing an all-day game drive, we think it’s not so bad!
Some Final Thoughts
Almost everyone has seen videos and images from the Great Migration, however there is no experience like seeing it for real – feeling the rumble of hundreds of thousands of hooves and the sound of predators and prey facing off against one another. The journey is awash with suspense, heartbreak, and – for the lucky ones – victory as they make it safely to their next destination. It’s the circle of life at work, and whether you see it in Kenya’s Masai Mara or Tanzania’s Serengeti, it is sure to be an unforgettable and awe-inspiring experience.