Tanzania’s oldest and most popular national park, also a world heritage site and recently proclaimed a 7th world wide wonder, the Serengeti is famed for its annual migration. Some six million hooves pound the open plains, each one driven by the same ancient rhythm, fulfilling its instinctive role in the inescapable cycle of life, and more than 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle join the wildebeest’s trek for fresh grazing.
The spectacle of predator versus prey dominates Tanzania’s greatest park – Golden-maned lion prides feast on the abundance of plain grazers. Almost uniquely, all three African jackal species occur here, alongside the spotted hyena and a host of more elusive small predators.
All around is some of the wildest bush in Africa. Buffalo lumber along, all manner of game graze the plains nervously and at night the cough of the Leopard or the whooping laugh of the hyena interrupt the incessant ticking of the cicadias. But there is more to Serengeti than large mammals. Gaudy agama lizards and rock hyraxes scuffle around the surfaces of the park’s isolated granite koppies. A full 100 varieties of dung beetle have been recorded, as have 500-plus bird species, ranging from the outsized ostrich and bizarre secretary bird of the open grassland, to the black eagles that soar effortlessly above the Lobo Hills.
As enduring as the game viewing, is the liberating sense of space that characterises the Serengeti Plains, stretching across sunburnt savannah to a shimmering golden horizon at the end of the earth. Yet, after the rains, this golden expanse of grass is transformed into an endless green carpet flecked with wildflowers. And there are also wooded hills and towering termite mounds, rivers lined with fig trees and acacia woodland stained orange by dust.
The great Serengeti wildebeest migration is the movement of vast numbers of the Serengeti’s wildebeest, accompanied by large numbers of zebra, and smaller numbers of Grant’s gazelle, Thompson’s gazelle, eland and impala. These move in an annual pattern which is fairly predictable. They migrating throughout the year, constantly seeking fresh grazing and, it’s now thought, better quality water. The precise timing of the Serengeti wildebeest migration is entirely dependent upon the rainfall patterns each year – here we explain how the broad pattern works.
The short rains begin around early November. A little after this, in late November and December, the herds of the wildebeest migration arrive on the short-grass plains of the Serengeti. These are south and east of Seronera, around Ndutu and include the north of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Dispersed across these plains, wildebeest and zebra are everywhere – feeding on the fresh, nutritious grasses. They stay here through January, February and March, with most wildebeest calves born in a short window around February. Gradually they spread west across these plains, then around April they start their great migration north.
By May the Serengeti’s wildebeest all seem to be moving north, migrating to seek fresh grazing and water. The area around Moru Kopjes and west of Seronera is then hectic with a series of moving columns, often containing hundreds of thousands of animals – joined by many zebra, and a scattering of Thompson’s and Grant’s gazelles.
Some of the migration then head due north of Seronera, but most are usually further west. Around June the wildebeest migration is often halted on the south side of the Grumeti River, which has some channels which block or slow their migration north. The wildebeest then congregate there, in the Western Corridor, often building up to a high density before crossing the river. The river here is normally a series of pools and channels, but it’s not continuous – and so whilst they always represent an annual feast for the Grumeti River’s large crocodiles, these aren’t usually quite as spectacular as the crossings of the Mara River, further north.
The wildebeest migration continues moving northwards during July and August, often spreading out across a broad front: some heading through Grumeti Reserve and Ikorongo, others north through the heart of the Serengeti National Park.
September sees the herds spread out across the northern Serengeti, where the Mara River provides the migration with its most serious obstacle. This river gushes through the northern Serengeti from Kenya’s adjacent Maasai Mara Game Reserve. Watching the frantic herds of the wildebeest migration crossing the Mara River can be very spectacular; there are often scenes of great panic and confusion. It’s common to see herds cross the Mara River north on one day, and then back south a few days later.
By October the wildebeest herds are migrating again with more accord: all are heading south, through western Loliondo and the Serengeti National Park’s Lobo area, returning to the green shoots which follow the rains on the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti in November.