The Great Migration in the Serengeti is an amazing wildlife phenomena and one I had always wanted to see. The wildebeest are the most common animals, numbering around 1.5 million, accompanied by about a quarter million zebras. They travel in a great counterclockwise loop to find the best grazing. Wildebeest and zebra babies are born January through March in the area a bit north of Ngorongoro Crater, so that is where we headed. As the year progresses and the rains arrive in late spring, the animals move west and then north by April. In the dry season in late summer, usually September, they arrive at the Mara River in Kenya. This area is known for the spectacle of thousands of wildebeest crossing the river while evading predation by crocodiles and lions. By November the herds are headed south, back into Tanzania, to arrive at their birthing areas by December.
The herds are always on the move, since so many animals can deplete an area for grazing and attract the local predators. Our guide told us that the wildebeest and zebras migrate together because each contributes to the well-being of the herds: the wildebeest can smell where the rains are far in the distance and lead the way there for the fresh grass, while the zebras have great vision and can best spot the predators.
The wildebeest usually give birth to their calves within a narrow period of time—three weeks—a strategy such that the predators become overwhelmed with easy prey. At first this seems contrary to the survival of the greater herd, but as a selection process it allows for the survival of more of the calves; this is because the predators have a shorter season to catch the small, vulnerable wildebeest. We were fortunate to not only have witnessed the midst of the Great Migration but as well to see newborn wildebeest calves among their adult herds and the other large herds of animals which find herd company effective at minimizing the death of their own young. Unfortunately, on the other side of nature—as nature will have it—we also saw some inevitable kills by cheetahs.
We stopped at a Massai Mara village, which was set up for tourism, to watch men demonstrate a jumping contest and afterwards were taken on a tour of the village. One of the sons of the chief guided us and spoke excellent English. He told us that he had finished high school and would have loved to have continued on to college, but because he was told that his tribe needed him he had returned to his village. We visited the village school, and when I saw how few supplies they had I wished I had brought some basic things like notebooks and pencils.
They say the jumping maneuver better reveals the advance of predators because of the gained height advantage, and the brightly-colored outer clothing becomes an effective distraction, if quickly removed and left behind, from a would-be lion attack. In recent years, the advent of the Maasai Olympic Games has transformed jumping as a ceremonial dance into one of a set of formal athletic events where livestock may be won or educational opportunites awarded, the function helping to replace certain traditions of hunting lions for economic gain or simply to prove heroism. Maasai athletes have reached heights well over 10 feet in their olympic jumping competition, the height being measured by grazing, with the top of the head, a rope stretched between two graduated vertical poles by two referees. That height is dizzying and difficult to achieve; for example, very few NBA players could do it (the rim of a professional basketball hoop is set 10 feet above the boards). Other events in the Maasai Olympics are javelin throwing and the 200 meter sprint; clearly, some of the athletes have potential for world-class competition. The most well-known Maasai athlete in this regard is David Rudisha, who currently holds the world record in the 800 meter run, one of those records thought to be untouchable. The Maasai Olympics is working as a conservation program, as intended. Tourism greatly helps both conservation and the Maasai community, too. The lion population is again on the rise as a result of these kinds of cultural and economic changes which at the same time benefit the Maasai community.
We arrived at a mobile tent camp that evening, a camp which moves periodically with the migration during the spring season. It was very comfortable! The tents have indoor bathrooms complete with showers. If you want a shower, you will need to specifically order one; staff will heat and deliver water, pouring it to the shower bag. There was a separate dining tent that had large screened-in areas to enjoy an insect-free environment while gazing at the incredible world outside view and enjoying the sumptuous food. At night we were escorted to our tent; the first night our escort shone his flashlight into the bushes and there were several pairs of African buffalo eyes staring back at us! Another night we were awoken by the continued roar of a nearby lion; the next morning our guide tried to find the pride but we were unsuccessful. The camp had a generator so that I could recharge my batteries in the main tent while eating dinner, but it was shut off around 8 pm.
This is a very large, mixed habitat region of the Serengeti, with rivers, brushlands, forests and open grasslands and was actually technically several parks including the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Our guide warned us that we had to be out of the national park by 6 pm, as sometimes rangers waited by the border to catch stragglers. During the day he occasionally quizzed me about where we were in an attempt to orient me to our whereabouts, as it was a confusing area.
One day we saw three cheetah kills. As the first two were with very young wildebeests, I won’t include those as I found them a bit sad. The third one, though, was more interesting. We had been exploring and evidently our guide got a call on the radio about two cheetahs. Our guide didn’t tell us exactly about the cheetahs, probably because we were quite a ways away and there was a high probability that we would be too late (if I ever go on another trip to East Africa, I intend to learn all of the animal names in the Swahili language). He sped off as fast as possible on the dirt track roads, slick from the rain that had just fallen. I remember one skid where the whole rear of the vehicle slid toward a clump of trees and brush, as if we were on an icy road, but he managed to keep control and had probably made that kind of maneuver many times before. The Serengeti roads are unimproved, but often-ocurring drainage control berms help channel floodwaters from the rains away from the highway. The widest highway out of Ngorongoro toward Lake Victoria is scarcely twenty feet wide in the average place and may be only ten feet wide at river and stream crossings. Other places may be reached by retracing any number of paralleling wheel tracks across the plain that divert to this mobile camp or that hotel from this main artery, Tanzania Highway B144.
We finally arrived where the two male cheetahs were grooming each other after the rain. There were dozens of vehicles close to the cheetahs, and as the animals started to walk towards the nearby wildebeest herd, the vehicles closely followed. As we started to do this too, we realized it was too crowded and we were all probably interfering with the cheetahs’ ability to hunt, so we discussed this, decided that we would not continue pursuing the cheetahs and left the area. We drove by a recent kill of a baby wildebeest but there wasn’t much happening. However, we ended up being in front of the wildebeest herd and our guide stopped. I really couldn’t even see the cheetahs but decided to get set up with my camera even though I had little hope that I would see anything. Suddenly the herd started moving, the cheetahs isolated one wildebeest and they brought the unlucky animal down right in front of us! It was so close I couldn’t even fit in both cheetahs for one photo! I was amazed. Evidently the other guides were too, because when they brought their vehicles in to circle the kill, several gave a thumbs up to our guide for getting us in the right place. We watched for a short time, but having so many vehicles surrounding the cheetahs prevented them from being able to watch for predators such as lions coming in to steal the kill, so once again we left.
Other highlights of this region included seeing a lion in a tree. Our guide knew where the pride was that sometimes climbed into trees, so we went to see them. When we arrived there were a couple lionesses asleep. We waited while the other vehicles left, and soon the two females woke up. One got up and to our delight lept into a nearby tree. We of course saw more birds (including a weaver nest right by our tent camp), bat foxes and lions eating a wildebeest. My friend and I asked our guide about dung beetles, and he stopped along a dirt road in a wide open region with very low vegetation (probably so he could keep a lookout for lions), and we got out of the vehicle and used our macro lenses to photograph these small but vitally important animals that are part of the scarab beetle family. We watched a dung beetle pair make the ball from fresh dung and then roll it away, so this was a “roller” species. If they were going to use this for their young, they would then mate and the female lay her eggs in the ball. We also watched a dung beetle steal away a ball after a pair had done all the work to make it.
The great migration is very dynamic and unpredictable. When we returned from the upper Serengeti later, there was not an animal to be seen in places where we had seen thousands just a few days before, so we felt very fortunate to have seen what we did. Every day was different, and because there is so much potential in the region I would recommend it. While most people go to see the great migration in fall because of the river crossings, I enjoyed seeing the migration when the grass was green and the animals had young babies.
Some Favorite Photos from the Serengeti Migration
Click on any photo in the gallery below to enter a manual slideshow containing full images and descriptions and social sharing links. All photos by Barbara Swanson.