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Nature's Great Migration | Serengeti and Masai Mara

Nature’s calendar is filled with drama, excitement and the greatest fight for survival ever witnessed on the plains of Africa. It is a calendar defined by seasons, rainfall and instinct, impossible to predict with any certainty. A million wildebeest and a half-million zebra and gazelle will trek over 1,200 miles (2,000 km) during their annual quest for food.

Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park
Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve

Tanzania, November to April
Countless wildebeest, zebra and gazelle stretch to the horizon on the short grass plains of the south eastern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, spreading out across the plains in every direction. Foals are born and the excitement of safari is unforgettable. For the Serengeti’s great carnivores, this is a season of plenty.

Tanzania, May to June
Clouds of dust rise off the plains as great columns of wildebeest are on the move. Over a million grunting herbivores move relentlessly north and west in search of fresh grasses and water. Drama unfolds at the Grumeti River as floundering antelope are overwhelmed by huge Nile crocodiles. The vast herds mate here and press northwards.

Kenya, July to October
The herds congregate, hesitating at the banks of the Mara River. Driven by the urge to reach the grasslands of the Mara Triangle, they plunge headlong into the swollen river to face the gauntlet of Nile crocodiles. The surviving herbivores will scatter across the Mara during this dry season until the distant rumble of thunder and the promise of rain will turn their heads to the south for the long journey back to the short grass plains of Tanzania.

    The Great Migration

Serengeti and Masai Mara - route of the migration

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Ambush and Survival

The Birth of a New Generation – Three strategies for survival
1. In January or February, Wildebeest give birth to a single foal in the middle of the herd, for protection from hyenas and other predators circling the herd in search of an easy meal
2. 80% of foals are born within a 2-3 week period. Cumulatively, the herds of nearly a million animals produce a glut of foals within this closely synchronised period, ensuring the survival of large numbers of the young animals, regardless of the losses to predators and natural causes
3. The young foals stand and run within minutes of birth and can keep up with the herd within a few days.

The Journey North and West – The huge herds of wildebeest gathered on the plains and countless columns of animals on the move provide an unforgettable visual experience on a migration safari. Predator activity around the herds (especially by lions and hyenas) adds to the drama of this spectacle of nature.

The migration of the herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle is largely influenced by the rain. The long rains fall in March through May and short rains fall in the period October through November. When the lush green grasses after the rains have been consumed and with the onset of the dry season, the migratory herbivores move on in search of available water and fresh grazing.

The migration from the Serengeti (Tanzania) in the south to the Masai Mara in the North is one of the most spectacular wildlife shows on earth. Although the exact timing of the migration varies every year, the best time to witness this spectacle in the Serengeti is usually between January and July in the Serengeti (depending on location). In Kenya's Masai Mara, it is usually between July and August, when large numbers of wildebeest and other antelope congregate and prepare to cross the Mara River in search of fresh grazing on the other side. Predators hunt frequently as the migrating herbivores pass through their territories.

The River Crossings – Possibly the most dramatic sightings along the route of the migration occur at the Mara River crossings. They face a gauntlet of huge crocodiles as they plunge headlong into the river, drawn by the richer pastures on the other side.

The herds gather at crossing points along the banks, hesitating to take the plunge into the river. False starts are common, until eventually pressure from behind triggers the onrush of animals, leaping and stumbling down the banks and into the water.

Young animals are particularly vulnerable during this time and the Mara river crossing poses life threatening obstacles. Many drown in the scramble to cross, or fall victim to the crocodiles. Those that survive will enjoy the grasslands of the Mara Triangle before turning south at the onset of the short November rains to return to the Serengeti in October - November.

Read more:
Timing of the Migration
| The Serengeti Ecosystem | The grazing succession | The wildebeest's cycle of life
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The timing of the migration

The exact timing of the migration varies each year and the triggers that drive the herds from the Serengeti’s short grass plains are still poorly understood. The diminishing availability of water and grazing at the onset of the dry season are clearly primary factors, but other factors are also thought to come into play. Some researchers have argued that rising salinity levels in the lakes and rivers of the volcanic plains at the onset of the dry season reach a precise and predictable level at which point the herbivores will start to move. The scattered herds gather into columns up to 25 miles (40 km) long to start on their journey westwards and northwards. Whatever the cause, the variations in timing make it difficult for visitors to plan their trip ahead of time to ‘catch the migration’ at any particular safari destination. Some migration safaris in Tanzania provide mobile camping safaris that travel to the migrating herds.

The Serengeti eco-System

The Serengeti eco-System encompasses Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the controlled areas to the north of the Grumeti River, the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the wildlife dispersal areas in the vicinity of the Mara. This vast unfenced eco-system spans across the political border between Kenya and Tanzania to allow the migrating herds free movement to follow their migratory instincts. It is a region of grass and woodland extending in an irregular pattern approximately 200 miles north-south and 200 miles east-west (320km x 320km).
This ecological system supports an incredible 1.6 million herbivores and thousands of predators. Approximately 1.2 million of the herbivores participate in the Great Migration. Most predators are territorial and do not migrate, but hunt the passing parade of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle as they pass through their territories.

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The grazing succession

It is remarkable that such vast numbers of herbivores are able to mutually survive off the limited grassland resources of the Serengeti eco-system. The secret lies in the balance and mutual dependency of the grazing habits and preferences known as the grazing succession. The migration at most times is led by the Burchell’s Zebra who feed off the taller grasses, making it easier for the wildebeest to get to the shorter grass below. The remaining short grass left by the wildebeest has then been exposed for grazing by the Grant and Thompson Gazelle (‘Tommies’) that trail last in this great wildlife procession.

The wildebeests’ cycle of life

Life begins for a wildebeest calf somewhere on the volcanic short grass plains of the south eastern Serengeti or Ngorongoro Conservation Area. In a miracle of nature, hundreds of thousands of pregnant wildebeest will drop their calves within a 2-3 week timeframe, usually during February. The new born calves can stand within 7 minutes of birth, and are able to keep up with the herds within as little as two days. The newborn calves immediately attract predators, especially hyenas, cheetahs and African wild (painted) dogs. Only the cheetahs and wild dogs are able to easily run down the older calves, leaving the hyenas to pursue the new born. The result of the prolific birthing over such a short timeframe is one of survival. Most calves survive the vulnerable two days following birth, having vastly outnumbered the available predators.

Mating between wildebeest takes place generally around May and June, as the herds head into the woodland areas to the west and north, en route to the Masai Mara National Reserve. Bulls defend cramped territories, noisily rounding up passing cows, evicting other bachelor males and butting heads with territorial neighbors. The bulls attempt to breed with as many females as possible before the females move on through their territories. Wildebeest pregnancy lasts 8½ months.

Predators  of the Great Migration

An estimated 3,000 lions, 7,000 hyenas and countless other predators will exact a heavy toll on the wildebeest herds as they migrate along their journey through life. It is however a shortage of grazing and water during the dry season and the harsh environment that will exact the heaviest toll.

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East Africa safaris - suggestions for witnessing the migration

A Serengeti safari during the birthing of the Wildebeest in February
A safari to the Grumeti River when the migrating herds pause to drink and run the gauntlet of the huge Nile crocodiles that lie in wait
The Mara River when the migrating herds fight their way across the swollen river
A safari in the Mara Triangle when the migrating herds are in Kenya.

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