Sometimes called ‘the greatest show on earth’, the great wildebeest migration attracts thousands of nature lovers, photographers, filmmakers and researchers to east Africa each year to witness one of the world’s most awe-inspiring spectacles.

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What is the great migration?

The annual migration sees mega-herds of almost two million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle travel clockwise from Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Masai Mara and back. The animals travel — driven by some innate instinct — thousands of kilometres in search of water holes and lush grass. Each migration changes slightly, as the animals constantly find new places to graze.

Along the way, the herds experience the full cycle of life. From giving birth in the southern Serengeti to river crossings, rutting season to dealing with predators (more than 250,000 wildebeest die each year), the rhythmic great migration has no real beginning or ending, but is an endless pilgrimage.

The migration is also particular to the wildebeest of the Mara/Serengeti ecosystem. In other parts of Africa, wildebeest are non-migratory. Although no conclusive answer is given as to why the wildebeest in Tanzania and Kenya migrate, scientists have postulated everything from them searching for a particular chemistry in the grass to simple instinct. What is known is that wildebeest have been migrating here for more than one million years.

Which animals migrate?

It’s not just the shaggy wildebeest that migrates. In the herd, you’ll also find thousands of zebra, gazelle and impala. There is a reason for the mega-herds — as well as safety in numbers, there is a logic to feeding. Zebras feed on the long, coarser grass, preparing them for the wider muzzles of the wildebeest, who prefer shorter grass. Conversely, predators like lions and leopards do not migrate with the herds — their interactions occur when their paths cross, often to devastating effect.

When the herds start moving, the wildebeest display a remarkable level of organisation. You’ll often see a wavy, interchangeable front at the head of the herd, suggesting a level of coordination and leadership among the wildebeest. How they communicate this is unknown.

Dealing with predators

The major predators that feed on wildebeest include the lion, hyena, cheetah, leopard and crocodile. However, a wildebeest is not easy prey to bring down and can seriously injure most attackers, including lions. Wildebeest will use their great strength and horns to impale or toss predators that attack them.

With a top speed of 80km/h, a wildebeest is also not the easiest creature to catch. When faced with a predator, wildebeest will herd together, with younger animals protected by older, larger ones as they run. Wildebeest also employ more sophisticated survival tactics, taking it in turns to sleep at night, while others stand guard. They also employ ‘lookouts’ as they walk, who will call out to alert the herd if they spot a predator. Once alerted, the herd runs in the same direction to scare the attacker.

The Mara River crossing is one of the most dramatic moments in the migration. While it might seem that the wildebeest choose an arbitrary moment to jump into the water, causing a frenzy of activity, research shows it might be more planned than first thought. A herd of wildebeest possesses ‘swarm intelligence’, meaning the animals systematically explore and overcome obstacles as one being. Some may be sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the herd.

The wildebeest’s migratory route

Beware any safari company that tells you they can guarantee the route the herds will take. The wildebeest do not move in one continuous motion. Sometimes they’ll go forwards, sometimes backwards. Sometimes they are one group, more often they’ll split into smaller herds.

The herd's movements depend on local weather conditions. Particularly dry years can see the wildebeest reach the Mara River in early July in search of water, while a wet year means the herds might be spread out from Seronera all the way to the Mara. When they reach the river, the wildebeest may take days or even weeks to cross. Being in the right place at the right time is all a matter of luck.

A LONG JOURNEY

The distance the wildebeest travel will vary depending on the migratory route and the amount of rainfall. The wildebeest migration route covers 26,000 sq/km, with the straight-line distance of the Serengeti route about 600km. Research has shown that some animals will cover almost 2,000km a year — more than the distance from London to the tip of Africa in Morocco.

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Is the Great Migration in danger?

When it comes to conservation, the Great Migration picture is a complex interplay between humans, cattle, and wildlife. The survival of the entire ecosystem hangs delicately in the balance.

The Masai, livestock, and tourism

Since the 1970’s, the numbers of many safari animals have fallen by more than 50%. The decline has mostly been linked to the rapid growth of Masai settlements around the reserves. The Masai need big areas to graze their livestock. As the grass disappears, the earth erodes and the grazers are left with nothing to eat.

As the antelope and wildebeest vanish, carnivores are the first casualties. Traditionally, the Masais were semi-nomadic herders who managed to coexist easily with the wildlife in the regions. But as tourism started to grow, more and more settlements were built around the parks, attracting locals to the industry.

One successful attempt to protect the reserves was the setup of private wildlife conservancies around the national parks, allowing the Masai population to earn a stable income from the land they own while creating well-managed grazing areas for their nomadic lifestyle. Unfortunately, with the boom of tourism and population, more and more people in the ranchlands allow their livestock to graze inside the reserves.

The poaching problem

More alarming than ever is illegal poaching. Although Kenya’s poaching trend has gone down because of tough anti-poaching policies, more elephants are being killed in Africa than are being born, with at least 20,000 killed for their ivory in 2016 alone. They are almost all wiped out in West and Central Africa.

In East Africa, statistics from Tanzania are most shocking. The elephant population in that region has been reduced by more than half in the past five years. Poachers are becoming more and more organized and sophisticated, but hopefully the new ban of the ivory trade in China will have a positive impact to curb the decline of elephants and rhinos.

A changing climate

Another big threat to the area has been the more intense variations in seasonal flooding and drought, which might be the result of climate change. As the Indian Ocean warms and prevailing winds transport moisture over East Africa, more intense periods of rain and drought result, raising the prospect of a new threat to the Serengeti’s keystone species and their migration.

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