Perhaps the most famous wildlife show on earth, the annual migration of over a million wildebeest and zebra through the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystem is a truly amazing event. Every year the enormous herds migrate across the vast plains of Kenya and Tanzania following the rains to find fresh grazing. It is surely one of the great natural wonders on Earth. Precise timing of the migration is dependent upon the rainfall patterns every year but read on for an explanation of the broad migration pattern and how maximize your chances of experiencing the Great Migration.
If you're interested in witnessing the migration, Dan Hopkins (owner of GrassTrack Safaris) will be hosting a 12 day, privately guided safari to Tanzania in March 2020. We'll be spending some significant time in the Serengeti when the herds have just given birth. During our visit in the Serengeti, we'll join a Tanzanian wildlife biologist and assist in collecting data on individual lions, leopards and cheetahs. This will be an all encompassing and in-depth safari experience. See details here.
What is the Migration?
Every year the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem see millions of wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra migrate through parts of Kenya and Tanzania in search of the best food and water in time with the changing seasons. Estimates of exact numbers of animals vary but it is generally agreed there are in excess of 1.5 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra. Following a similar path each year, they head north from Tanzania into Kenya, never straying too far from water. If you mention the migration to any wildlife enthusiast, dramatic images of thousands of wildebeest running and jumping across the Mara River desperately trying to evade the jaws of the ferocious crocodiles certainly spring to mind, although this classic vision of the migration is in fact a very small part of a much bigger wildlife spectacle.
When Does the Migration Occur?
This is the most common question for those interested in going on safari in east Africa. The answer is the migration is always happening. The actual movement of the wildebeest occurs over a 12-month cycle starting in January in the southern Serengeti, arriving in Kenya in July, and returning to the southern Serengeti in December to start the cycle all over again. Below is our detailed guide on the different seasons of the migration, where you’ll find her herds throughout the year and how to decide for yourself when is the best time to witness this amazing wildlife spectacle.
This article is given as a guide to the great migration using years of experience in east Africa and research from previous years. However, like with most natural events, it is entirely dependent on weather. The wildebeest are driven by good grazing, decent amounts of standing water and local weather conditions. They may go slightly off route or take longer to get to the next step and stay longer or shorter at certain locations depending on the local conditions. Nothing is guaranteed but this guide will give you a good insight into what the migration is and an understanding of how best to witness it.
Mid-December through March: Southern Serengeti
From mid-December to March, the wildebeest are in the southern Serengeti for their calving season. It is estimated that as many as half a million wildebeest calves are born during this period with as many as 8,000 being born on any one day. This period follows the “short rains” in November and early December which spurs the growth of new grasses on the plains and therefore more food, hence it’s a good time to give birth as the rates of survival are far higher. The southern Serengeti is also a great place for the mothers to give birth as the grass here is enriched with high levels of calcium and magnesium which helps with their milk production – plus the short grasses are safer as there aren’t as many lurking predators hiding in the long grass.
A Good time to go?
Yes, one of the best! The calving season in the south Serengeti can be an amazing thing to observe – this is the classic image of the Serengeti’s endless plains dotted as far as the eye can see with wildebeest. The sheer numbers of them as well as the chances of seeing the resident apex predators hunting (lions in particular) make for an exciting spectacle to witness (although not for the faint of heart)!
This is the time we'll be in the Serengeti on our private Authentic Tanzania Safari! See all the details here.
April & May: Central Serengeti
This period is known as the onset of the long rains and the herds start moving north-west towards the central part of the Serengeti in search of fresh grass. They tend to split into various large groups, some beginning to head to the Western Corridor of the Serengeti towards Lake Victoria and others remain in Central and North Central Serengeti around the Seronera River. As the circle of life needs to continue, this is also when the wildebeest start to mate again as their gestation period can be up to 9 months in length.
A Good time to go?
Yes and no. The herds and wildlife in general are more dispersed thanks to the proliferation of water source due to the recent rains. This is in contrast to the dry months when the animals tend to concentrate around the remaining watering holes. Also, with the rains comes the long grass, making game viewing a little harder. Rain is likely, generally in the form of strong afternoon showers. However, the benefit of this time of year is that there are far fewer visitors in the park, meaning more exclusive wildlife encounters (there is still plenty of wildlife around).
June to mid-July: Western Serengeti/Grumeti
The herds are now split, with the majority in the Western Corridor of the Serengeti by the Grumeti River; where many cross the crocodile infested river, making for some amazing wildlife viewing. The other large herds are now in the North Central Serengeti heading towards the Northern Serengeti and Masai Mara. The vision of the migration over this period is the long lines of wildebeest as they head towards the north.
A Good time to go?
Yes. The herds are now travelling and are quite spread out, this allows for some longer game drives as you drive through the long lines of wildebeest. This period is generally known for the crossing at the Grumeti River, although some would argue that it is not as dramatic as the Mara River crossing, as the Grumeti River does not have the same volume of water as the Mara River. However, it is still an incredible sight. It is also a lovely time to visit as the plains are lush and green.
Mid-July to October: Northern Serengeti/Masai Mara
Continuing north, some of the smaller herds will be reaching the Masai Mara by as early as late June, early July. The larger, or mega-herd, takes a bit longer and generally reaches northern Serengeti / Kenya’s Masai Mara in August. It is over this period that the wildebeest need to cross the Mara River in order to access the lush grass of the Masai Mara in Kenya. The herds cross at various points of the Mara River, many of these crossing points are in the Serengeti as well as the Masai Mara. It is the Mara River that bears witness to some of the most spectacular crossings of the migration! The vertigo inducing banks can be the first downfall (literally) of the wildebeest – although once they’ve cleared that they have the second challenge of getting to the other side without being snapped up (again quite literally) by the hungry crocodiles in the river. Once this obstacle has been overcome there are then the steep banks on the other side of the river that they now must climb; not an easy feat after having crossed a river dodging hungry crocs and now fighting with the many hundreds of wildebeest trying to climb the steep bank. In fact, the majority die by drowning rather than being eaten by crocodiles. Despite the death-defying conditions, most of the wildebeest actually make it to the other side unscathed – which is quite remarkable! This is the classic all action part of the migration. It certainly isn’t for the faint hearted and as amazing as it is – it does show nature at its most brutal.
A Good time to go?
Yes! This is prime migration season, a great time to visit the northern Serengeti or the Masai Mara and certainly a good time to game watch at the Mara River. Note that generally the busiest crossing period is between August and October.
The action of the river crossing happens in the Mara Reserve, but you need to be warned that at those crossing points it can be busy with vehicles. As there are a number of bigger lodges in the Mara Reserve, this period in the Mara can get quite busy with many vehicles in search of the same wildlife experience as you. The Mara Reserve is fantastic for game and the wildlife sightings are among the best in Africa. However, the negative is that you share this with many others, especially in the July – October time period. If you are looking to escape the crowds and for something more exclusive, but still good in terms of game viewing, you should consider one of the private Mara Conservancies.
Along the northern and eastern boundaries of the Maasai Mara National Reserve there are a number of private wildlife conservancies, most of which are Maasai-owned. The safari lodges/camps in the Mara Conservancies are limited in number and smaller in size and are exclusive to their guests, therefore there are far fewer vehicles than in the Mara Reserve itself. In addition, bush walks and night drives can be done in the conservancies, unlike the Mara Reserve. Day trips into the Mara Reserve to see the migration river crossing can be done. The camps in the Mara Conservancies do tend to be a more expensive than in the Mara Reserve, as the properties are smaller, more luxurious, and due to the fact that you need to pay in order to preserve the Conservancy and also pay to have it exclusively used by a handful of properties located within the Conservancy.
November to mid-December: Northern to Central Serengeti
After some time spent in the Masai Mara and Northern Serengeti, the herds begin to head south back into Tanzania. The circle of life is almost complete and the wildebeest return to the mineral rich short grassed plains of the southern Serengeti so they can once again begin their calving season and start the journey again.
A Good time to go?
Yes! This period is less predictable and the herds tend to split, with large groups scattered, from the North to Central Serengeti. However, it is a great period for a safari as the rains tend to come in the evening and are scattered all over the Serengeti, with some dramatic thunder storms that settle the dust from the long dry season. There are also fewer visitors over this period, which is also a plus and game viewing is still great, in terms of all other wildlife.
Top Tips for Witnessing the Migration
- Prioritize which of the migration spectacles is most important to you – a river crossing, wildebeest calving or massive herds as far as the eye can see – this will help determine which is the best month to go for you.
- Choose your safari lodge/camp based on optimal access to the migration during the month of your visit.
- If visiting during the Mara River crossing season (August– October) consider combining the northern Serengeti in Tanzania and one of the Masai Mara conservancies for the best and most exclusive experience.
- For the most exclusive wildlife experience, consider a visit during “shoulder season” in November, early December or March – May.
- Consider booking a private vehicle for a day to maximize your migration experience.
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