What is the Great Wildlife Migration?
The Great Wildlife Migration is an enormous and continuous roughly circular migration across the plains and woodlands of Tanzania and Kenya by two million wildebeests, zebras and antelopes.
Also simply called the Great Migration, this annual phenomenon is the largest overland migration on Earth. It’s also a migration with a ‘tail’: predators like lions stalk the travelling herds for prey. It’s a wildlife extravaganza that draws visitors from the around the world who are eager to go on safari and see this unique spectacle for themselves.
- Where can I see the Great Migration?
- What animals take part in the Great Wildlife Migration?
- Animals that prey on the Great Wildlife Migration
- Dangers of the Great Migration
- Which is better: Maasai Mara or Serengeti?
- What is the best time to see the Great Migration?
The Great Wildlife Migration is an enormous, cyclic migration in Eastern Africa of two million hoofed animals.
Where can I see the Great Wildlife Migration?
The Great Wildlife Migration takes place in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya. It’s a cross-border ecosystem that the two countries collaborate in protecting. We love a good wildlife collaboration!
The Great Migration takes place in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya.
Path of The Great Wildlife Migration
There is no fixed Great Migration path. Rather, each year a unique path develops based on the availability of food and water. Each cycle can end up being anywhere between 800 and 1,600 km in length. That said, there’s a general pattern to the path followed by the Great Migration animals. The animals of the migration move in a clockwise direction through the length of the Serengeti National Park and up then up into the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. The route repeats each year and covers roughly a thousand miles.
Knowing the general route of the Great Wildlife Migration can help you to judge roughly when and where some of the herds will pass through. This is obviously useful when planning your African safari.
Map of the Great Migration
The map below gives an idea of the sort of path taken annually by the Great Migration animals.
As you may have noticed in the map above, the animals of the Great wildlife Migration often head further south than the Serengeti National Park. This is because they usually also migrate through the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, another superb protected area in northern Tanzania.
So while most of us think of the Great Migration as occurring in Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara, it actually takes place in the following five protected areas:
- Serengeti National Park (Tanzania)
- Ngorongoro Conservation Area (Tanzania)
- Loliondo Game Controlled Area (Tanzania)
- Grumeti Reserve (Tanzania)
- Maasai Mara National reserve (Kenya)
Now you know 😉
What animals take part in the Great Migration?
The Great Migration is a spectacle unlike any other on earth. Around two million animals move en masse across the landscape of the Serengteti and Maasai Mara. The bulk of the migrating mammals are wildebeests. But there are also incredible numbers of zebras and different antelopes taking part too. Here’s a quick look at each animal you can look forward to seeing in the Great Migration …
At the heart of the Great Wildlife Migration is the wildebeest, or the blue wildebeest to be more precise. This is so much the case that sometimes the migration is referred to as the Great Wildebeest Migration. Around 1.5 million wildebeests take part in the migration. What a number! The pageant they put on when moving en masse is unique and mesmerising.
The 1.5 million blue wildebeests of the Great Migration don’t all move in one astronomically large herd. There are various herds that separate, converge and morph as the migration moves forward. That said – and as the image below attempts to show – the herds are still massive, and are utterly uncountable to the dumbstruck spectator!
Given the endless migratory habits of the wildebeests, it may not surprise you to learn that calves can stand within seven minutes of being born, and can keep up with the herd after just a coupe of days! These are animals born to get a move on!
Around half a million wildebeests are born every year between January and March in the Serengeti.
Around 200,000 zebras travel alongside the wildebeests as part of the Great Migration. These zebras are a subspecies of the plains zebra known as Grant’s zebra. They’re the smallest of the plains zebra, and very beautiful. The stripes on their body are vertical, while those on their legs are horizontal.
Migrating alongside wildebeests
Zebras are highly social animals, and live in herds. Fascinatingly, the reason that zebras can move in harmony with wildebeests in the Great Migration is that the two creatures eat different parts of the same type of grass. This is why (as shown in one of the photos below) you often see zebra and wildebeest herds mixing along the Great Migration route.
Did you know that female zebras have a gestation period of over a year? They can only carry one calf at a time, and, once the calf is born, they nurse it for up to a year.
Zebras and wildebeests make great travelling buddies because they eat different parts of the same grass.
Various types of antelopes also make up part of the Great Wildlife Migration. Most notably, you have the following four antelopes making up the ranks of the migration:
- Thomson’s gazelle (Eudorcas thomsonii) – sometimes referred to as a “tommie”. Around 500,000 take part in the Great Wildlife Migration! They’re easy to identify by the black stripes that run down the sides of their bodies. They’re fantastic runners, and can exceed 65 km per hour.
- Grant’s gazelle (Nanger granti) – it’s similar to a Thomson’s gazelle, but is much larger. It also lacks the black side stripes of the Thomson’s gazelle, making the two easy to distinguish even in isolation. These guys can run as fast as 80 km per hour! An important skill when you have predators chasing you down your entire life.
- Impala (Aepyceros melampus) – this slender antelope is a favourite with many for its beautiful appearance and graceful leaping. And boy can they run! Impalas can actually reach a run-in speed of 90 km per hour.
- Common eland (Taurotragus oryx) – it can grow to be 1.6 m at shoulder height. Around 18,000 elands take part in the Great Wildlife Migration. Elands are the slowest antelope, running at only about 40 km per hour. They can, however, jump three metres into the air!
About half a million Thomson’s gazelles take part in the Great Migration.
Animals that prey on the Great Wildlife Migration
Various animals prey on the herds of the Great Wildlife Migration. Think leopards, cheetahs and African wild dogs, for instance. But front and centre is the lion, the mighty King of the Jungle. Lions actually stalk the herds, moving across the landscape in pursuit of them. Another notable Great Migration predator is the hyena, which also tracks the herds, looking for chances to strike. Some predators don’t stalk the migration, but take their opportunities when they come. Of significance here are the massive crocodiles of the Serengeti’s rivers.
Here’s a little more on each of these three fearsome predators …
Around 3,000 African lions stalk the herds of the Great Migration. It’s interesting to note that male lions generally hunt alone, while female lions (lionesses) hunt in a cooperative group.
Also interesting is the fact that wildebeests and lions both have the same maximum running speed: around 80 km per hour. Wildebeests can, however, sustain their running for longer. This is one of the reasons why cooperative hunting is useful to lions.
A lion’s roar can be heard from 8 km away!
Hyenas are well known as scavengers. But what some don’t realise is that they actually kill most of their prey. So what they really are is opportunists. And did you know that their bite is more powerful than that of lion??
Around 7,000 spotted hyenas stalk the Great Migration herds. They’re able to do this as they’re endowed with fantastic stamina – not all predators can keep up with the herds. Interestingly, female spotted hyenas are heavier on average than male hyenas. Specifically, female spotted hyenas grow to weigh 44 to 64 kg in comparison with male spotted hyenas, which weigh in at just 40 to 55 kg.
Given their spooky ‘laughter’, a clan of hyenas is also sometimes called a cackle of hyenas.
Nile crocodiles attack wildebeests and other animals during the river crossings of the Great Migration. This is part of what makes the crossings so very dangerous for the migrating herds. These crocodiles are enormous, sometimes measuring 5 m (17 ft) in length. Shudder. The can also grow as old as 70 years!
Dangers of the Great Migration
Of the roughly 1.5 million wildebeests of the Great Wildlife Migration, about 250,000 die every year. That means around a sixth of the wildebeest population doesn’t survive the Great Migration. The causes of death of vary, and include being killed by predators, dying of thirst or starvation, and being drowned when crossing large rivers.
River crossings of the Great Migration
The wildebeests, zebras and antelopes of the Great Migration must cross many streams and rivers in their search for water and green pasture. The larger river crossings are particularly dangerous moments for them.
Most significantly, the animals must cross the large, crocodile-infested Grumeti and Mara Rivers of the Serengeti. Sensing the danger, the herds cross the rivers in a stampede. Some of the animals are taken out by crocs, others are trampled to death, and still others are swept away by the current and drowned.
The frenzy and chaos of these dramatic crossings draw many fascinated safari-goers to the Mara and Grumeti Rivers of the Serengeti.
It’s also interesting to note that the carcasses of the animals not surviving the infamous Mara and Grumeti River crossings play an important part in the ecosystems of the latter. Scavengers feast on the dead animals, and the rivers receive vital nutrients from the decaying bodies. In fact, National Geographic claims that each year the ecosystems of the Serengeti’s rivers receive two million pounds of rotting wildebeest flesh!
River crossings are very dangerous for the herds of the Great Migration, but thirst and hunger are, in fact, the bigger baddies.
Which is better: Maasai Mara or Serengeti?
There are two places you can visit to see the Great Wildlife Migration: Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Both are phenomenal parks where you can enjoy epic safaris. There are, however, distinct pros to each destination, as we discuss in Kenya vs Tanzania: which offers the better African safari?
At Follow Alice we feel that the Serengeti is the better safari destination, especially when it comes to viewing the Great Migration. Our reasons are:
- A far larger percentage of the Great Migration takes place in Tanzania (see map)
- The spectacular river crossings take place in Tanzania, not Kenya
- Tanzania is the safer country (read more here)
What is the best time to see the Great Migration?
The Great Wildlife Migration follows a different route each year, depending on the availability of water and grass. There’s a pattern, however, to the animals’ movements, as indicated in broad strokes in the table below.
Note: If you’d like to plan a safari based on a specific aspect of the Great Migration, we invite you to chat with us so we can advise you on exactly when and where to travel.
|January to March||In summer the herds are at the southern end of their migratory path, in the south of Serengeti National Park and in Ngorongoro Conservation Area.||This is the calving season. Nearly half a million wildebeests are born every year! Predators like lions can be seen in action often, given the great numbers they can hunt.||Visit now if you want to see baby animals and lots of hunting action!|
|April to June||In April the herds start moving northwest towards the grasses of the Seronera (central Serengeti) and then the Western Corridor (western Serengeti).||Mating season starts near the end of May, and this can lead to fights to between male wildebeests. From May to July the herds must cross the Grumeti River to continue on their northwards trajectory.||Herds should start crossing the Grumeti River from May onwards.|
|July to September||Some of the animals head north into Grumeti Reserve, others into the north of the Serengeti. By September, some of the herds are crossing into Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.||To reach the green pastures of the Maasai Mara, the herds must cross the Mara River. This is the biggest river crossing, and its mayhem.||This is usually the time of year for seeing the famous Mara River crossing!|
|October to December||In October the herds are usually in the Maasai Mara. They then move swiftly southward, back into the Serengeti. By December they’re once again grazing in the eastern and southern portions of the Serengeti.||The herds must once again cross the Mara River (poor dears!) near the start of their southwards journey. October and early November are the rainy season in the region.||The Eastern Serengeti is known for its excellent cheetah sightings.|
June to September are the best months for seeing the river crossings of the Great Migration. For these, you must visit the northern Serengeti.
Is it time to get your safari on??
Chat to us about which aspect of the Great Migration you’d most like to see, and we’ll advise you on when and where to plan your African safari!