The first time I went on safari in Tanzania, I didn’t really understand what the Great Migration was all about. Who migrates? Where do they migrate? What is the interest in seeing this event? When does it happen? I didn’t see the appeal of watching wildebeest/gnus walking in one direction. However, I can assure you once you lay witness to this amazing event, you will want to view it from all possible scenarios.
What is the Great Migration?
The Great Migration, considered one of the 7 wonders of the natural world, is a yearly spectacle involving the movement of wildebeest, zebra and antelope throughout the Serengeti Ecosystem. This journey involves around a 800 km (~500 miles) trek of almost constant movement.
During the migration, herds of animals move in a clockwise direction through the ecosystem in search of green pastures for grazing as well as water sources. In short, they follow the rains. There are literally millions of wildebeest along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and antelope of all kinds moving together. As such, this massive congregation of animals allows for spectacular game viewing. And these animals on migration are typically prey for the big cats – so wherever the migration is, you can bet you will see higher concentrations of lion, cheetah and leopards. This also draws the scavengers – jackals, hyenas and large birds like vultures and maribou stork.
As you can only imagine, this variety and sheer number of animals is a wildlife enthusiast’s and photographer’s dream! You don’t have to go far to see almost any animal you can think of during the migration.
Where can I see the Great Migration?
The Great Migration is something that only happens in the Serengeti Ecosystem, which is primarily within Tanzania and a small portion of Kenya within the Masai Mara. The Serengeti Ecosystem is Africa’s most diverse and vast eco-system and it is considered to be the world’s top big game safari viewing region. You can witness all aspects of the migration year-round in Tanzania but only a small portion of the migration during a limited time of the year in the Masai Mara of Kenya.
When can I witness the Great Migration?
The Great Migration can be witnessed year round. What is important to note that the time of year that you visit will affect where you will spend your time on safari and what you will see.
January through March
In the early part of the year, the migration will be concentrated in the southern part of the Serengeti – this area is known as Ndutu, located in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. This region’s soil is rich in minerals from previous volcanic activity – as a result the pastures are lush and green and full of potassium, phosphorous and calcium. This makes it a perfect location for the wildebeest to graze when they are ready to give birth to their calves in order to have optimal nutrition for milk production. As the calves are born, prey will concentrate in this regions. In this region you will seen vast congregations of wildebeest across the plains. The advantages to traveling at this time of year is that the Ndutu region is the only area in the Northern Circuit where off road safari is permitted, allowing you to get close to the animals and action – perfect for photographers!
April through July
As the grasses are depleted in the south, the migration heads in a northwestern direction through the Central and into the Western Serengeti along the Grumeti river. The landscape in this region is vastly different from the south, where there are forests along the river bed. The Grumeti river is not nearly as treacherous to cross as the Mara river. However, it still poses a challenge with large numbers of Nile crocodiles laying in wait and this is the first time the newborn calves, just months old, get to experience a river crossing. In addition, you will have to opportunity to witness the wildebeest rutting (mating) season here, seen no where else on migration.
Advantages of travel to this region include off peak rates and lesser numbers of travelers. Disadvantages include a further distance to travel (flying in/out is often recommended) and the exact timing of the crossing can be unpredictable as it only happens once a year in concert with the arrival of dry season. It’s best recommend in mid-May and June.
By late July the wildebeest have usually crossed the Grumeti and are now heading towards the Northern Serengeti en route to the Mara River crossing into Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Here you witness the most treacherous, dramatic river crossing that the wildebeest will face. During this time frame there are many crossings back and forth across the river in search of rains and therefore grasses for grazing. Some consider the Mara river crossing the most magnificent part of the Great Migration and indeed it can be spectacular to witness this event. This is considered to be the best time to visit, particularly if you want to witness the Mara River crossing. The advantage of this time of year is excellent climate and low possibility for rain, giving you amazing weather during your safari.
By late October, the wildebeest have completed the Mara River crossing back into Tanzania and, now ripe with babies, are making their way back to the south. At this time you can find them congregated in the Central (Seronera) region of the Serengeti. Here the Namiri Plains are an excellent place to witness the larger herds of wildbeest. Cheetah love these plains as they are prime for hunting. Seronera has many amazing kopje and big cats are known to spend a lot of time in this area. From here, the wildebeest will head south towards Ndutu to start the entire cycle over again yearly.
So as you can see – there is really not a bad time to witness the wildebeest migration in Tanzania so long as your safari specialist puts you in the best possible location to witness this incredible event. And, even if wildebeest per se aren’t your thing – where there are wildebeest, there are predators – so if you want to see big cats and other amazing animals – just follow the migration!
Join us on safari in Tanzania – you will witness the Great Migration – a wildlife extravaganza that is unparalleled anywhere else in all of Africa! Karibu! You are welcome to Tanzania!