The Great Wildebeest Migration is one of the greatest wildlife events in the world. During it, every year over 1.5 million wildebeest cross East Africa in search of new pastures. It’s the largest wildlife land migration on the planet. Each yearly cycle the animals travel over 1000km. This spectacle brings a huge influx of tourists to the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya every year. In this article, we’re going to look the Great Migration in depth; what it’s all about, where to go, and how best to view it. Although you may have seen it on TV in wildlife documentaries, nothing beats seeing it in person!
Wildebeest (also known as gnus) are part of the antelope family, but look more like cattle with their large build and dark skin, compared to their lighter, slimmer cousins. They live up to 20 years and weigh over It’s the Blue Wildebeest species who migrate, Black Wildebeest are more nomadic or territorial. The Blue Wildebeest live in great herds around the savannahs, plains and woodlands of Eastern Africa.
The Blue Wildebeest in Tanzania. These are the ones that migrate. Photo by unknown
Each year the herds move in a giant loop between Kenya and Tanzania to find fresh food and water, crossing many rivers in the process. They follow the rainy seasons around the region. This movement is called the Great Migration. The wildebeest are accompanied during the migration by over 200,000 zebras each year, and thousands of other antelopes.
It’s a dangerous trip. Predators constantly stalk the herds. Many of these are big cats: lions, leopards and cheetahs. Hyena packs and other scavengers tag along. River crossings are ripe pickings for huge Nile crocodiles. Thirst, hunger and exhaustion claim many lives. It’s estimated about 200,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebras die during the migration every year. These dangers can provide dramatic viewing for wildlife watchers.
Wildebeest travel in herds for self-preservation. As their habitat is made up of open plains and woodland full of predators such as lions, travelling in herds reduces individual risk and also allows them to spot predators more easily. There’s no herd leader, the individuals display a swarm mentality, coping with obstacles as a group. Although there is a “mega herd” which many of the wildebeest are part of, smaller herds constantly ebb in and out of it. Some go off on different routes but they all follow the same broad migratory patterns.
The Migrating Wildebeest in Africa. Photo by Karl
The most well-known period of the Great Migration is when the herds head northwest from the Serengeti plains of Tanzania and into the Masai Mara of Kenya. This is when the Mara river crossings occur providing the most dramatic scenes you’ll recognise from photos and TV.
However, the migration is a continual process during the whole year. The herds rotate around the East African plains, chasing the rains. Below we look at the key movements of the wildebeest herds, roughly speaking. The migration “timetable” is always affected by when the rains fall, so they do vary from year to year. Do your research in advance for predicted seasons and wildebeest movements for the upcoming year to ensure you don’t miss the herds. This interactive map is a good visual guide for the herd movements.
The wildebeest move from the Masai Mara in Kenya, heading south. They arrive in the southern regions of the Serengeti plains in Tanzania, also spilling into the northern part of the Ngorongoro conservation area. For about three weeks, usually in February, the animals give birth - over half a million calves come into the world during this period. The wildebeest remain in the southern Serengeti, spreading westward, until around April, when food supplies run low and waterholes are drained from the vast numbers of the herds.
The wildebeest begin to head north toward the Masai Mara in search of pastures new. Smaller herds combine into massive groups as they travel up through the Serengeti. Normally the herds split at this time, with some heading north through the Seronera valley and beyond, but most converging into the Western Corridor.
Usually in May, mating season hits. Males bellow and fight over females, herding them up. Thousands of calves cry out in unison. It’s a tumultuous and noisy time!
In June, the megaherd in the Western Corridor must cross the Grumeti river. They are often held up and group in huge numbers here, then they cross en-masse, some falling prey to massive crocodiles. The herds start to spread out as they continue northward, harassed by predators all the way.
Wildebeest crossing the Mara river Photo by Ray
The wildebeest want to get north and reach the green lands of the Masai Mara in Kenya. But to do so, the megaherd must cross the Mara river, often swollen with rains. They usually choose a few of the best crossing locations and then make the swim in vast groups. This sets the scene for the dramatic river crossings, the most famous spectacle in the Great Migration and the most popular with tourists. During the crossings which happen during this period, some animals drown, others are trampled or swept away. Meanwhile they are easy prey for stalking predators and the vicious Nile crocodiles infesting the waters who chomp down on their struggling victim and pull them down into the river.
After spending time in the Masai Mara enjoying its lush pickings, the herds do the crossing all over again, making the period a chaotic time for the migration with animals going back and forth at regular intervals. During this time, the smaller herds which didn’t take the Western Corridor and instead travelled through the northern Serengeti have a much easier time, avoiding the nasty river crossings altogether.
Around the rains in November, all the wildebeest will have started heading south once again to the Serengeti where the land has recovered. By December they’re usually en-route to the south Serengeti, and the cycle begins again!
You’ll want to consider which part of the migration most interests you - that will dictate where and when you should visit. You could opt for a mobile tour and move around with the herds (many operators offer this kind of package), or stay in one hotspot that you know the herds usually pass through.
Wildebeest at the beginning of the Great Migration in Tanzania Photo by Richard
Head to Tanzania to view the mighty herds covering the green plains as far as you can see. After February, half a million newborns will join them. The southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro area have lots of lodging and camping available. Around December/January it’s usually best to stay central and then move based on the herds, as they can move quickly during this period. In February, head to Lakes Ndutu and Masek in the south Serengeti where the herds usually mass. It’s a great time to do game drives and predators are plentiful, preying on the young.
The Seronera valley is a good place to see the herds as they begin their trek north, with plenty of lodges available in the area. You’ll also find the Simba kopjes area to be populous in March.
As the megaherd gathers momentum, the Western Corridor is where you’ll see the most action, and you can hopefully catch the river crossings at Grumeti. Although less dramatic than the Mara crossings, unless there’s been a lot of rain, it’s still a great sight. This is also a good time to visit because of the mating season, with lots of activity between competing males. It’s good to be flexible about hopping round this area to match the movements of the herds, but with the accommodation spread around this shouldn’t be an issue. But do be prepared to get wet - the rains usually hit in June.
By far the most busy time for tourists, during this period you’ll want to head to the Masai Mara or northern Serengeti. August is usually the peak time for river crossings and it's these that yield the most impressive moments you’ll want to witness. Along the Mara river you can find lodgings and it’s also worth checking out the Sand and Tarek rivers which also have wildebeest crossings.
If you want to avoid crowds of tourists, try private reserves in the region which have restricted visitor numbers but still great viewing opportunities. Head into the Masai Mara during these months and witness the herds in strength grazing along with its many other game animals. Obviously, it’s a very popular time to visit so book well in advance. In late October and November the herds start moving south again into Tanzania and the climate gets cooler and wetter. You may prefer to stay in the northern/central Serengeti to see the most wildebeest during this time.
Wildebeest crossing the Mara river, the most incredible part of the Great Migration. Photo by Jeanee
If you don’t just want to see the Great Migration, you might want to combine your tour with a standard safari. Both Tanzania and Kenya also have other activities to enjoy including paradise beaches and prime mountain trekking opportunities. Check out our Tanzania, Kenya and South Africa article and our article on Planning a Safari for more ideas.
It’s usually easier to arrange tours with safari companies to follow wildebeest migration patterns. If not, you’ll have to do plenty of research about exactly when is the best time to go on your Safari and where to stay for the period you want to visit. Many companies specifically specialise in Great Migration tours and will build flexible itineraries to move you around to match the migration’s progress using mobile camps or different lodges to accommodate you. Do book well in advance during the June-November period.
You’ll probably be flying into Nairobi, Kenya - for either the Masai Mara or the Serengeti, as it’s East Africa’s international flight hub. Or for northern Check beforehand about visa and immunisation requirements. We have detailed transport guides in some of our other safari articles .
Do some research into wildlife behaviour in the Great Migration - it will help you spot emerging action such as when a predator is about to strike. Bring a camera, the bigger zoom the better. Binoculars are a must too, you often won’t be able to get too close to the dangerous action especially at places like the river crossings. Check the climate of the region and pack appropriate clothes . Remember that even in dry season it can get very chilly at night, and don’t pack brightly coloured, camouflage or black clothes. Getting vaccinated against potential diseases and packing insect repellent, hat and sunscreen is also advised. Bring US dollars and get some local currency on arrival.
Whenever you decide to see the Great Migration, it will be an unforgettable experience. In no other place on Earth can you see such a large number of land animals travelling in unison on such an exciting journey. We hope you found this article useful and we wish you the best of luck in witnessing this magnificent spectacle!
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