Updated: Nov 22, 2020
The day since I ventured into Wildlife Photography, I was fascinated by the unparalleled world of African Wildlife. I had seen hundreds of images on social media of the herds of Wildebeests jumping in crocodile infested rivers, crossing the rivers and successfully reaching the other side, which made me believe, ONLY this is what the Migration is!
I was planning my first ever trip to Masai Mara in 2017 in the month of October.
As I discussed my plan with some of my friends, who’d been to Masai Mara before, they made fun of me saying that I have chosen the worst period to visit Masai Mara as the maximum action is seen only during July and August when the ‘Migration’ takes place! You will hardly get any action photos as the number of animals are less during this season.
I was in a dilemma as I flew from Mumbai, but the moment I reached Masai Mara I realised I was unnecessarily worried! On the very first day, I had an amazing sighting. I also saw huge herds of wildebeests. I was confused and curious as well to know what exactly the Migration thing is!
The famed ‘Mara River crossings’ has led to some misunderstandings about the migration itself,I realised. Just like myself, many people think that the great migration only happens once a year, and migration is ‘Wildebeest crossing the Mara River’!
The migration is not a singular, isolated event happening once a year. Instead, it is the constant movement millions of wildebeests and thousands of zebras and gazelles in search of food and water. When supplies of these vital resources are depleted in one area, the animals move to another area where water, grasses and other food sources are plentiful.
During the migration animals follow a clockwise movement through the Serengeti following the rains. The five hundred kilometres is fraught with danger with many predators such as lions, cheetahs and crocodiles preying on the animals. It is a truly amazing spectacle.
The migration occurs within an area that is known as the “Serengeti ecosystem.” The 40,000-square mile area is defined by Masai Mara National Reserve in the North and, in the South, Ndutu, Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Maswa Game Reserve in Tanzania. The central, eastern and western areas include Grumeti Reserve, Loliondo, the official Serengeti National Park including part of southern expanse of Kusini and other protected areas.
How the animals know where to find food and water remains a mystery largely, but researchers have developed some hypotheses about the behaviour. Most evidence indicates that weather patterns and the cycle of the rainy and dry seasons have the greatest influence on the wildlife movement. Because rainfall and weather are somewhat unpredictable, there is no way to calculate concretely where the animals will be at any point in the year, nor how long they will remain in one area. One of the most famous events in the migration is the arrival crossing of the Mara River that occurs around late July to August with parts of September and again on their return south, around the last two weeks of October through early November. These are the best times to track and see the annual wildebeest migration in Masai Mara, Kenya.
Throngs of wildebeests gather on ledges above the river, with no apparent trigger, a few animals rush towards the water, with thousands following close behind along with zebras and gazelles. The crocodiles waiting for the opportunity starts moving toward the slower and smaller wildebeests. Snapping jaws are not the only threat, though, as the current of the Mara River acts with greater unrelenting ferocity, often ending more life than the predators.
During the migration, you witness a symbiotic relationship between the zebras and wildebeest. In simple words, without the zebras, the wildebeest wouldn’t be able to survive. Wildebeest are fussy eaters, they are selective grazers and only feed upon the shorter parts of the grass, but luckily for them, zebras are bulk grazers meaning they aren’t nearly as picky over their grass choice. As the zebras graze they essentially act as a lawnmower, cropping the grass and making it palatable for the wildebeest to consume.
During the migration around 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebra are killed off every year as a result of predation by carnivores, but also from thirst, hunger, and exhaustion.
But the number is compensated between January and March, when half a million wildebeest are born each year in the Serengeti. This is the only time that you will see almost every wildebeest of the migration together. Over a few weeks thousands of new bleating calves enter the world, but this is also a prime opportunity for predators who also thrive at this time of year. The calves that are born are precocial meaning they can stand and are not entirely reliant on their parents within minutes, a vital survival technique that helps them keep up with the herd. In February, the month with the highest calving rate, around 8,000 wildebeest are born each day. When the calving season begins – a time when there is plenty of rain-ripened grass available for the 260,000 zebra that precede 1.7 million Wildebeest and the following hundreds of thousands of other plains game, including around 470,000 gazelles. Mara River crossing will take you through a range of emotions – awe, anticipation, heartache, inspiration, excitement and much more. During this period you witness the constant battle for surviva. The animals are stalked..chased..rundown..killed or sometimes eaten ALIVE! The sheer sight of the first heard of the animals rushing into the crocodile infested river