One of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles and the largest overland migration on the planet - this c1000km annual journey by more than 1.5 million wildebeest, zebra and antelope from Tanzania's UNESCO World Heritage Serengeti to the lush savannah of Kenya's Maasai Mara is one for the bucket list. The migration is pursued by a supporting cast of predators including lion, leopard, hyena and cheetah. The Serengeti’s southern plains host the highest concentration of predators in Africa during the Spring calving season (Jan-Mar). The pinnacle of the migration is the river crossing stage in the northern Serengeti with the raging Mara River the largest obstacle to the migration’s progress (July-October). Noisy herds bunch up on the riverbank before taking the plunge, dicing with leviathan Nile Crocodiles to reach fresh grazing in the Masai Mara. Little do they know; the infamous Mara lions form an intimidating welcoming committee…
The migration spends around 75% of the year in Tanzania's Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and around 25% of the year in Kenya's Greater Masai Mara.
You can see the migration year-round, although there are certain stages of the migration deemed more dramatic than others. We have been arranging tailor-made migration safaris for 20 years - from luxury fly-in trips to driving safaris with your own private vehicle and guide. We know the patterns of movement and the camps and lodges closest to the action at any given time - please do ask us for advice. We also have guides and partners on the ground in Kenya and Tanzania updating us on the developing situation each season. Scroll down for an overview of the migration.
Please note: the movement of the migration is heavily dependant on weather patterns, which are increasingly erratic.
Understanding the Migration
Wildebeest are not natural leaders and so the migration is made up of many different herds covering a wide area as opposed to one super herd. The herds are all different sizes moving at different paces. Some catch up with herds in front of them, or slow down being joined by those behind - they form vast columns of animals - wildebeest, zebra, antelope - all moving in search of fresh grazing from the southern Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya before returning again to calve.
You often hear the migration before you see it - huge plumes of dust in the long dry season are common as the herds gallop north and west, and the 'gnu gnu' sound can be deafening. Around 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebra are lost during the migration cycle due to predation (and also thirst/starvation/exhaustion).
The supporting cast - predators
Seeing the big cats is a highlight. East Africa is still a big cat stronghold with an estimated 3,000 lion in the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem following the migration. It is also considered one of the best places to observe cheetah who love the open plains. With fewer than 7,000 cheetah remaining worldwide, seeing them is always very special. Elusive leopard can also be seen - we greatly rely on the expert local guides who often know individual cats, their territories and their family history, for example, beautiful 'Fig' in Olare Motorogi and her cub.
Visiting the Serengeti/Masai Mara gives you a wonderful opportunity to see the big cats, possibly even a kill.
Of course there are other predators to observe too, including the mighty Nile crocodiles...
Private Conservancy vs National Reserve
There is no denying that if you visit the Serengeti or the Masai Mara during migration season, it will be busy, especially if you are there for calving in Jan/Feb, or river crossings July-Sept when it is customary to see vehicles lined up along the river bank. However, by staying in camps in private conservancies rather then the national reserves you can greatly improve the quality of experience. Private conservancies have fewer lodges/camps in any one given area and each camp/lodge is often far smaller than those in the main reserve - some camps only have a few tents. For example in the very beautiful Mara North conservancy there is one guest to approximately 350 acres. Fewer guests means lower vehicle density.
Camps/lodges in private conservancies are usually accessed by light aircraft flights whereas the majority of traffic in the national reserve is drive-in.
An additional benefit to staying in a private conservancy is the insight it allows to the conservation process. Conservancies are partnerships between member lodges/camps and Maasai Landowners. In simple terms, the Maasai Landowners are paid a bed night fee for every guest staying and are in turn able to earn a living from eco-tourism. By safeguarding the wildlife the community, lodges/camps and visitors all equally benefit.
Conservation in action
They are many interesting projects to find out about, and your guide will be a great source of information about these. For example the predator compensation project and predator proof boma scheme has greatly helped to reduce reprisal attacks on lion who have in the past killed Maasai livestock. The management and strict rotation of grazing in the Mara's private conservancies is also essential to the Maasai community and the success of the wildlife, each relying on the land. There are many interesting wildlife studies from the Mara Lion, Elephant and Cheetah projects to the Serengeti Wild Dogs Conservation Project. Guests are even invited to submit their photos to some of the projects to help with identification and tracking.
**The movement of the wildebeest depends largely on when the rain arrives, and the condition of the grass, and this of course varies from year to year. **
Here is a rough guide to the seasons in migration terms:
1.Calving: Tanzania's Southern Plains
As a general rule you can expect to see the migration on the Serengeti's southern plains and on the edges of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area between January and March time.
During these first few months of the year the wildebeest are grazing on the nutrient rich short grass following the short rains in November. The herds are fairly sedentary. This is also when the wildebeest calve - remarkably virtually all the wildebeest calve within a 3 week window which usually falls between late January and late February. Around 8,000 calves are born each day at the peak of the calving season. Predator density at this time on the southern plains is said to be higher than anywhere else in the world.
We recommend lodges around the Ndutu area in the first three months of the year, including the Serian Mobile, Ndutu Lodge, Sanctuary Kusini, Lemala and Lake Masek Tented Camp among others.
By March the plains have usually started to dry out and food is depleted so the herds start to move north and west on their epic journey to Kenya.
2.In search of fresh grazing: the journey north through central Serengeti and the Western Corridor (Grumeti)
During April and into May, the long rains give new life to the Serengeti. Lush shoots across the plains draw the wildebeest northwards from Lake Masek to the central Serengeti around Lake Magadi and Seronera.
Pioneer Camp, the Sopa Serengeti and Lemala Ewanjan are camps/lodges in this area, among others, with the Serena and Mbuzi Mawe slightly further to the north and well-positioned for the unpredictable 'moving month' of June.
During June and into July, lodges in the central area are accustomed to arranging picnic lunches so guests can spend all day out on the plains maximising their viewing time of the migration.
The herd tends to stretch out across the Central and Western zones of the Serengeti during this middle part of the year. Many clients choose to combine several different camps to be sure of catching up with the herds during these unpredictable moving months. The position of the herds greatly depends on the rains and the condition of the grass.
The wildebeest can start to track west as early as May, picking up the pace all the time, to Grumeti and the Western Corridor of the Serengeti, bunching up in vast noisy herds before some make the first river crossings at the Grumeti River throughout July and into August en route to the plains of Kenya's Masai Mara.
The Kirawira is in this area, as is Mbalageti Lodge, both Serena properties and a cluster of wonderful luxurious camps and lodges run by Singita.
3.River crossings: July - October
The Mara River in the northern part of the Serengeti is the greatest hurdle for the wildebeest - a vast and rushing river populated by hungry Nile crocodiles - a far more challenging prospect than the Grumeti River which consists of many small channels. This is the spectacle many visitors want to see and so it is no surprise that lodges in the area near the river throughout July, August and September are booked to full capacity. It is essential to book as early as possible if you are keen to be in the Serengeti/Maasai Mara at this time.
River crossings in the northern Serengeti into the Maasai Mara usually start in the middle of July - although this can change depending on the weather - if it is very dry and parched the herds can arrive early; if there is plenty of food, the herds are delayed, spending longer in the central and western zones.
By August and September the wildebeest are usually located in the extreme north zone of the Serengeti and are also present in great numbers in the Masai Mara crossing the Mara and Talek Rivers. This is considered peak river crossing time.
Visitors can see the herds crossing the river from July right through to November, initially moving north to the Mara from July to September, and moving south back to the Serengeti from September to November.
We have many camps in prime positions in the northern zone including Sayari Camp, Singita Mara River, Serian Serengeti and Lemala Kuria Hills (Northern Serengeti). In the Masai Mara, the Mara Triangle area is the closest, with the trio of Governors Camps along with Sentinel Camp. In Mara North there are the Serian Camps, Saruni Mara/Wild and Karen Blixen Camp. In Olare and Naibosho you have Mahali Mzuri, Great Plains and Kicheche camps among others. Please do ask us for advice - there are many choices.
4.Grazing the Mara: July - October
During September and into October/November, the wildebeest who have made it, start to spread out to graze the plains of the Mara before starting to journey south again as early as September for the lead groups and as late as the end of October/early November for those lagging behind. This is a wonderful time to be in the Masai Mara with the short rains not usually arriving until November.
5.Turning south - returning to the Serengeti
The herds stay close to the eastern edge of the Serengeti. They accelerate their progress through November, another unpredictable month, and December in order to reach the southern plains of the Serengeti in January once more to feast again on the short grass and have their calves.
Jan-Mar: southern plains; calving
April - May: long rains; herds start to track north towards central zones
June-July: herds stretch out through central Seronera and Grumeti Western corridor
August-September: vast herds in northern Serengeti into the Masai Mara; dramatic river crossings
September - October: lead herds start to turn south again
November: short rains - all herds moving south
December: herds start arriving in southern Serengeti
We often post Wildebeest Migration updates on our News and social media feeds. There is plenty to see in the Serengeti and Masai Mara even if you are not there during the migration months - these complex ecosystems have resident herds of wildebeest, zebra and antelope and the big cats are never far behind...
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