The Great Wildebeest Migration: What’s it all about?

Ok, so many people have scene the phenomenal pictures of hundreds of wildebeest hurtling themselves into the Mara River, but little does everyone know, this happens all year round in the Serengeti National Park (Tanzania).

This event is an ongoing one, where 2 million grazers including wildebeest, gazelles and zebra migrate in a circular route around the Serengeti National Park following rainfall in search of fresh pastures.

It is only in the months between July and October that they are crossing the mighty Mara River in the north of the Serengeti. And you get scenes like this…

For the rest of the year, as a general overview, they begin calving in the southern Ndutu area from around December — March, which contrary to popular belief is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and not the Southern Serengeti.

From April and May, as the rains fall (main rainy season in Tanzania) the herds begin to disperse northwards, and by June they are usually moving up the western corridor towards Kogatende and the Lamai Wedge.

Now, from July onwards, it gets a bit trickier to understand! Another common misconception is that the wildebeest are in the Masai Mara the whole time. This is not true. Only SOME of the herds are SOMETIMES in the Masai Mara at SOME POINT between July — October. However, from Kogatende/Lamai in northern Serengeti, once the herds have reached the area (usually late July in recent years) there are river crossings happening here pretty much on a daily basis.

See my map below to understand what actually happens when the herds reach the northern Serengeti until they begin their journey south again…

This is when the herds reach the northern Serengeti between mid July up until August (usually). Sometimes the herds are late coming up from calving season, which is why we would say go later rather than earlier in the season, as in recent years they often don’t reach the Mara River until August… They are never usually early, as they must calve in the south where the fertile volcanic soils are before heading west, then eventually north.

Once the herds reach the Mara River, it is not a single, marching mass movement where they all head to the Masai Mara, but a series of different chaotic crossings along the Mara River. Some may cross over, some may cross back, and others may not cross at all! The common misconception is that all the wildebeest know exactly where they are going and when. Many people think they head north, cross the Mara River upon arrival, head into the Masai Mara for fresh pastures, and then cross back only in October on their journey south again. However, although logical, this is not strictly true.

We have found that even in October many herds are still mulling around the Serengeti in Kogatende and Lamai. The Masai Mara is only an extension of their route, and not integral to their journey. When the wildebeest are SOMETIMES in the Masai Mara they are ALWAYS in the Serengeti at any given time between mid-July to October. Therefore I would suggest you look to northern Serengeti accommodation options, rather than Masai Mara accommodation. Also, the Mara is a lot busier generally so by choosing the Serengeti you avoid this whilst giving yourself ample opportunity to catch the mega herds.

In truth, wildebeest are not the smartest of creatures in the world. They have a slightly more sheep like mentality (see two videos below). They may wait in the Kogatende side of the Mara River for hours, days and even weeks before one decides to take the leap of faith. Once one does, 1,000 may decide to follow or 10. It is chaotic, unplanned and definitely not premeditated, but more monkey-see-monkey do, or maybe even monkey see but monkey won’t do! They probably know when they are going to cross the river as much as we do. When some do eventually decide to cross, they may suddenly decide to cross back again… As such, catching a crossing is a waiting game and for the most patient of travellers. But when it does happen, it can be seriously explosive.

See this video which highlights the indecision of the wildebeest and how changeable their route and thus decision to cross the river can be…

If you are confused about the mentality of the wildebeest, see this video shot by my cousin George below which demonstrates how they liken very much to your common Scottish ewe…

Not-so-natural sheep migration in the Scottish Borders shot by George Shirley-Beavan

Admittedly, I suspect the wildebeests’s life is more harrowing than a very free range flock of sheep who live happily in the Scottish Borders! Often, over 250,000 of the wildebeest that begin their journey in March do not make it back due to exhaustion, starvation or being eaten by various predators along the way (including the abnormally large Mara River crocs).

If the wildebeest had a sheep dog chasing them like the sheep in the above video do, I am sure they would make more of a singular mass movement and their route would be easier to understand and predict. However, the fact there is nothing but a natural sense of where the rain falls which makes 2 million animals make this deadly journey together every year, is really what makes this so bloody incredible. In this day and age is it rare to find nature on such an extreme scale doing exactly what it has done for thousands and thousands of years, which really does make this the last greatest and most spectacular natural event on the planet today. It really is a must see for any wildlife enthusiast.

I hope this helps clear up confusion surrounding the Great Wildebeest Migration in the Serengeti…See this Great Migration explanation I also wrote for Tanzania Odyssey offering more information on accommodation, and further clarification on their route… Useful if you are seriously considering visiting Tanzania to catch this unbelievable spectacle.

Hope you’ve had fun ☀️