The Wildebeest Migration in Kenya

The Wildebeest Migration is one of the world’s most dramatic wildlife spectacles as mega herds thunder over the plains in a constant search for food.
Figures vary on the numbers of wildebeest – one and a half million, two million – that make the annual journey north from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara each year to find fresh grass, but with numbers this vast, who’s really counting? The sight and sound of huge herds, made up of zebra, eland, gazelle and impala, too, is utterly exhilarating, a wildlife spectacle on a truly epic scale.
Far from a relaxed amble between grasslands, though, the Great Wildebeest Migration is loaded with risk. Big predators tail the herds, waiting to pick off the weak and vulnerable and when the journey north reaches the Mara River, by the border with Tanzania and Kenya, the peril ratchets up further. Here, huge Nile crocodiles lurk in the waters, waiting for their biannual meal – they only eat when the wildebeest cross. The chance to witness these tense and terrifying scenes, as wildebeest plunge down the steep banks and thunder into the treacherous waters, pulls in hundreds of visitors each year.
The Great Migration, rather than a there and back route, is in reality a clockwise circling of the vast Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, in pursuit of fresh grass. The wildebeest are resident in the southern Serengeti for a few months from December, when grass is plentiful here. Once they have had their calves in January and February and the grasslands begin to dry out, they start to move, but only the rains decide when the push north begins.
As the Migration gathers momentum, the herds split up and go in different directions, moving across an area of 390,000sq km that includes not only the Serengeti National Park and Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve, but dispersal areas beyond. There’s a fair bit of meandering, too, with herds swerving off along the way, so it’s fascinating to observe the massing and moving of the wildebeest up close. Herds tend to cross back and forth over the rivers several times. At the Mara River it’s possible to see different herds crossing in different directions on the same day.

How to see the Great Wildebeest Migration

During all but a few months of the year, the Wildebeest Migration is underway, but this is not a route march, it’s a process of moving and feeding, moving and feeding, shifting towards pastures new where the grass really is greener, without following a single path. An organised safari with a driver and experienced guide will take you overland to find the herds, as they move through the Serengeti towards the Masai Mara and back down again. The scale and scope of the Migration means there are numerous places and times to catch it throughout the year, although July to September is peak season, when the sight of wildebeest ploughing into the Mara River, dodging crocs and lions as they go, draws visitors in their droves. The herds are never in Kenya for long, though, and only some will venture that far north, with the majority milling around the northern Serengeti in July, August and September.
Exploring a couple of locations is the most reliable way to see the herds – northern Tanzania, the Mara River and the Masai Mara, for example. Staying outside the Masai Mara reserve in one of Kenya’s excellent conservancies is a good way to avoid the visitors who come to see the Mara River crossing, although you might have a fairly long drive in to watch the action.

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Best time to see the Wildebeest Migration in Kenya

The mega herds only graze in Kenya from July to September, but undoubtedly this is the most spectacular time to see the Migration, when they have reached the very far north of Tanzania and face the obstacle of the Mara River before reaching the Masai Mara. Thousands of wildebeest plunging down the steep banks of the river and into the croc-filled waters is the raw and brutal climax of the Migration, but if you want to avoid the large numbers of tourists who crowd the banks to watch in July and August, come in June or September, when herds are also crossing the river. You can also look out for them crossing the Grumeti River. This is shallower than the Mara, so slightly less of an obstacle for the migrating herds, but it still serves up the sight of huge crocs snapping at hooves as wildebeest pile through.
In October, you can catch the animals heading south out of Kenya, back through the northern Serengeti, with the start of the short rains. December to March is a fantastic time to see huge herds, but you’ll have to travel to Tanzania, to the southern Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. February is the busiest time here, since this is calving season and the wildebeest come together to give birth.
The only months of the year when the migration isn’t easily seen either in Kenya or Tanzania are November, April and May. These are wet months, with November’s ‘short rains’ and April and May’s ‘long rains’. The grass is high and green throughout the entire Serengeti and the wildebeest are dispersed, so you won’t see the big herds of July and August. The rains are at their heaviest in April, when camps close and the plains become quagmires.
Written by Joanna Simmons
Photo credits: [Page banner: Gopal Vijayaraghavan] [How to see: Katie Hunt] [Best time to see: Kuruman]