When most people think of safari and the Serengeti, they envision scenes of the Great Migration, complete with images of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest stampeding through the croc-infested waters of the Mara River. Indeed, the annual migration of millions of animals, predominately wildebeest but also including zebra, gazelle, and eland, across the Serengeti ecosystem, is the grandest spectacle of wildlife in Africa. However, to envision the true Great Migration, imagine a column of wildebeest 24 miles (40 km) long, trudging across the plains two or three abreast, all on the move in search of fresh, green grass. Now imagine that it takes more than two weeks for that column of animals to cross a single spot. Imagine them bunched together in protective herds, or giving birth, or scrambling in panic to escape the jaws of a snapping crocodile. Imagine lions and hyenas prowling the scene in search of the weakest animal or the lone straggler separated from its herd. Only now have you visualized the magnificent phenomenon that is the Great Serengeti Migration.
Over 2 million migrating animals participate in this annual journey: 1.5 million wildebeest, 400,000 zebra, and 300,000 gazelles, accompanied by a variety of predators. The herds traverse the 1,800 mile (2,900 km) oval circuit with only one goal: to find fresh, green grass. Consequently, the Great Migration takes place year-round, as prey and predator follow a relatively predictable, but variable, annual cycle that is dependent on rainfall and the abundance of green grass. Depending on your location and the time of year, safari-goers may see the wildebeest or zebra courting, mating and giving birth, moving in almost single-file columns, or traversing muddy rivers.
The following is a general guide to the route and timing of the annual migration. It must be stressed however that the timing is subject to rainfall patterns, and cannot be predicted. There are no fences in the Serengeti ecosystem—the herds follow ancient survival instincts that are no match for predictability.
The annual cycle begins in the southern Serengeti, where half a million calves are born between January and March. However, when the rains end and the land dries, the migrating herds start to move in a clockwise direction towards the Maasai Mara region via the Western Corridor and the Grumeti River. When the short rains arrive, the herds move into the northernmost sections of the Serengeti near the Mara River and the Lamai Wedge. It is here that the fortunate safari-goer might witness small herds of wildebeest, typically between 500-1500, traversing the Mara River back and forth between its northern and southern shores. By late October into November, the herds begin to move south through the Lobo area, reaching the short grass plains near the southern plains of the Serengeti and Ndutu in late November, in time for breeding season.
The Serengeti Migration is more than just a journey of wildlife: it is the opportunity to observe the circle of life in action. It’s actually a year-round event; you just need to know where to look! The question to ask when planning your safari is really about the “best places” to see the migrating herds during your time of travel. Whether it is worth planning your safari around the migration is a matter of choice and budget. It would be practically impossible to pinpoint which few days in the vast Serengeti might coincide with the exact date of a river crossing, which for many people is the quintessential safari experience. Bearing in mind there is more to the migration than a river crossing, large herds of grazers on the move across the open plains is a spectacular sight, one not to be missed. Consider, too, that most predators and ungulates besides zebra and wildebeest are strongly territorial and do not stray far from their core territory.
Regardless of the time of year, the Serengeti still offers the most superb game viewing of any game reserve in all of Africa.
The migratory cycle breaks up into the following approximate main periods:
NOVEMBER TO APRIL
The short rains begin around early November. A little after this, in late November and December, the herds of the wildebeest migration arrive on the short-grass plains of the Serengeti. These are south and east of Seronera, around Ndutu and include the north of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Dispersed across these plains, wildebeest and zebra are everywhere — feeding on the fresh, nutritious grasses. Pregnant female wildebeest are attracted to the calcium and magnesium rich grass, which is good for milk production, so the herds stay here through January, February, and March. Calving occurs from late January through mid-March, when over 80% of the female wildebeest give birth over a period of a few weeks. Close to half a million wildebeest calves are born during this period, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra.
As the land dries up throughout March, the herds might splinter into smaller groups focused on areas with the best conditions. In late March, the long rains begin. Gradually the herds spread west across the plains, beginning the migration northward sometime in April.
The southeastern plains are the most accessible areas of the Serengeti so this is an excellent time of year to be on safari if you are on a budget or are short on time. The optimum time to visit the Ndutu and Seronera areas is peak calving season (late January and into February) when the calves are born. Predator populations are high at this time of year also. Reserve your accommodation early for this time of year, as some places are booked a year in advance!
MAY TO JULY
By May the Serengeti’s wildebeest start moving north, migrating to seek fresh grass and water. The area around Moru Kopjes and west of Seronera is then frenetic with moving columns of wildebeest, often containing hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, accompanied by thousands of zebra, and a scattering of Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles.
The migration, regularly delayed in recent years due to late rains, might start moving any time from late April to early June, when columns of animals 24 miles (40 km) long march towards the Western Corridor and the Grumeti River area. Around June, the wildebeest migration often pauses on the south side of the Grumeti River, causing them to congregate in the Western Corridor, often building up to hundreds of thousands of animals, before crossing the river. It can take up to two weeks from when the first wildebeest arrive at the southern bank of the river before the treacherous crossings begin. A great many animals die during the crossing, most eaten by the Grumeti River’s fierce and hungry crocodiles. The migration continues moving northwards during July and August, spreading out across a vast area: some heading through the Grumeti and Ikorongo Game Reserves, while others travel through the heart of the Serengeti National Park.
AUGUST TO NOVEMBER
River crossings at Kogatende might start occurring in August as the herds continue moving northward. In September, the herds spread out across the northern Serengeti, where the Mara River provides the migration with its most serious obstacle—the treacherous river crossings. It is common to see herds cross to the northern bank of the Mara River on one day, and then back south a few days later, following the rains and ensuing fresh grass. Many people are under the mistaken impression that to witness the migration one must cross the border into Kenya to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. However, far more animals stay in Tanzania than leave, and river crossings can be witnessed without ever leaving Tanzania, saving you precious time and money that can wisely be spent staying extra days in this region of Tanzania.
Sometime in October, the herds make a final crossing of the Mara River and head south again, heading through western Loliondo and the Serengeti National Park’s Lobo area. Following the rains once again, the herds head in the direction of the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti in November. Continuing their southward momentum, the herds arrive in the central Seronera area of the Serengeti in late November, in time for the circle of life to begin once more.
While it is impossible to predict with 100% certainty where the herds might be during any given week, our experienced safari guides are in the best position to assist you in scheduling your safari in order to maximize.