The annual wildebeest migration safari – 2023 – 2024 Tanzania and Kenya Safaris – Wildebeest migration safaris in Africa.
The annual wildebeest migration safari – The wildebeest migration is often punted as the “Greatest show on earth” and one of the Seven New Wonders of the World. It doesn’t have a simple start or end, just a dynamic cycle of wild movement through the year. It’s never the same each year either and not very predictable but easy enough to witness if you plan around some key points. People usually refer to this as the Serengeti migration, but you can also see it on the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
The best time to see the Wildebeest Migration
The best times to see the migration are between December and March or between May and November.
The migration is largely driven by the rains. Just remember that the rains are unpredictable so the wildebeest migration doesn’t operate on a set schedule. It also doesn’t follow a set route. Nor do the animals all go the same way. This is part of what makes the migration sightings so spectacular. Hundreds of thousands of animals following different routes to the same destination spread across the vast plains as far as the eye can see.
The migration involves around 1.5 million wildebeest, gazelle and zebras, always on the move generally in a great clockwise sweep around the larger Serengeti ecosystem. Resident game (predators and other mammals) are generally fixed to territorial areas. Predators don’t follow the great herds much beyond their home ranges.
When the migration is on during high season, you will find that the best space gets sold out quickly, so book early to get the best availability and reasonable prices.
How the Wildebeest Migration works?
The variables are rain and grazing through the seasons plus a few physical barriers.
The Masai Mara is in the far north of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
Let’s start the annual cycle with the “short” and light rains in November and December (sometimes as early as October).
The rains fall on fertile volcanic soils which are remnant of the volcanoes in the southern Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The result is short sweet grass which draws the migration rapidly south from Kenya’s Masai Mara. The migration moves down the eastern side of Tanzania’s Serengeti into these sweet short-grass plains.
The wildebeest settle in the southern plains between January and April as there’s lots of food.
In late March or April and May the “long” or heavy rains set in, the depleted southern plains are less attractive than the long grass plains up in the western corridor. As a result the wildebeest migration moves north westerly.
Large River crossings on the Grumeti and Mara Rivers occur as the migration heads back north towards the Mara. The season dries out and fresh grazing and water can be found in the far north. The Mara is usually at its best in August, September and October especially when it’s very dry.
Fresh rains start building around October into November. The migration gets restless as it anticipates the change in season. It moves north and south and back again. This is when we usually get the best river crossing action.
The cycle starts again when the short rains break and result in fresh sweet grass in the southern Serengeti plains. The wildebeest migration moves rapidly south.
The theory is simple. Seasonal rains and the availability of grazing determine the “clockwise” movement of the migration. The larger eco-system includes Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Masai Mara. A few physical barriers like the Simiti and Lobo hills, the Grumeti and Mara rivers hinder and alter this “circular” path. Well in reality it’s not quite that simple.
Short and Long rains in November-April
The annual wildebeest migration safari – The wildebeest want to be in the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti. That’s near Ndutu, Gol and Southern Loliondo, but the water and grazing cannot support them all year round. This is where they choose to give birth to their young with rich grass to support them. That’s usually February and March. Within a short space of time, perhaps 4 to 6 weeks, several hundred thousand calves are born. This is where and when we see much of the dramatic predator action.
The wildebeest migration moves off in search of sustenance in response to periods of dry weather. They leave this sweet area as late as possible and come back as soon as they can. But the rains are unpredictable. So every year is different and, in fact, every week can be different.
The migration is also not a continually forward motion. They go forward, back and to the sides, they mill around, they split up, they join forces, they walk in a line, they spread out, they hang around. You can never predict with certainty where they will be.
So, soon after the short rains start we expect the migration to be in the sweet grass plains area around Naabi, Ndutu and Gol. That’s from December through to April. Depending on local rainfall, they might be anywhere from Moru Kopjes through to the slopes of Ngorongoro.
After the long rains May-October
From May, the rains stop and the herds gradually start moving. Usually as the plains of the south and east dry out, there is a movement to the north and west. That’s because there’s more grass and more dependable water.
Not all the wildebeest and zebra will follow the same route though. This means that while part of the migration will head to the western corridor and the Grumeti River before heading north, significant numbers may also go up through Loliondo, or via Seronera and Lobo.
In the dry year, the first wildebeest could be near the Mara River in early July as this is the only decent permanent water in the ecosystem. In the wet year, as late as mid-August conditions are very good with plenty of grass and water the herds will be spread out all the way from Seronera to the Mara River
The wildebeest migration as a whole need not all pass into Kenya. Many stay behind in Tanzania then cross and re-cross the border areas. This goes on through until October to November when they start thinking of heading back. Again this will be dependent on the rains.
The Mara “River crossings”
The Mara River crossing happens at any time during the dry season. The areas where the migration wildebeest covers is vast, even when crossed in a 4WD car. That is in both the Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Note that there’s more Mara River frontage in Tanzania than there is in Kenya. The migrations can criss-cross over the border. The migrating groups may be split over a wide area. Finding one on the brink of crossing is not a given.
The wildebeest are easily spooked by real or imagined threats. They fear crossing the river, as they have an inkling that something lurks there.
Patient waiting near a herd by the river may only produce a puff of dust as they turn on their heels and run away. Or maybe the herd is just not ready to cross the river and they are milling around contentedly.
However if everything is right then there is utter and extraordinary chaos as the herds struggle to get to the other side of a major river filled with crocodiles.
The best place to see the Wildebeest Migration Kenya and Tanzania
Each destination is good and completely different times of the year. The migration is usually active in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park for 9 months. It’s most active in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve for 3 months during August, September and October.
If you’re planning a migration safari then decide on either Kenya or Tanzania. Don’t think of combining or switching at the last moment on the cheap. Logistically it’s best to handle the Serengeti from Arusha and the Mara from Nairobi. This will help with decisions on beach breaks on the Kenyan coast or Zanzibar.
Key to a successful migration safari
The annual wildebeest migration safari – People make the real difference on safari. Good professional guides who’re dedicated, experienced and prepared to go out of their way for the better photograph or game encounter are more important than creature comforts.
Not that we believe in sacrificing creature comforts but from experience titivating camps and lodges is a quicker and cheaper way of covering up weaknesses in other areas. Employing and retaining the best hosts and guides as part of the team is the bigger and more important challenge for any operator.
So when we see rose petals in the bath on safari we ask questions because that’s out of place. When we come across a great guide or host it’s generally safe to assume that the creature comforts have been taken well care of already. Also the price tag is more often than not realistic by comparison with the “veneered” op