The Great Wildebeest Migration:

A Natural Wonder of the World

The Great Migration is one of the natural wonders of the world. Each year, two million wildebeest, zebras, and antelopes follow the rains from Tanzania to Kenya and back again. Animals fill the plains as far as the eye can see.

Their route starts in the southern Serengeti in Tanzania, where masses of wildebeest gather to give birth to thousands of calves each day. Then, they embark on a nearly 1,000-mile journey that brings them to the Masai Mara in southern Kenya. On the way, they encounter predators and perilous river crossings.

But for the animals that go on the Great Migration, the risks are worth it. Those who survive are rewarded with plentiful fresh grass and the chance to pass their genes on to the next generation.

Read on to learn more about the Great Migration. We answer questions like:

large wildebeest herd at rest scattered in green field to horizon with zebra standing in the front

Wildebeest, zebras, and egrets pause for rest and grazing on the Great Migration. Photo by David Dennis.

What Is the Great Wildebeest Migration?

It’s the Largest Mammal Migration on Earth

The Great Migration is the largest and longest overland migration on earth. In the average year, 1.5 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebras, 300,000 Thomson gazelles, and an assortment of other antelope participate in the Great Migration.

It Goes Through Two World Heritage Sites

The Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, where much of the migration takes place, have been named World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for their outstanding natural significance.

Why Do Wildebeest Migrate?

Wildebeest and other animals on the Great Migration must eat huge amounts of grass to survive. By following seasonal rains, they get access to more, fresher food than if they stayed in one place all year.

The Great Migration Isn’t Just for Wildebeests

Wildebeests make up the vast majority of the animals on the great migration. So it is easy to forget the other animals on the migration—such as zebras, Thomson’s gazelles, Grant’s gazelles, and elands. This would be a mistake! Each species plays a crucial role in ensuring the success of the migration.

Take the relationship between wildebeests and zebras, for instance. Wildebeests have acute senses of hearing and smell, while zebras have excellent eyesight and memory. Over the generations, they have learned to use their complementary abilities to cooperate together. For example, wildebeest take the lead in finding water to drink. Zebras serve as sentinels, watching out and warning for danger.

The animals on the migration also complement each other when it comes to diet. Zebras and wildebeests both eat tall grass, but they eat different parts of the stalk. As they eat, they expose the short grasses that Thomson’s gazelles prefer. Meanwhile, Grant’s gazelles and elands prefer broad-leaved plants and bushes to grass.

blue wildebeest mother and calf nuzzling
wildebeests and zebras climb the muddy bank of Mara River
Two blue wildebeests fighting by butting heads and kicking up dust
wildebeest walks through golden grass at Amboseli National Park in Kenya
close-up of three blue wildebeest at rest in dry grass
Three blue wildebeest adults walk across a green meadow with three calves

Clockwise from top left: A mother and calf touch noses; wildebeests and zebras climb the bank of the Mara River, by Make It Kenya; male blue wildebeests compete for mates, by Yathin Krishnappa; mother wildebeests with calves in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, by Colin McMechan; blue wildebeests at rest in Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, by Ujuzi; a blue wildebeest at Amboseli National Park, Kenya, by Ray in Manila.

How Long Does the Great Wildebeest Migration Last?

The animals on the Great Migration never stay in one place for very long. They travel almost every day, even in the calving season. In that way, the Great Migration is not something that happens during certain times of year. It happens all year.

Here we describe the general pattern of the Great Migration. But keep in mind that weather and other factors can slow down or speed up the migration by weeks.

January to March: New Wildebeests Are Born

The Great Migration begins in the southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania, as wildebeests gather to give birth en masse. February is the peak of wildebeest calving season—about 400,000 calves are born over a period of just three weeks!

Wildebeest calves are able to stand within minutes of birth and keep up with the herd within a few days. That’s a good thing, as the mass calving attracts a large number of predators, including lions, cheetahs, and hyenas.

At this time of year, you are likely to see adult wildebeests work together to protect their young from predators. They sound alarm calls, then circle together around the threatened young, defending against predators with their hooves and sharp horns.

A wildebeest calf suckles milk from its mother

A wildebeest calf suckles milk from its mother on the Masai Mara in Kenya. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun.

April to May: Fattening Up

Now the Great Migration surges northward. The massive herd breaks up into smaller groups as it follows the rains clockwise toward Serengeti’s Western Corridor. It can be a difficult time to keep up with the Great Migration at this time of year. Seasonal flooding can close roads and block access to areas of the park.

June: Mating Season

The rains dissipate and the herds regroup for mating season in Serengeti’s Western Corridor and Grumeti Game Reserve. It’s an exciting time of year! You should have plenty of chances to watch males fight with each other as they show off their strength to potential mates.

July to August: River Crossings

The most dramatic moments of the Great Migration come when the herds must cross rivers. Here, the animals face crocodiles in addition to all the usual predators. They also risk drowning, especially in years with heavy rain. Rushing waters are difficult to swim through, particularly for calves.

First, they must cross the Grumeti River in West Serengeti. A few weeks later, as the grasses of the Serengeti dry out, they have little choice but to forge the Mara River in search of fresher pastures. Crossing the Mara brings the Great Migration into Kenya.

A blue wildebeest leaps into a churning river and is followed by two other wildebeest charging down the river bank

September to October: Masai Mara

The animals congregate in the Masai Mara, a national reserve that is part of the Mara Plains ecosystem on Kenya’s southern border. They move more slowly this time of year, as there is usually plenty of greenery to go around. In particularly lush years, they may stay into November.

November to December: Return South

Light rains return to the Serengeti in November, luring the wildebeest and company away from Masai Mara. They travel southward along the eastern edge of the Serengeti, eventually reaching the southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Pregnant females fill up on grass to fortify themselves for the birth of their young.

Soon, the cycle begins all over again!

a group of about 10 blue wildebeest in tall yellow grass in sunrise or sunset light

A group of blue wildebeests takes a rest in the savanna. Photo by Pieter van Noorden.

Fun Facts About Wildebeests

A Wildebeest is a Gnu

“Gnu” comes from a European mispronunciation of t’gnu, the word used by the Khoehoe people of southwestern Africa to describe wildebeest. “Wildebeest” comes from a Dutch phrase meaning “wild beast.” In East Africa, it is more common to talk about wildebeest. You are more likely to hear “gnu” in southern Africa.

Wildebeests Are Antelopes

With their large, cow-like faces and spindly legs, wildebeest don’t look like your stereotypical antelope. While most antelopes have narrow faces and a sleeker, more graceful look than wildebeest, they are all part of the same family.

Wildebeest are among the largest antelopes. The wildebeest you will see on the Great Migration can reach sizes up to 8 feet long, 5 feet tall, and 600 pounds.

The Wildebeests of East Africa are “Blue”

Did you know there are two species of wildebeest? The blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) is the kind you will find on the Great Migration. Black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) are found in southern Africa.

Are blue wildebeests really blue? It’s all a matter of perception. Adults come in varying shades of stony brown and gray, with a set of dark stripes—or brindling—over their shoulders. These stripes can look navy blue in contrast to neighboring fur.

  • 2 wildebeest running across the plain
  • large herd of wildebeest cross a muddy Mara river banked by green grass
  • A young blue wildebeest calf follows an adult wildebeest

Slides: Wildebeest run across the plains, by John Traeger on an Ujuzi safari. The Great Wildebeest Migration crosses the Mara River in Tanzania, by Jorge Tung. A young wildebeest calf sticks close to its mother, by Ellen Wilson on an Ujuzi safari.

Ways to See the Great Migration

Go on a Game Drive

The most popular way to enjoy the Great Migration is through game drives. While staying at a lodge or tented camp on the migratory route, you head out each morning and afternoon in a safari vehicle to get right into the action. Your driver guide stays in touch with animal trackers and other experts over radio to lead you to the best sites for viewing the Great Migration.

Learn more about game drives.

Follow the Great Migration

One unique way to enjoy the Great Migration is to stay in a mobile tented camp that moves with it. Each day, you travel from campsite to campsite. It’s most typical to do this in a safari vehicle that is also great for viewing wildlife. But for the more active traveler, traveling by horseback or by foot are also options.

Mobility does not mean you have to rough it. Luxury mobile camps include everything to keep you comfortable—furnished tents, cozy bedding, chef-prepared meals, well-maintained toilet facilities, and attentive staff.

Watch the Great Migration from the Air

The best way to take in the massive size of the Great Migration is with a bird’s eye view. And the best way to do that is from the basket of a hot air balloon.

Hot air balloon safaris can be arranged at many locations along the route of the Great Migration. They usually take place first thing in the morning, as the plains stir to life. Enjoy a unique view as swarms of wildebeest, zebra, and antelopes embark on their daily trek.

Learn more about hot air balloon safaris.

Wildebeest Migration as seen from a Hot Air Balloon Safari.

A group of Ujuzi travelers got this amazing view of the wildebeest migration during a hot air balloon safari over the Serengeti. Photo by Tony Raab.

Ready to Plan Your Great Migration Safari?

Ujuzi can help you plan a successful Great Migration safari. Contact us today.

In Their Words…

 “Until you are there—hearing, seeing, looking at the dust cloud all around you, you can’t even fathom how incredible the Great Migration is.”

Kathy Terlizzi

“Being above all the animals and seeing the herds of wildebeest [from a hot air balloon] was truly an incredible experience.”

Becky Raab

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