Experience the great migration
By Jayne Rose Gacheri

Wildebeests [Courtesy]

There are not enough words to describe the awesome occurrence that happens at the Mara Game Reserve each year between the months of June to October. The is the Great Migration which has also been called “The greatest spectacle on earth”, now also identified as one of the modern seven wonders of the world.

The Great (wildebeest) Migration has also been described as one of the most inspiring sights on earth – a sign that most people have only seen in pictures and movies. A visit to the Mara Game Reserve, (richest wildlife reserve in Africa) is not complete unless you have witnessed this annual spectacle on earth. You can visit the Mara tens of times, but each time will be a new experience. However, the best experience that you can have is witnessing “The Great Migration”, which this year came early in May.

For close to four months, the Mara reserve becomes a treasure-trove and attraction spot for many tourists (now also locals), film-makers, media and other visitors who come to witness this spectacle that only happens at the Mara.

The making of a great display

Before the Great Migration happens, the stage has to be set. During the wet season, Serengeti is a nice place to live for the wildebeest, also called gunus. Grass abounds on the southern plains and in the Ngorongoro Conservation area, where the animals find a safe place to graze and give birth to their calves. However, as East Africa’s savannah plains fade yellow, around April, an ancient signal is sent to millions of beasts, including a staggering 3 million wildebeests, 200,000 zebras and gazelle – that all start relentlessly trekking across thousands of miles from Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania to Masai Mara. This is what is named “The Great Migration.”

Wildebeests crossing a road at Maasai Mara National Game reserve on August 4, 2018 [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

By the end of May, the depleted Serengeti plains are unable to sustain the herds. This forces them to leave the western corridor to take to the northern Serengeti plains and woodlands. As they exhaust the prairies, they can smell the rains that are falling northward, at the other side – the Masai Mara. The fresh, tender and mineral-rich pastures are irresistible bait for the wild cattle to invade the Kenyan reserve.

Suddenly, as if on impulse and under the command of a mysterious shepherd the “the lawnmowers” abandon the exhausted grasslands of Serengeti for the tall grass in the Mara basin. The troops coming from the Serengeti meet with another contingent – the resident wildebeest herd of the Mara region. The animals, adding up to about 100,000 reside in the Loita Plains and hills north-east of the Mara until the dry season brings tougher days and it is time to seek the evergreen Mara basin.

A herd of migrating wildebeests [Courtesy]

The solemn procession does not travel alone! A constellation of carnivores follow closely, mainly lion and hyena, whilst the vulture squadrons fly over the parade. Thousands of weak or ill animals end up being devoured during the trek, and only one out of three calves will ever see the Serengeti again.

Throughout the month of July, the herds cross the Sand River, a dry tributary of the Mara which roughly follows the boundary line between Kenya and Tanzania.

Wildebeests after crossing River Mara at Maasai Mara National Game reserve on August 4, 2018 [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

The great spectacle

The herd parades at the eastern sector of the Masai Mara, surrounding the Kekorot Lodge (my base point) area, The trek follows westward leading the herds to face the major challenge along the quest: crossing the Mara River and its tributary, the Talek.

By this time the rains at the Mau Escarpment where the Mara rises, have fed the stream to its highest level. The steep banks are populated with basking crocodiles waiting patiently for the annual banquet. With wild determined eyes, the wildebeest parade along the swollen banks looking for a suitable crossing point. They seem to be plunged in a state of anxiety and wander around nervously, their grunts sounding loud in the air. They seem unsure of what move to make – to plunge into the river or turn back. Probably the “thought” of the lush green grass awaiting them on the other side is so tempting and blinds them from taking an alternative route.

Then suddenly one of them approaches the edge of the river, scanning the opposite side, probably to analyze if danger waits. If all seems clear it plunges into the river. This is a message to the rest of the heard that in a stupor follow suit, in a single line, with the slower ones throwing themselves into the river. The rearguard pushes the troops into a frantic race that end up with some animals trampled to death. Many of them end either drowning or making a meal for the crocodiles. If one of them detects danger, it jumps back, pulling the rest of the herd into a confused retreat that sometimes triggers a crazy stampede.

When the line breaks, the animals that have crossed will not continue their journey until the whole herd has crossed. They will remain on the opposite bank grunting at their mates as if encouraging them to cross. When every wildebeest has crossed, the frontrunners lead the animals to their final destination. Those that survive the ordeal are too weak to continue with the journey, thus ending up as prey to the ambushing lions.

The operation of fording the river is what the spectacle is made of to many visitors, photographers and film-makers. It is the most delicate of the entire migration. The fording is finished, some animals have died, smashed to pieces by the crocodiles’ jaws or trampled to death by their mates in the stampede. The dramatic life and death struggle is what local and international visitors come to see.

A Wildebeest [Courtesy]

Nature’s balancing act

Probably to keep nature’s balance of life and death, vultures, marabou storks and hyenas become permanent dwellers of the riverbank where carcasses decay. Their task is to clean the belt. The repellent massacre landscape that literally stains red the brown waters is nothing but one more step in the circus of nature. Actually it is not a scene of death but one of life since the abundance of meat feeds a great many species that would otherwise be extinct. It also controls the herbivore population.

Around September - October, the herds are back to Serengeti through another route. Once here, the herds find rain sweetened grasslands which provide much-needed nourishment especially for the pregnant female herbivores which will be born (about 400,000) in spontaneous profusion – thus completing the circle of life and death.

The great migration [Courtesy]

Strictly speaking though, the migration has neither a start nor an end. Each wildebeest’s life in the Serengeti is a constant pilgrimage that is never really over until the animal dies.

But if you visited the Mara around October and November, you will find no evidence of this great spectacle. This is Mother Nature’s way of balancing act of life and death. Probably, you will hear of it during a story-telling session or read/watch it in the Media.