Everything you need to know about the Wildebeest Migration will be explained in three separate sections.
Part one: The Great Migration and Covid’s effects on Tourism in Kenya
The plains trembled and the swirling, brown cloud of dust hovered as the wildebeest moved towards the Mara River – the Great Wildebeest Migration across the plains of East Africa had begun.
The migration is one of the world’s most spectacular displays of wildlife behavior – a thrilling, intriguing, and marvelous sight. At first, it is just a trickle, an advance guard of zebras and a few columns of wildebeest, crossing the Tanzanian border, spilling across onto the savannah plains of the Masai Mara National Reserve. The reserve which is in Kenya forms part of the continuous ecosystem with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The trickle soon becomes a flood as the main body of the migrating herds comes rumbling in. For the next three to four months, usually between late June and October, they stay in the Masai Mara enjoying the fresh green pastures. They remain until the arrival of the short rains sometime in October or November, after which, they are drawn south once again to Tanzania.
Photographs © Diane McLeish
As the masses of wildebeest move towards the river and gather on the banks, their urgency and hesitation can be sensed. The energy in the air crackles with anticipation and is gripping. Watching them, the wildebeest seemed to be mustering courage, as not even they appeared to know when to cross. It is impossible to predict as some arrive at the water and swim over immediately while others spend days hanging around grazing or turn back to where they have come from.
Unfortunately, the spectacle of the migration is misunderstood by many visitors which can lead to disappointment. It is not a mass of rushing herds as usually seen on TV and in documentaries. Most of the time the wildebeest spend time grazing and gradually moving forward towards the numerous water crossings. It takes time and patience to see them start lining up in columns and some luck to be at the right place at the right time when they decide to cross.
What is the Name?
The Masai people named the vast plains the Mara as it means “spotted land” in the Maa language. It was a reference to the acacia glades that once freckled the grasslands before fire and elephants created today’s open vistas. The Masai Mara is the land of the Masai people and is not a national park but rather a national reserve belonging to the Masai people.
Photographs © Diane McLeish
A Year with a Difference
Each year the wildebeest migration sparks a twin migration- the almost two million animals and then the tourists from around the world who flock to Kenya hoping to witness one of the natural wonders of the world.
This season has been anything but typical and the reserve, which was established in 1961, has been depleted of international visitors. The blow to Kenya’s economy has been devastating. Last year about 1 million tourists, mainly from the USA, Europe, and China, visited the Mara and this provided much-needed income to the Masai community especially the informal sector that depends on tourists purchasing curios.
Normally the plains would have been busy with game viewing vehicles, full of visitors, hoping to see a crossing and possibly a lion hunt – but this year Kenyans had one of the country’s most sought-after wildlife experiences to themselves.
Photographs © Diane McLeish
Tourism has struggled worldwide due to travel restrictions and Kenya is no different as its international borders have, at times, been closed. This was a disastrous time for the lodges and tour companies – some simply closed but the more innovative ones recognized that they still had an untapped domestic market that had, possibly, been neglected during past migrations. By adjusting what they offered to satisfy the different expectations and needs of the local market many Kenyan citizens and residents were able to witness the migration for possibly the first time. This allowed businesses to survive with many camps being fully booked for the migration period.
It was a privilege to experience the Mara once again as a peaceful wilderness and especially to see that the reserve management was enforcing their rules. The reserve had been closed for many months and in that time Mother Nature had time to heal. The animals seemed more relaxed and many dirt tracks had covered over with grass erasing the scars of the previous tourist season. Without the pressure of other vehicles, I was able to sit watching a serval stalk and kill a large rat before taking it to its lair. Lions were plentiful and sightings of cheetah strolling across the grasslands as well as leopard investigating a riverbank were delightful moments. With fewer vehicles around I reveled in the random and at times the chaotic activity of the wildebeest and was fortunate to share the experience of three, action-packed, river crossings with only two other vehicles, whereas in past years there could have been up to one hundred.
The Reserve has about 230 lodges and tented camps so that gives an indication of how many visitors the Mara can accommodate during the height of the migration season. During this last season, just a handful remained open, mostly due to the strict Covid restrictions as well as the lack of international tourists.
In part two I will cover the dramatic river crossings which are the most requested events for visitors in the migration journey.
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About the Author:
Diane McLeish is a freelance writer who lives on the shores of Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. From South Africa, she has traveled extensively in sub-Saharan Africa and has been living in Kenya for the last 16 years.