Wildebeest Migration – Part 2

Every year, around 1.5 million wildebeest are joined by thousands of Thompsons gazelle, zebra, eland, and other ungulates (hoofed animals) in what has been called the “greatest show on earth”, The Great Wildebeest Migration.

As one of UNESCO’s Wonders of the World, it is the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world across the Mara – Serengeti ecosystem in East Africa.

Part Two: River crossings

The Mara River meanders for 360km and the animals can cross anywhere, so, although there are some well-known places, there is not a single crossing point and there are no guaranteed places to witness the dangerous and frenzied river crossings. During the migration, there are numerous daily crossings over the Talek and Mara Rivers. One of the misconceptions of the migration is that the crossings can be predicted and are always at set river points. At some places, there are just a few individuals, while others see a mass of animals moving without a break for hours.

One of the most requested events of the migration in the river crossings that usually occurs anytime between July to early September and again on their return south to Tanzania in the late weeks of October and early November.

Photographs © Diane McLeish

Although the sight of thousands of animals moving across the plains is spectacular, being on-site at the river crossings gave me an indelible experience that took me through a range of emotions from awe, anticipation, heartache, inspiration, and nervousness excitement.

While I was waiting at the water’s edge, the masses of wildebeest gathered on the ledges above the river and I felt excited but also anxious as I knew that the time frame for the animals taking the plunge into the water would always be critical. Along with the snapping jaws of the crocodiles, there is also the ferocious current of the Mara River which often ends more lives than the predators. Large numbers of wildebeests drown during the crossings and their bodies provide a feast for the vultures and marabou storks. The crossings are by far the most dangerous part of the entire migration journey.

Suddenly, seeing thousands of wildebeest line up and move hastily across the plains towards the river, then the chaos of the crossing, I was in awe of and relieved for the strongest and most determined animals who reached the other side. Having survived the crossing some crossed back again in search of their young ones who perhaps had not joined the group or were too nervous to cross. The atmosphere was one of amazement, excitement, and encouragement as I watched the drama of the wildebeest leaping into the river, almost bouncing across the water, noisy, energetic, frantic, panic-ridden, and chaotic. They were like ants, seemingly milling around with no direction but if fact with an instinctive objective and most with enough adrenaline-driven energy to get across.

Photographs © Diane McLeish

But this scene also brought sadness as some animals were swept away by the river current and became wedged in the rocks and mud and I knew that there was nothing that could save them. These exciting, violent, and dramatic crossings have been captured in many excellent films and documentaries but being there and witnessing it from the river’s edge was an emotional and unforgettable experience.

Not everyone visiting the Mara is fortunate enough to witness a river crossing and others who have been there, never want to do so again because of the chaos and trauma that accompanies the event that can cause a massive loss of life. For those animals who reach the other side, they are often greeted by prowling lions, cheetah, and hyenas waiting around the upper banks of the river for an easy catch on arrival. Some river crossings are just a few individuals while others see a mass of animals moving without break for hours.

By September to October, the main mayhem has ended and the migrating columns gradually move eastwards in the Mara. During their time grazing in the plains, they will be hunted, stalked, and run down by larger carnivores. The Masai Mara has one of the largest densities of lions in the world and no wonder it is the home of the BBC wildlife channels Big Cat Diary. The arrival of the rains and new green pastures then lure them southwards and the wildebeest must face the river crossings once again for their return journey to the Serengeti.

Captured by Diane McLeish

In part three I will describe what migration is and detail the migration calendar.

EcoTraining in Kenya

EcoTraining offers a variety of courses in Kenya and for enthusiastic learners, you can read more about our Kenya Courses on our website.

Our next Mara EcoQuest course starts on the 1st of July 2021, for those interested please contact EcoTraining at [email protected].

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.