The Serengeti & the Migration
To answer the question of when is the best time for the wildebeest migration, we need to first understand that the animals move in continuous cycle in search of water and fresh nutritious grasses.
Up to two million wildebeest and half a million zebra live in the Serengeti National Park along with thousands of gazelles, impala and other antelope. This in turn attracts the predators which make Serengeti eco-system a piece of dramatic open air theatre.
Every year some 1.4 million of these wildebeest and 200,000 of the zebra move northwards through the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and into the Masai Mara National Park in Kenya. The wildlife spills out into buffer zones outside the official parks where wild animals co-exist alongside the local Masai and their livestock.
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This blog post is a quick summary. If you want greater detail then download our free Insiders Guide to the Wildebeest Migration. You’ll find the link at the bottom of the page.
Why they do this, and when, all depends on the rains….
November to December – the arrival of the short rains
The cycle begins in the sweet grass plains in the southern part of the Serengeti….The short rains begin in November to mid-December, prompting the migration back south to the south-western part of the Serengeti to the short sweet grass plains. Long columns of wildebeest and zebra are trailed by opportunistic predators. If it’s action you’re after then this could be one of the best times for you to witness the Wildebeest Migration.
Mid December to March
From mid December to March, the short grass plains of the southern Serengeti around Ndutu and the Ngorongoro conservation are alive with migrant herds of wildebeest, zebra and gazelles. During the calving seasons of late January to mid March over 80% of the wildebeest give birth given the abundant water available.
Many feel that this is the best time to visit the Serengeti.
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Long Rains – April to early June – they head to Seronera
When the long rains begin in April, the plains are at their most beautiful, vivid with wildflowers and teeming game. This could be the best time for keen photographers to see the wildebeest migration as the quality of the light is magical. However by then, the short grasses of the south cannot sustain the vast herds, and they begin to move northwards and westwards.. .
From April to June, the Serengeti is the theatre for one of the most impressive wildlife shows on earth. Hundreds of thousands of plains game begin moving towards the Seronera, then the Grumeti River. This spectacular moving feast is trailed by predators; lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena. And yes, safari vehicles…
The Seronera area of the Serengeti comprises open plains dotted with attractive kopjes. There’s plenty of resident game with relaxed predators as well as the migrating herds coming through in April and May. Given the Seronera’s central position, you can stay here and still travel south and north to the Western Corridor. However this advantage means that the Seronera remains busy throughout most of the migration.
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June – Grumeti
By June the best grazing lands of this Western Corridor have been exhausted and the herds move still further north into the Grumeti. The ground is drier and it’s easier to move around. Camps in the Grumeti area are in the best location. This area also has plenty of permanent game including zebra wildebeest, the predators and forest species.
July – Northern Serengeti
By July, as the rains dwindle, huge columns of wildebeest and zebra start amassing along the swollen rivers of the crocodile-infested Grumeti and Mara rivers. The Northern Serengeti lies between the Seronera and the Kenyan border. This gentle rolling game country includes the pretty Lobo kopje. Given its northern position, it is far less crowded than the southern grasslands and the Seronera.
Late July, August & September – The river crossing
Many people want to see the dramatic river crossings when the columns of wildebeest and zebra scramble their way across the Grumeti and Mara rivers to reach the richer grazing lands of the Masai Mara in southern Kenya. The animals mill around for a while on the southern banks before suddenly one brave wildebeest takes the plunge into the river current. Then thousands follow in a dramatic watery stampede. Some do not make it.
However it is difficult to say this is the best time for the wildebeest migration. It is touch and go that you will be able to witness one of the crossings as their timings vary dramatically from year to year depending on the rains. In dry years, many of them do not even cross into Kenya. Your best bet is to stay for 3-4 nights to maximize your chances.
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The Maasai of East Africa are the descendants of Nilotic people. They moved south in the wake of the desertification of the Saharan rangesCheck it out!
July to October/November – Northern Serengeti & Masai Mara
Once safely across the wildebeest, zebra and gazelles spread out across the plains as far as the eye can see. They come to give birth to their young and the grasslands echo with the sounds of the new-born. These are good times for the many, but not for all. Predators are naturally drawn into the Mara with lion, cheetah, leopard and hyena all on the hunt.
Most of the year the best time for the wildebeest migration and game-viewing in the Masai Mara is in the Greater Mara areas. This is because there is a balance of cattle and wildlife in these areas – the cattle keep the grass short and green which the plains game prefer. And the predators follow the plains game.
However between August and October, during the migration season, good game-viewing becomes possible throughout the whole Masai Mara area as the million of wildebeest and zebra “mow” the grass down, making it palatable even in the normally long grass areas.
November to December – The migration heads south
As the fresh green grasses of the Masai Mara are mown down by the game, and the dry season continues, the wildebeest, zebra and gazelles start to return south. They recross the rivers and head back into Tanzania especially once the short rains begin again in November. (Which heralds lush green grass).
Sometimes you get brief periods of rain before the real ‘short’ rains begin. In this case the animals do not carry on moving south and may move back into the Masai Mara until they are sure of rain further south. This uncertainty means that the return migration is not so dramatic as the animals don’t move en masse. It is also even less predictable.
West of Serengeti National Park lies the Loliondo Game Controlled Area which belongs to the Maasai tribes who live there. This is still part of the Serengeti eco-system and has plentiful stocks of permanent game. It experiences this return migration. Between September and November you can see the migration here as it returns south. We recommend Nduara Loliondo Camp, Klein’s Camp and Suyan Camp.
Then the cycle begins all over again.
Key Points to Remember
1) Rainfall varies
No one can predict exactly when, where or how much rain will fall. The migration is a complex natural phenomenon and its timing varies from year to year.
2) Wildlife movements
Not all plains game participate in the migration so don’t believe that if you visit these areas outside of the migration season you won’t see any wildlife. You may not see the hundreds of thousands of grazing animals but you will see plenty, as well as the more territorial species.
3) Timing of the River Crossings?
If you are on safari in the Masai Mara don’t get hung up about being there at the actual river crossing as the likelihood that your three days on safari in the Mara co-incides with their arrival are – as you can imagine – fairly small. Instead time your visit for when you know they should be already in the Mara (late July or early August). If you are lucky the rains may be late and you may see them arrive but at the very least you will see the vast herds on the plains. However if you arrive early, you may be too early and not see the migration at all!
4) Tanzania or Kenya for the Migration?
Most of the year the migrating wildlife are in Tanzania with only 2-3 months in Kenya’s Masai Mara. So if you are going on safari specifically to see the migration, your best bet is Tanzania. Unless you are choosing Kenya for scenic variety. It offers the Laikipia, the Great Rift Valley and Lamu as well as the migration.) If so, visiting the Masai Mara in August to September is a fair plan.
5) Fixed camps or Mobile Camps
Given point number one, you may like to consider staying at a mobile camp for part of your Serengeti safari as these camps can move with the animals. Alternatively if you opt for a permanent camp in the Seronera, you should be able to travel to the migration for many weeks of the year, whether its north or south of you when you stay there.
‘Best time to see the Wildebeest Migration’ was written by safari experts Cedarberg Africa
Cedarberg Africa is a travel and safari company specializing in African tailor-made itineraries. We have special rates with all the hotels and game lodges. Booking through us will cost no more than booking direct, and sometimes less. So our expertise and knowledge comes at no extra cost to you!