The Great Wildebeest Migration in East Africa is also known as the Gnu Migration in East Africa because wildebeests are also known as gnus and are the major wildlife that take place in this marvel of Serengeti National Park Migration and Masai Mara National Reserve Migration. It is one of the last mass earthly wildlife movements left on the planet. It’s the primary reason why so many travellers venture to Kenya and Tanzania for a Migration safari, especially in July to August annually. The Migration is one of nature’s greatest paradoxes, timing is absolutely vital, but there is no way to predict the timing of the animals’ movements. We know that the wildebeest and a smattering of zebra and antelope will cross the Mara River but nobody knows exactly when. We also know that rain will trigger the wildebeest to move onto fresh grazing, but nobody knows exactly when the rain will fall.
Fortunately, we’ve been planning Wildebeest Migration safaris in Africa since 2000. We’ve helped so many in thousands of travellers to be in the best possible place at the best possible time for the best possible price. If you're looking for expert planning advice, look no further. We’ve compiled all our specialist tips in this handy beginner’s guide to a Wildebeest Migration safari.
Can the Migration River Crossings be predicted? The correct answer is no, not even the wildebeest know when they’re going to cross! Some arrive at the water and swim over immediately, some arrive and spend days hanging around and grazing, some arrive and turn back to where they came from unfortunately. We wish we could predict the crossings, but no-one can. This is why it is best to have as much time on safari as possible if you hope to see a river crossing, minimum 4 nights but also 3 nights work depending on the accommodation location and some based on luck.
Most people think that the Wildebeest Migration only takes place between July and October, but it’s actually an ever moving, circular migration with various but equally exciting events that occur year round. The popular river crossings usually coincide with safari's high season (July to October), hence the perception that this is the only time of the year that the wildebeest are on the move or can be seen.
Because the Great Migration is a year-round movement of about two million animals across the Serengeti Mara ecosystem, there are no defined start or end points. The Gnu Migration is triggered by East Africa’s rains and the animals follow an age-old route in search of fresh grazing and water. This epic journey takes the wildebeest across the Masai Mara National Reserve plains in Kenya, all the way south into Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and the edge of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Crater, before circling up and around in a clockwise direction.
It is generally believed that the Great Migration in Africa is dictated primarily by the wildebeest’s response to the weather. They move after the rains and the growth of new grass, essentially following a natural instinct to find food to stay alive. Some experts believe that the wildebeest are triggered by distant lightning and thunderstorms, but there is no scientific proof of it.
A Month-by-Month Breakdown of the Great Migration
With climate change, the long and short rainy seasons in Tanzania and Kenya are no longer as regular or predictable as they once were. The rains can be late or early, which will throw the whole wildebeest calendar out of synch. This is, once again, why it’s important to plan for as much time on safari as possible. You cannot fly in for two nights, see a river crossing and fly out again, nature simply doesn’t work that way. This is a very general guideline for where the herds are during the year bearing in mind that the entire Gnu Migration is triggered by rain, which can be early, late or on time:
The herds are in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, moving south from the north-east region and into the area near Lake Ndutu. The Serengeti National Park is not fenced, so the herds are free to move where they can find grazing. Remember that although up to two million wildebeest, zebra and antelope form the Serengeti National Park Migration, they are not all in a single herd. The animals break up into mega-herds of thousands or hundreds of individuals at time.
FEBRUARY TO MARCH
It is calving season (over 8000 wildebeest babies are born each day!) so prepare yourself for lots of wobbly calves and lots of heartbreak as fearsome predators swoop in. The Serengeti’s big cats take the 3 lion’s share, but hit and run jackals, packs of wild dog, and hyena clans add to the spectacle. It’s a bittersweet ballad; the circle of life played out as a live action drama. If the short rainy season (November and December) produced good grazing, the herds feed hysterically and remain in the Serengeti's southern plains until they slowly start moving west in March.
It’s the start of the long rains (April to May) and the herds generally move in a north-westerly direction towards the Moru and Simba Kopjes. The action-packed rutting (breeding) season is in full swing, featuring testosterone-fuelled jousts between males competing for the right to mate with receptive females.
Wagons roll! The massed herds are on the go, huge columns of up to 40 kilometres (25 miles) in length can sometimes be seen as the wildebeest funnel up into the central Serengeti. Everyone’s moving a little quicker now that the calves are stronger.
The wildebeest are usually in the central Serengeti National Park and getting ready for the toughest part of their odyssey. The herds may have split up, with some already crossing the Grumeti River.
JULY The Great Migration have reached the Grumeti region and northern parts of the Serengeti and are scrutinizing closely at the traitorous waters of the Mara River, they have to cross into Kenya. Why? Huge Nile crocodiles, that's why! As mentioned, it is impossible to accurately predict river crossings; they depend entirely on the rains and the often unpredictable wildebeest themselves. It’s vital to book your Wildebeest Migration safari in Africa up to a year in advance to get a lodge on or as close to the river as possible, this cuts down on travel time to lookout points when you book that advance. The wildebeest do have historical crossing areas and you may spend days staked out in the hope of seeing the action. We recommend choosing a mobile safari camp that moves with the Migration to ensure you’re in the right place at the right time.
August is generally considered the best time to witness the dramatic river crossings from the northern Serengeti National Park into the Masai Mara National Reserve. You'll need a passport to cross into Kenya; the wildebeest are exempt. The Masai Mara National Reserve is open to members of the public so for a more exclusive safari experience, head for the private conservancies that are contiguous with the reserve.
The herds break up into smaller groups, as not all the wildebeest migrate into Kenya. Less than half of the animals remain in the northern Serengeti National Park, the rest are swapping war stories in the Masai Mara National Reserve. So you could still see wildebeest in the Serengeti (just not the mega-herds) but as a general rule of thumb, the Masai Mara National is the best place to witness the Migration in September.
Your best bet is still the Masai Mara National Reserve, but bear in mind it is a far smaller reserve than the Serengeti National Park and there may be a lot of other visitors. The neighbouring private conservancies are much less crowded and, not only will you still be able to witness the Migration, you will also directly contribute to the Maasai communities who have lived there for thousands of years, The belong to the tribe of Maa People. Plus you can enjoy off-road game viewing, night drives and walking safaris activities not permitted in the Masai Mara National Reserve.
In a ‘normal year’ the short rains have begun, propelling the wildebeest to leave the now denuded grasslands of the Masai Mara National Reserve and head back into the rejuvenated Serengeti National Park. Bear in mind that the rain can be late or early, which is also unpredictable and the same shall affect the movement to Serengeti National Park. The herds are generally on the move, but can be seen around the north-eastern parts of the Serengeti where they may split into smaller groups for their journey southward. Although many people think of Africa as a hot place, the rain can cool things down dramatically. You’ll be out on early morning and late afternoon game drives, the sun is at its weakest during these times. Take at least one pair of trousers, closed shoes that can cope with mud, and a fleece or waterproof jacket.
DECEMBER Fresh grazing sees the wildebeest move south, covering the northern and eastern Serengeti to feast and prepare for yet another death-defying, 3000 KM (1900 ML) odyssey.
Now that you know how the Great Wildebeest Migration in East Africa works, you can easily see that the best time to go depends entirely on which events you're personally interested in seeing. Remember, the Serengeti National Park and Masai Mara National Reserve’s abundance of wildlife and wide open landscapes, make them fantastic year round safari destinations.
|Calving (Birthing) Season||February to March||Southern Serengeti|
|Rutting (Breeding) Season||April to May||Western & Central Serengeti|
|Grumeti River Crossings||May to June||Central Serengeti|
|Mara River Crossings||July to August||Northern Serengeti & Masai Mara|
|On the Move||November to January||Masai Mara & Northern Serengeti to Southern Serengeti|
- The bulk of the Migration takes place in the Serengeti National Park.
- It’s a year-round, circular journey.
- River crossings cannot be predicted, but generally occur between May and August.
- The animals are strung out across a large area, there are always fore runners and stragglers.
- Your best chance of seeing river crossing may involve spending all day at a site where the wildebeest have massed. If you are a keen photographer, your best opportunities may occur around midday when the sun and glare are at their harshest, so make preparations to accommodate this.
Accommodation for a Great Migration safari can be divided into two broad categories: permanent lodges and mobile camps. Each has different advantages, but choosing one depends on what is important to you:
|Mobile Camps||Permanent Lodges|
- Usually bucket showers
- Basins may use jug water
- There may not be running water
- Plumbed showers
- Flush toilets
- Maybe bathtubs
- Maybe outdoor showers
|Power / Electricity||
- Book as soon as you know you want to go, don’t procrastinate! Lodges and camps are small and fill up very quickly.
- The river-crossing season is the most popular, so start planning at least a year in advance.
- If you want inter-connecting tents or family suites, book as early as possible as there are limited numbers of these available.
- If you’re travelling with very young children, consider fenced accommodation, babysitting services and your own private game drive vehicle.
- If you have mobility challenges, ask for rooms as close to the mess areas as possible to avoid long walks, often on soft sand (not hills ad rocky area).
- If you are on a budget, choose good-value accommodation so that you have extra time on safari. This increases your chances of seeing births, kills or crossings
- Book early, at least a year in advance
Lodges and camps fill up fast, especially for a Great Migration safari from June to October. Remember, this is safari’s high season and when the popular river crossings happen, but you can see the herds any time of the year.
- Arrange Your timing carefully
The Migration is a fluid, often unpredictable affair. It’s important to know where to go and when to go on a Wildebeest Migration safari to ensure your expectations are met. Choose and arrange your timing according to what you want to see and experience.
- Avoid the crowds
The Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National Park experience high visitor and vehicle numbers during safari’s peak or high season (June to October). The private conservancies adjoining the Masai Mara National Reserve offer exclusivity, luxurious accommodations and excellent game viewing in sole use areas. You’ll also be offered activities not permitted in the main reserve, such as night drives, bush walks and off-road game viewing.
- There are camps in the Serengeti National park that are located a little further away from the Migration hot spots meaning you can easily get to all the action, but also retreat to tranquility.
- Diversify Your Game Viewing
A Wildebeest Migration experience can get busy, noisy, smelly, and far removed from a general Big 5 safari. We highly recommend ending at a lodge or camp that’s located away from the herds to enjoy a bit of tranquility and a diverse game viewing experience.
- Extend your Migration Safari
The Masai Mara National Reserve and Serengeti National park combine easily with each other, and each can also form the focal point of a larger safari itinerary. We recommend combining the Masai Mara National Reserve with Rift Valley Lakes, Northern Frontier, Amboseli National Park, Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tarangire National Park and Zanzibar Island.