What is the great migration of East Africa? Each year, in a cyclical manner, 1.5 million wildebeest, 200 000 zebra and thousands of antelope of various species make the 800 km trek through the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Masai Mara in Kenya. As one would expect, all the great predators follow closely behind. It’s their version of ‘Food on the Move’.
Known as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, it is hard to describe the feeling of watching these huge herds of wild animals moving across the plains, kicking up dust, as they thunder about. If you see them on the move, it almost feels like there’s thunder rumbling under the African ground. And that’s before we talk about the dramatic river crossings in June/July, all beset by crocodiles.
Serengeti and Mara are two of the most well-known game parks in Africa. Their popularity is completely understandable. Check out our Budget Kenya and Tanzania Family Safari if you’re looking for a family safari and our 10-day Masai Mara and Serengeti Lodge Safari to get a glimpse of all the wonder these destinations offer.
Now, let's unpack everything you need to know when planning a great migration safari in East Africa.
But why the ongoing restlessness of these huge herds?
The answer to that is simple: survival instinct, the most basic instinct of every living creature on earth. They’re following the rains and, in effect, the grazing, in order to have enough food to live. The predators that lurk behind? They’re following the ‘grazing’ too, they just graze in a slightly more bloodthirsty manner.
Where does the great migration take place?
The great migration follows a circular route each year, covering around 800 km through the Serengeti National Park in northern Tanzania and the Masai Mara National Park in southern Kenya. There are no fences between the two parks, especially to allow the great migration to continue as it has since way before humans decided to create imaginary borders between areas.
It is commonly thought that planning a trip to any area in the Serengeti or Mara at any time of the year, you will be able to see these vast herds of animals and witness their adrenaline-filled river crossings. This is a misconception, though. The herds move. A lot. This means that, in order to see them, you need to be where they are at the time of year that you’re going.
While East Africa's great migration follows a fairly set circular route each year, when the animals move, where, is totally unpredictable for three reasons:
- The rains can come earlier, later, or not at all, meaning that the grass to graze may sprout earlier, later or not at all. The animals will move to whichever area provides the best chance of survival.
- Wildebeest don’t wear watches or carry diaries. The animals that participate in the great migration are wild and follow their natural instinct to survive. This means moving away from danger (like lack of food) and toward survival.
- Mother Nature. She’s always been unpredictable and always will be. Same goes for The Weatherman. They can be tricksy, those two.
The river crossings are the really dramatic part of the great wildebeest migration when the herds plunge through the Grumeti and Mara Rivers, huge crocodiles snapping at their heels (and snacking on a good few too). It’s this part of the migration cycle that you see all the wild images of and is what many people visit the area to see. It is, however, just a very small part of the annual circular trip.
This part, especially, is unpredictable and, while the crossings usually occur sometime in June/July, nobody on the planet can predict exactly when they will happen. The longer you stay in the area during that season, the greater your chance of seeing it. It’s peak season though, so early booking is vital.
Why do these animals hang out together and why do the wildebeest (and friends) migrate?
Whether you’re human or animal, there’s safety in numbers. To put it plainly, if there’s a pack of lion hunting a sole wildebeest, odds are not good for him. On the other hand, if there’s a herd of 5000 wildebeest, each one’s got fairly good odds.
Survival. Like everything in the bush, it all boils down to survival.
Another reason is food - they’re hanging out where the grazing is. This one’s a bit confusing though. Surely all eating at the same grazing table means the food runs out? Luckily, zebra and wildebeest eat different parts of grasses on savannah plains, so they can happily share.
Do all animals of the Serengeti and Masai Mara migrate?
No. The area has 2 million wildebeest and about 500,000 zebras, but not all of them migrate, so don’t fret if your safari timing doesn’t fit in with when the great migration will be in a certain area: both the Serengeti and Masai Mara Reserves have plenty of resident game and are wonderful to visit any time of the year.
The great migration route
Remember, the route covers 800 km, a distance you’re highly unlikely to cover within the parks on a short African safari! Also, they settle in an area for a couple of months each time, grazing and resting; rutting and calving … you know, getting on with the circle of life. Travel within the parks is – wonderfully – slow, on rough roads with spectacular views and great game viewing but not necessarily of the migratory herds.
But where exactly do these hundreds of thousands of animals go? We’ve drawn up a basic route with the average timings – please do remember about the unpredictability mentioned above – for their great trek through the parks.
The short rains, November/December
The short rains arrive as the animals slowly move South from Kenya, grazing on the plains of the central and Eastern Serengeti.
During mid- to late-December, they amble further south to the short grass plains around Ndutu and Ngorongoro, stalked by the predators. African Budget Safari's Tanzania Northern Circuit & Serengeti Lodge Safari visits Lake Ndutu.
This caldera (ancient volcano) in the south-eastern part of the Serengeti is a sight to behold. It is, essentially, a bowl spanning 260 km2 with a floor that is 610 m deep. Within this enclosed little biome live an array of wildlife: rhino, elephant, buffalo, hippo, wildebeest, zebra and big cats – including the densest population of lion in East Africa. Who could blame them? Their food’s in a bowl!
Funnily, there are no giraffes within the Ngorongoro Crater. We like to think it’s because they don’t like trying to walk in down the steep sides of the old volcano, but don’t quote us on it! If you want to see giraffes, there are plenty in the rest of the Serengeti and Mara.
Most of the animals that live in the Ngorongoro Crater don’t leave the area ever, although around 20% of the wildebeest and zebra leave in the wet season. On our Masai Mara, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Lodge Safari you’ll get to experience not only the exquisite Ngorongoro Crater, but also the Masai Reserve.
Calving season, January to March
On the lush plains of southern Serengeti, the herds eat well as the females expand, before the calving season in late January to mid-March. Between January and March, around half a million wildebeest are born. During February – peak birthing season – 8000 wildebeest are born per day.
It’s at this point that there is a predator free-for-all, as they prey on the vulnerable calves. It’s also a great time of the year to visit this area as not only are the baby animals unbelievably cute but the predator hunting season provides for exciting (but gory) game-viewing. This is the circle of life like you’ve never seen it before.
The long rains, April
The long rains usually start in about April and the planes are lush and green and teeming with animals. Food starts becoming scarce though, and this is the sign for the herds to begin to move north and west during April and May.
From April to June the great migration moves through the western parts of Serengeti towards Seronera and the Grumeti River, followed closely by their predators (lion, leopard, cheetah and hyena).
One of the three main areas into which the Serengeti is divided, and where the headquarters of the park are, Seronera is the iconic ‘African safari’ landscape, with sweeping grassland plains dotted with umbrella thorn trees and rocky outcrops.
Being central – and often referred to as ‘the heart of the Serengeti’, this is where most game drives happen and … wait for it … hot air balloon flights. If we can give you one bit of advice on budgeting for a Serengeti safari trip, it’s this: try your very best to go on a hot air balloon over the plains of the Serengeti at dawn. It’s indescribable.
Our East African Great Migration Lodge Safari spends two days in this wonderful area and, if your timing is lucky, you may get to see the migratory herds chilling out on the plains (usually April to June).
During June most of the game gathers in the Grumeti area before crossing over the Grumeti and Mara (slightly north of the Grumeti) Rivers into Kenya during June and July. It is the crossing of these rocks-pretending-to-be-crocs-strewn rivers that is the source of the dramatic pictures as the herds take on the massive Nile crocodiles in the river.
It is impossible to describe the experience, as thousands of animals stampede across the river kicking up dust and splashing about as they tempt fate in huge numbers. The unlucky ones find themselves in the powerful jaws of the crocodiles.
As mentioned above, it is impossible to predict the exact timing of the river crossings, nobody is entirely sure what the trigger is for that first animal to start the crossings. Usually, the Grumeti crossings happen in June, the Mara crossings in July.
Stay as long as you can, to increase your chances and remember that, even if you miss the actual river crossing, the massive herds are in the area and both the Serengeti and Mara are spectacular!
As the grass of the Masai Mara dwindles and the dry season gets longer the animals head back south into Tanzania through November and December, when the short rains arrive and the grass is looking greener on the other side!
Some of the African Budget Safari tours that include areas of the great migration
Remember, timing is key here. If you’re unsure, our knowledgeable travel consultants are on hand to help with any questions:
- Budget Tanzania Lodge Safari
- Tanzania Wildlife Camping Safari
- 6 Day Masai Mara & Rift Valley Lakes Camping Safari
The sad bits
Each year, around 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebras die. Africa is not for sissies. The animals die from thirst or hunger and exhaustion.
Many are killed by the predators that follow the migrating animals, waiting to catch a weakened animal or vulnerable baby. It is thought that over 3000 lion trail behind the migratory herds.
Visiting Serengeti and Mara on Safari
If your budget and/or time constraints don’t allow for you to witness the great wildebeest migration, don’t worry. The Serengeti and Mara are incredible year around. There is plenty of resident game and, while seeing the plains filled with huge herds of game is incredible, the plains without them are just as breath-taking.
This is ‘Out of Africa’ stuff with vistas that stretch to forever and skies bigger than anything you’ve experienced, especially at night. An African night sky, scattered with millions of stars, the Milky Way spread across it, is one of the most beautiful things you’ll ever see.
How to plan your budget safari to see the great migration
Choose your times carefully. As explained in this piece, the animals are expected in specific areas at certain times of the year. If your heart is set on seeing them, book a safari that’ll be in that area at the right time.
Again, remember that it is entirely unpredictable, but you can certainly see the plains animals grazing and calving in the southern Serengeti between December and February, for example. The river crossings in June/July are a bit more unpredictable, because it’s a short period but, if your timing is lucky, it’s incredible.
If your timing is not so lucky, a wildlife safari to the Serengeti is still amazing, with or without the great migration. Get hold of one of our knowledgeable and helpful travel consultants and book your once-in-a-lifetime trip to experience the great wildebeest migration of East Africa immediately!