Serengeti vs Masai Mara: A Comparison

Serengit means ‘endless plains’ in the Masai language.

The Serengeti ecosystem –  Masai Mara National Park in Kenya and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania – covers an area of about 30 000 km2. In addition, it includes a number of other private game reserves and protected areas.

Known for its vast savannah grasslands, huge concentrations of wildlife and the spectacular Great Migration, that’s not all it offers.  There is an array of habitats and, therefore, animal concentrations, that differ from place to place.

Harvey BarrisonBallooning over the Serengeti - Harvey Barrison

So the burning question is: Which one to go to on safari?

The easy answer is either. Both offer incredible safaris, beautiful landscapes, a sense of space and a plethora of wildlife. In this post we’ll try and unpack the differences and highlight when is better to go where, and why.

Habitat & Landscapes

oliver.doddSerengeti - oliver.dodd

A fact that many people don’t realise is that the Serengeti ecosystem encompasses a vast range of different habitats and landscapes. Yes, the stretch-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see grasslands are there, but there are also acacia-dotted savannahs, hilly outcrops (or kopjes), wooded hills and riverine woodlands, all of which attract different animals.

Marc VeraartKopjes - Marc Veraart

The most vast grasslands are the Serengeti plains in the southern part of Serengeti and stretching up north through the central Serengeti to Masai Mara, where it becomes more grassy and hilly.

To the west too, toward Lake Victoria and up into Masai Mara, the landscape becomes more hilly and includes the iconic acacias that are present throughout the region, in a higher density. All sixteen acacia species are present here, distributed according to the soil conditions.

Per Arne SlotteAcacia Tree - Per Arne Slotte

In the eastern area of Serengeti – the Ngorongoro Conservation Area – the Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano is still active, spewing out carbonate lavas sporadically. To the south of this, the Ngorongoro Crater – long dormant – is in the Ngorongoro Highlands, an area of montane forest, woodlands and grassland, depending on whether the slopes face the easterly trade winds that bring the rain, or not.

William WarbyNgorongoro Crater - William Warby

In the central Masai Mara, there are plenty of sweeping plains, and the Mara River is edged by dense river forest. The surrounding conservancies boast a more varied habitat including acacia woodland and rocky outcrops.

Basically, if you’re looking for any kind of African habitat, you’ll more-than-likely find it, you just need to pick your destination carefully. The habitats often cover smallish areas, so you can easily move from grassland to hilly outcrops in a morning’s game drive.

Wildlife

Ben & GabSerengeti - Ben & Gab

As expected, the vast array of habitats plays home to an equally vast array of animals, and in huge concentrations. The Serengeti Ecosystem has an incredible number of predators, including over 3 000 lion, about 8 000 hyena and 1 000 leopards.

The predators follow the grazers as they travel each year on the circular route known as the Great Migration (see below), but some populations of animals remain permanently in certain parts of the parks. Grazers include huge populations of wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, a variety of antelope and warthogs.

Max ClendenningGiraffes - Max Clendenning

So where do they hang out?

Well, that depends on the time of year and the rains, especially in the Serengeti. The vast plains of the Serengeti provide fertile grazing just after and during the rainy season (usually December to May) and during this time the plains are filled with grazers, and predators on the hunt. In contrast, during the dry season, from July to October, the Serengeti plains’ wildlife is sparse, there being only small numbers of ‘resident game’ on the plains.

Malcolm CerfonteynLeopard - Malcolm Cerfonteyn

Ngorongoro Crater has all the animals, all year, as the majority of them don’t follow the migratory route.

Masai Mara, on the other hand, has plenty of resident game, meaning that wildlife viewing is not as seasonal as that in Serengeti. Certainly, the wildlife populations swell during July to October, but game viewing in Mara is good all year, due to its rainfall not being quite as seasonal as that further south.

The Great Migration

James HThe Great Migration - James H

Known as ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ – and rightly so – there are many misconceptions of the great migration. It is not something that happens only once a year, but rather a circular route followed by millions of animals throughout the year as they move with the seasons in search of grazing.

The wildebeest follow a set circular route each year, which they have been doing, well, forever, followed by many of the other species and, of course, the predators. It is impossible to give exact dates and times as, each year, these differ according to rainfall that year.

In general, the animals spend from December to May on the lush plains of south-eastern Serengeti, grazing, fattening up, and having their babies in February. It’s a wonderful time to visit the plains of the Serengeti, with plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, their calves, and their predators.

A Rule of Thumb (remembering that nature is totally unpredictable!) is southern Serengeti, December to April, moving central/west from May to July and then northern Serengeti from July to November.

Julian MasonWildebeest - Julian Mason

In late May/early June, the rains on the plains stop, the babies are big enough to move and the animals head north-west to the area around the Grumeti River and from there (July/August) to the Masai Mara.

It is this part of the migration route that provides the drama that is seen in the photographs. The animals have to cross both the Grumeti and Mara Rivers (in the Serengeti and Masai Mara), where crocodile lie in wait. There are at least ten crossing spots on the Mara River alone, where you may be lucky enough to catch this breath-taking spectacle.

Esin UstunLying in Wait - Esin Ustun

The animals then remain in the Masai Mara until the short rains start in November, when they make their way back down south.

The Experience

Marc VeraartAcacia - Marc Veraart

Whether you choose to go to Serengeti or Masai Mara, you are sure to have an amazing safari and experience true Africa – its landscape, its animals, and its hospitality.

At both the Serengeti and Masai Mara National Parks, game viewing is by safari vehicle, with limited night drives or safari walks allowed. In the private conservancies around Mara, opportunities for these are available at some camps.

oliver.doddElephant - oliver.dodd

A similar note applies to the exclusivity of your safari. In the National Parks – especially during high season – the experience may be slightly more ‘crowded’ (for want of a better word). Exciting sightings, such as a lion kill, may be shared with multiple other tourist vehicles. In the private conservancies, vehicle numbers are limited. That being said, outside of the ‘big sightings’, the areas are vast.


Basically, there’s no one better than the other here, they’re both amazing. Masai Mara is probably slightly more concentrated (year-long) from a wildlife point-of-view, but Serengeti has mind-blowing vastness. There are pros and cons to both.

Ideally, see both. If time and/or budget prevents this, choose according to the season you’re going. Chat to one of our ABS consultants if you need any further guidance when booking.


If you liked this post, these trips cover similar ground…


Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

comments powered by Disqus

Places Mentioned in this Post

Similar & Related Blog Posts

Below you’ll find further reading and articles related or similar to this post.

Foster a Baby Elephant in Kenya

Kungu and StephenFostering an elephant or rhino in Kenya will only set you back about R500 (50USD) a year! The fostering process is run online so you can select from either the adult or baby elephants and rhinos on the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s website. Read on

The One of a Kind Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya

Northern white rhinosKenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy is an outstanding wildlife gem - home to four of the world's seven remaining northern white rhinos, East Africa's largest black rhino sanctuary, the only place in Kenya to see chimpanzees and more! Read on

Dan Travels to Tanzania’s Safari Lands & Zanzibar

Into East Africa Dan goes on a 10-day Bush & Beach Holiday that takes him to wild Tarangire, eerie Lake Natron, the legendary Serengeti, game-packed Ngorongoro Crater and on to the spice island of tropical Zanzibar. Read on

Tanzania - Land of Legends

Not sure which country to explore on safari in East Africa? Tanzania comes out tops! Read on

East Africa: A Bucket List

Derek KeatsA bucket list of places to see and things to do in eastern Africa. These are just a smattering of the incredible sights, sounds and activities that Africa has to offer. Start planning your trip here!  Read on

The Pros of Low Season Safaris in East Africa

PROTambako The JaguarThe low season offers distinct advantages in East Africa's top destinations, including Masai Mara and Serengeti. One of the most delightful rainy season discoveries is that it's birthing time for many of the animals. Saving on costs is another major perk of low season safaris, but that's not all... Read on

Thirteen things to do in Nairobi, before or after you go on safari

Gopal VijayaraghavanTravellers on safari in Kenya usually fly into its bustling capital, Nairobi, and fly out from there, too. Here we list some of the fabulous things to do in this great city, pre- and post-safari. Read on

Climbing Kilimanjaro

Ninara Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, is spectacular. Climbing it is an incredible experience and an amazing feat. Here we discuss all things Kili and the different routes up to it's peak. Read on
Show us some FB Love
Follow @RealAfroSafaris