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.
So the burning question is:
Which is best for an African safari - Masai Mara or Serengeti?
The easy answer is either. Both offer incredible wildlife 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 of Serengeti & Masai Mara
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.
The vastest 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.
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.
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 of Serengeti & Mara
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.
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.
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 - Serengeti vs Masai Mara
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.
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.
The animals then remain in the Masai Mara until the short rains start in November when they make their way back down south.
The Safari Experience
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.
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 safari destinations. 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 going on safari in 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 your safari to East Africa.