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Serengeti Zebras

The Great Migration

Dubbed the Greatest Show on Earth, to rival any of Andrew Lloyd Weber's famous West-end musicals, the migration of millions of wildlife in the Serengeti ecosystem (comprising Serengeti and Maasai Mara), is a spectacle like no other in the world.

Great Migration

This then, is what people from all over the world come to witness - the Great Migration of millions wildebeest and zebras making their way across the ecosystem which is the Serengeti, in search of water and greener pastures. During the months of January and March, close to half a million wildebeest calves are born in the area between Tanzania's southern Serengeti plains and the Ngorongoro highlands, in a special place called Ndutu.

The grasses in and around the Ndutu area have an abundance of valuable minerals to nursing mothers - and this is where the wildebeest herds spend the longest period in one place, during the calving period.

And then the great journey begins! From Ndutu/southern Serengeti, the herds travel in a clockwise direction to the western corridor across the Grumeti River and then north across the Mara River. The river crossings are treacherous, with giant crocodiles waiting to stock up their larders for the year! In all the migration covers about 2,400 kilometers across the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara and back to the Serengeti again as they search for nutritious pastures left by the rains. The precise location of the herds is difficult to predict as much depends on rainfall and other weather conditions. However the general pattern remains unchanged and this strange but hugely attractive procession of animals in such large numbers is one of the spectacles drawing wildlife enthusiasts to the Serengeti and Maasai Mara.

The journey is a Circle of Life (to quote from that famous story), and with each birth, there is also death looming. The journey is not without its dangers with all kinds of predators lurking in the plains, offering the most challenging battles of life and death and a race for the survival of the fittest. Each day is a constant challenge of keeping up, keeping fit and keeping on. There are battles on land with hyena, lion, leopard, cheetah and other predators. And then there are the massive jaws of seemingly prehistoric crocodiles that patrol the Grumeti and Mara Rivers, waiting for their yearly feast to come by!

Imagine the heart of the Serengeti at dusk - wide open plains, gentle breeze in the glorious orange-pink colours of the setting sun. No street lights, no traffic, the gentle chirping of crickets heralding the end of yet another day in this timeless space... Night falls suddenly enveloping the plains in a thick blanket of black... Up above there is the magical twinkling of stars in the African night sky. Cast your eyes down, and what's this - millions of shiny, twinkling, yellow ''fairy-lights''. Only the grunting gives it away - the herds are back home in the Serengeti, settling down for the night after a weary day...

Life on this triangular trek of several million hooves never stops. It changes a little every year depending on the rains, but, the focus is on survival and the eternal calling of new rains and rich grazing pastures. This phenomenon also affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of other species, who rely on the migratory herds for their survival. These include predators, gazelles, birds and lowly insects, not to mention the grasses and trees that are fertilised by droppings. There's the dusty excitement of the panic stampede when predators arrive, the incredible cacophony of grunts or the quieter moments sipping sundowners and gazing out over the savannah dotted as far as the eye can see with wildebeest grazing under the African sun. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience in a truly unique place.

The local Maasai believe that wildebeest can sense moisture more than 100km away, while their striped accomplice, the zebra, is renowned for its keen eyesight. Together, this unlikely team has a greater chance of negotiating the obstacles in its path. The two unrelated species complement each other perfectly even at mealtimes. The zebras out ahead, partial to the long grass, take the first course, trimming it neatly for their friends at the rear, who like it nice and short. Their journey is not straightforward, for lurking in the bush, hiding behind kopjes or in the tall grass, or beneath the depths of the wide Grumeti and Mara Rivers that forms a barrier between feeding grounds, lies all kinds of danger. A tiring, disorientated or weak member of the column, separated from its family or group, is easy prey for the big cats, hyenas or crocodile who lie waiting for their food to present itself.

migration-map

December till March: the Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation Area attract huge numbers of wildebeest as they graze on short rain-ripened grass during the calving season.

April and May: once the eastern boundaries food supply is depleted, the herd moves north westwards, to the long grassy plains and woodlands of the Serengeti's western Corridor, almost to shores of Lake Victoria. They stay here during the long rains.

June: after the rains depart, the migration moves northwards up through the central and western sectors of the Serengeti, breeding en route.

July and August: The herds process to the north of the Serengeti, where they congregate en masse in total confusion along the swollen Mara River, facing the dilemmas of crossing. The sweet green pastures across the Mara River draws them on, the temptation giving in to the dangers of the crossing. Huge, six-meter-long crocodiles attempt to catch as many as they can through the treacherous crossing. The stronger, more wary animals cross in safety with the sacrificial weaker ones giving in to strong currents and stronger jaws. This is the story of life-and-death, of sacrifice and hope. A number of wildebeest stay in the Serengeti feeding near the banks of the river, later linking up with the group on their return southern journey from the Mara.

July/August till October : The wildebeest move into the Maasai Mara feeding on pastures, growing strong. They stay here until the food supply diminishes and the short rains in Tanzania draw them back to the Serengeti.

November: The short rains in the Serengeti replenishes the stock, whilst in the Maasai Mara, the area becomes water logged sometimes causing animals to get stuck and thus posing a danger for lurking predators. From the eastern part of the Mara the wildebeests' journey continues southwards, back into the Serengeti and through the Central Seronera area taking them back ''home'' to the Ndutu area near the Ngorongoro highlands. Once here, the animals pan out again to enjoy the succulent grasses and wait for the precise moment to begin calving. The cycle begins once more.

In all the wildebeest herds will have covered about 2000 miles, devoured approximately 4000 tonnes of grass each day, and of a quarter of a million new-borns who accompany the herds in the migration a few will survive to being their next cycle.

The Story of the Great Migration is the story of the Gnu (Wildebeest). Jokingly referred to as ''Clowns of the Serengeti'', the wildebeest migration is a unique phenomenon - a cyclical journey of life and death in the battle for survival.

When you next look at a wildebeest on safari, think of the thousands of miles that animal will have covered to be where it is today. That wildebeest you see in front of you is a survivor, one of the few who make it past treacherous river crossings, and deadly jaws. You may alter your opinion of the humble gnu and think not of it as a ''clown'' but a ''warrior''.

There is magic in the Serengeti and many who visit this great park have been touched by its awesome beauty and intangible spectacle that unfolds as night turns into day and the heat of the mid day sun gives way to cooler nights. The changing colours of the skies during thunderstorms, spectacular sunrises and sunsets and in the heat of the midday sun, offer a changing canvas with awesome and spectacular effects. Even at night, with no street lights to dim the night skies, the millions of stars shining above the Serengeti seem to shine out more brightly than anywhere else on earth - perhaps faces of previous kings shining down upon the land they once roamed with pride?