Photo: Flickr/Steve Safari
By Eric Rugara
What’s with all the hullabaloo?
Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve is home to the “World Cup of Wildlife”; but you still don’t get what the wildebeest migration brouhaha is all about. Okay, so they do look mighty fine rushing through the grassy savannah in their formations, an immense flood of undulating flesh, awesome to the eye and titillating to the heart. Like beholding a great work of art, or a historical monument. Or a Wonder of the World. The annual wildebeest migration that takes place in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in East Africa was in 2013 in Arusha, Tanzania, named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa.
For most people the highlight of the spectacle is when those white bearded beasts huddle in fear at the edge of the Mara River, those at the forefront dipping their hooves into the water tremblingly, until their numbers accumulate, and the pressure of the mass behind them pushes them into the water, and suddenly they are all leaping into the river; and the crocodiles lying in wait snap open their massive jaws, crushing wildebeest limb and body with relish, smacking their lips. Hundreds die, whether from croc or from drowning; many more cross over.
Are Wildebeests Kenyan or Tanzanian?
You know how Kenya and Tanzania have been rivals about most things since the time of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere? Most Kenyans, the writer of this article included, believe that the wildebeest migration is a predominantly Kenyan thing, with Tanzania sharing a piece. The opposite is in fact the reality. The wildebeests spend three quarters of the year in Tanzania, migrating to Kenya for about three months each year before returning to Tanzania.
The Wildebeest Migration is solely a wildebeest thing, right?
Another misconception that was dashed to the ground: that the Great Migration is solely a wildebeest affair. Not so. In addition to the 1.7 million White Bearded Wildebeests, there are 400,000 Thompson Gazelles, 300,000 zebras, and 12,000 eland that join the circus each year and travel, in search for greener pastures, to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve.
That thing that happens once a year, right?
Third misconception: that the Migration is an event. All the marketing campaigns package it as such. The “annual Great Wildebeest Migration”. It gives you the feeling that the migration is a project the animals take up each year at a specific time, and that like all projects it has a start date and a finish date. Not true. The migration is a never-ending phenomenon, very much like the wheel of birth and death. It is an endless circling of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem by these animals in search of grass to eat and water to drink.
The Serengeti Ecosystem
The theatre of this spectacle is the Serengeti ecosystem. This East African ecosystem comprises parts of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, the Maswa Game Reserve in Tanzania, and the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
The migration is dictated by the area’s rainfall patterns. In other words, the wildebeests and crew follow the rains and the grass. In January there is grass and rain in Ngorongoro, and that’s where the animals have camped. While zebras feed on tall grass, wildebeest prefer the shorter variety. In February they are in the South Eastern part of the ecosystem, and it’s calving season. The wildebeests give birth to 500,000 calves during a two to three week period. A newborn wildebeest calf is on its feet in less than three minutes after birth. At five minutes, the calf can run with the herd, and afterwards it can outrun a lion.
As the rains end in May, the herds begin to move North West, around the Grumeti River in Tanzania. Here they will remain until late June. July is the month of the magical moment that tourists from around the world have been waiting for: the crossings of the Grumeti and the Mara Rivers. Tourists flock into the area in their land rovers, brandishing cameras and smart phones. In a parallel world, the animals are probably reading about the annual Great Tourist Migration, which coincides with the Wildebeest Migration.
The Nile Crocodiles submerged under the water surface do not disappoint. But they are not the only ones who have been waiting for the coming of the wildebeests. The Maasai Mara is full of predators: lions, leopards, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas. In fact it has one of the highest densities of lions in the world. The migration is a life and death affair. 250,000 wildebeests die in the 800km journey from Tanzania to Kenya. They die from a variety of factors: thirst, hunger, exhaustion, drowning, and predators. Darwin’s word is law: survival for the fittest. And those who survive are best suited for bringing strong offspring into the world.
For the remainder of the dry season, they camp at the Maasai Mara in Kenya. But with the November short rains coming in, they begin the Southward journey back to Tanzania. And the cycle continues. It will soon be a new year, and in February they will calve, and in May they will begin to move North, and in July they will once more cross the Mara in conditions of great peril. Thousands will die, but thousands more will survive, and the wheel of birth and death will keep ever turning, and the wildebeest shall continue to abide by Walt Disney’s motto: KEEP MOVING FORWARD.
Threats and Conservation
According to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, the population of these amazing animals, which were once found in large concentrations, have reduced due to the encroachment of their habitats by human settlements and herding of livestock; watershed deforestation and expropriation of water sources for irrigation purposes has led to elimination of water sources, upon which wildebeests are dependent; and by poachers who kill them for their meat. Human beings have also erected fences that block their migration paths, which has led to mass die-off events, with the wildebeests denied access to water and to higher-rainfall refuges during severe droughts.
Although the wildebeests are not an endangered species, their value cannot be gainsaid, especially when you factor in the number of tourists and the goodwill they bring to East Africa from around the world every year. They may not be at immediate threat today, but they will be tomorrow, if we do not check our voracious appetites for land ownership and land development. Loss of the wildebeests would also deal a deadly blow to predator populations in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, especially the big cats. As we mentioned earlier, this eco-system possesses one of the highest population densities of lions in the world. Wildebeests are a plentiful food source for most of these predators, and if the wildebeests were to reduce or disappear from the food chain, there would be adverse effects on the populations of lions and other predators in the ecosystem.