The Serengeti is the site of the largest unaltered animal migration in the world. Around 1.5 million wildebeest—translating to “wild cattle” in Afrikaans—travel around the Serengeti plains for about seven months every year in search of pasture and water. The migration is considered one of the natural wonders of the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists each year.
The journey of the wildebeest begins at the southern tip of the Serengeti plains in a region of Tanzania called Ndutu. The area is known for its short grass, which is rich in nutrients. From December to March, the majority of wildebeest congregate in Ndutu for food. Each February, wildebeest mothers give birth to thousands of calves here within a four- to six-week period—around 8,000 calves per day.
Ndutu lies in the northern section of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The Ngorongoro landscape originated some 20 million years ago when the eastern side of Africa started to crack and rift. The rifting allowed for Earth's crust to thin and for molten materials to pile up and form volcanoes. Today, the Ngorongoro area includes a volcanic caldera. The ash left behind by the ancient volcanoes makes the soil here fertile for crops (outside of the conservation area) and for the savanna grasslands that feed so many animals.
The image above shows a clear view of the Serengeti plains on February 4, 2018, as observed by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on the NASA’s Terra satellite. The Serengeti ecosystem—determined by the area covered by the migration—extends from the Maswa Game Reserve (Tanzania) to the south, to the Grumeti and Ikorongo Game Reserves (Tanzania) in the east, to Maasai Mara National Reserve in the north in Kenya, and to Loliondo Game Controlled Area (Tanzania) in the west. The Serengeti National Park is located in the center and covers around 15,000 square kilometers (5,800 square miles).
When the drought arrives around April and May, the wildebeest leave Ndutu to begin a clockwise migration around the plains following the rains and the lush grasses they help sprout. The patterns have been repeating for at least a million years, according to the fossil record.
Around May, the wildebeest first head for the long grass plains and woodland of the Serengeti’s western corridor, near Lake Victoria. By June or July, they arrive in the northern Serengeti plains, where they encounter arguably the hardest parts of their journey: the crocodile-infested Grumeti and Mara Rivers. The Grumeti lies adjacent to the Serengeti National Park, whereas the Mara is the only river that flows perennially through the park. The Mara River is also the major obstacle separating the wildebeest from the short, sweet grasses in Maasai Mara in Kenya. Many tourists visit from July to October for the chance to see thousands of wildebeest cross the river.
The photograph above shows wildebeest crossing a river in Maasai Mara in August 2012. The crossing is dangerous not only because crocodiles are waiting in the waters, but because of the drowning risk. In 2007, approximately 15,000 wildebeest drowned while crossing the Mara River due to high water levels from heavy rainfall.
By November of each year, the rainy season begins again in the southern Serengeti and the wildebeest return to Ndutu. In total, the wildebeest—along with hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles, and predators who join the journey—travel about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles).
Since the migration is triggered by the dry season and rains, the exact timing and locations of the migration can vary from year to year. In 2019, the wildebeest were spotted crossing the Mara River earlier than usual as the dry season arrived early. Research suggests that variations in seasonal flooding and drought (due to climate change) may further alter when and where the wildebeest migrate.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS/LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Photograph and story by Kasha Patel.