Wildebeest Migration is for the wildebeest also known as Gnus in some communities; is considered the largest of all African antelopes with a large box-like head, thin muscular cow-like figure sharp curved horns, sloping back, pointed bushy beard, dark vertical stripes on the shoulders and shaggy mane. This large animal weighs between 130 – 290 kilograms and males are heavier than the females.
The Wildebeest belongs to the Bovidae family that includes cattle so its males are called bulls and females cows; a group of wildebeests is called a herd. The front of the wildebeest’s body is hefty and heavily built while the behind parts are slender with long thin legs. The adults are primarily brown or dark brown with a pale yellowish tail and a black mane; males are normally darker than the females. The wildebeest shoulders are about 45-55 inches in length and the animal has short hair that covers its body plus vertically striped long hair on the back.
The wildebeest was named “wildebeest” from the term “wild beast” by the Dutch in southern Africa who observed the animal and concluded it was untamed in appearance and robust in nature. The wildebeest is divided into two main species:-
- The blue wildebeest are common in the southern parts of Africa.
- The black wildebeest are common in the eastern parts of Africa.
Thus the wildebeest are found in Africa in the southern and eastern parts of Africa. The biggest population of the wildebeest is found in Kenya and Tanzania. The black wildebeest in Kenya and Tanzania are in two breeds:-
- The western white-bearded wildebeest breed found in the Serengeti- Mara region.
- The eastern white-bearded wildebeest breed found in the Gregory rift.
The wildebeest lives in savannah areas, plains, dense bushes and woodlands. The wildebeest is territorial and a social animal living in herds of about 100 members; a herd can have a territory of 1 and a half square kilometre at a time.
Males in a bachelor herd will become extremely territorial at the age of 4 or 5 and depart from the herd to form their own herd. The females always form smaller herds that overlap and when the groups are clustered close together the cows will move to another herd, which is not their herd.
Bulls often challenge each other when they meet at the edges of their territories through bucking, snorting, pawing the ground, fighting and grunting in deep croaking manner. They face off on their knees, foreheads to the ground, ready to combat moving forward to strike each other, knocking heads and horns though rarely injuring each other. There are theories that these face-offs cause a rise in bulls’ hormone levels because the bachelor groups are very serene.
When bulls meet, they salute each other with a rocking gallop and if a bull is saluting a cow, he will try to mount or herd her and in cases where the cow is calm, the bull will mate with her. In mobile herds a cow will across several bulls a day and when in full heat a dominant bull will stick closer to her.
These animals are herbivores and are always on a search for food grazing day and night; they feed only on vegetation however when vegetation is scarce the wildebeest can feed on grass. They usually graze in areas that a moderately dry and wet, preferring sweet sturdy grasses and they drink water every other day.
In the search for food, the Wildebeest migrate all year round to the savannahs from the plains at the start of the rainy seasons in March through to May and will again migrate to the plains at the start of the rainy season in August through to October; and in the other months they are in between locations. This year-round migration is known as the great wildebeest migration.
The wildebeest uses sight and smell to communicate with each other and at times vocal bellows with a sound that travels up to 2 kilometres. The bulls have an impressive range of vocalizations with moans that can turn into snorts.
During the mating season, which is known as the rut; breeding clusters form within the herd and in these clusters five or six dominant males guard territories of sexually activity cows by bucking and cantering on their lands, also urinating, defecating and spreading secretions in particular areas. In this period when the animals are herding, fighting and calling to each other frequently; aroused bulls will herd as many cows as they can and will not sleep or eat because of excitement. Wildebeest cows are very fertile; they normally give birth to a calf every year.
A female will be pregnant for about 8 to 8 and a half month and will give birth at the beginning of the rainy season (February and March). The cow will give birth in the centre of the herd when all the other animals are seeing, which is a difference in the behaviour compared to other antelopes or animals who isolate themselves from the group or herd as they give birth. Almost 85% of the calves are born at the start of the rainy season in a gap of 2-3 weeks and their huge numbers normally attract predators, making it risky for the calves to survive to adulthood; though there are theories that say that their large numbers actually work as a protection mechanism against the predators.
Calves weigh 20 to 22 kg at birth; they learn to walk within minutes of birth and in less than a week, will integrate into the herd alongside the mother. At birth, the calves are yellowish-brown but turn to adult colour in 2months. The calves begin to eat grass at 10 days as they continue to suckle their mothers up to 4- 6 months. They are weaned at 6 to 9 months; at 16 months most calves are ready to mate, though in some cases calves take up 76 months to be ready to mate. Most calves stay with the mother until another calf is born and females usually stay in the same herd with the mother as the males go on to form peers outside the herd as early as 8 months.
When threatened or faced with a predator the members of a herd normally bunch together, make alarm calls to other herds, stamp the ground and in some cases chase the predator or the threat. Their strategy for protection is gathering in large numbers. The wildebeest’s predators include lions, African wild dogs, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and crocodiles in the water.
Though their habitats are threatened by fragmentation from agricultural activities and while quite a number of wildebeest die during the great migration, the wildebeest is not listed as an endangered species on the international union for conservation of Nature.
The Great Wildebeest Migration
Every year the wildebeest trek over 1000 kilometres in two countries Tanzania and Kenya; in what is known as the great wildebeest migration. It said that the wildebeest migrate in search for food and water and this migration is highly determined by the rains because the animals follow the rain and the greener grass. They move from the plains in southern Serengeti National Park in Tanzania at the start of the rainy season heading towards the savannahs in northern Serengeti and Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and will leave the savannahs and head to the plains at the start of another rainy season.
At the start of the rainy season normally February and March of the calendar year (however with climate change the seasons have become unpredictable of late), when the wildebeest cows have their claves, the wildebeest herds start to move from the southern plains of Serengeti northwards through the open woodland and the Mara River.
At the start of the first rainy season thus January, February and March you will be sure to catch the wildebeest in Ndutu which is an area in the Ngorongoro conservation area and normally this is where calving occurs in a gap of 2-3 weeks for most of the wildebeest. After calving, herds will start to move northwards through areas of moru kopjes, west of seronera and Grumeti river in the Grumeti Reserve; by this time they are in the northern plains of Serengeti bordering Kenya’s Maasai Mara, the animals then have to cross the fierce Mara River with crocodiles waiting to prey on them through to the Maasai Mara Savannahs. The Mara River presents the greatest obstacle to the wildebeest migration; it is said over half the number of animals that cross the river are killed in the process. The wildebeest will settle and exhaust the savannah vegetation until the start of the second rainy season (around September and October) when the animals migrate southwards back to the plains.
It’s not known how the animals get the route to follow but from observations, theories say the animals’ respond to the weather change thus they follow the rain and the growing vegetation or grass while others say it’s just the animal’s instincts.
All the months stated here are the normal months when the rains come, however with the change in climate and other factors, rains may delay or be early and this greater affects the migration.
These large mammals are relentless in their trek, though many are injured and killed during the migration. Several herds of wildebeest make the migratory trip each year with some other animals like the Zebras and Gazelles, trekking across plains with predators mostly lions, cheetahs, leopards and crocodiles in the water waiting in high anticipation to prey on them. The predators wait in hills or high lands, as the crocodiles wait in water; and between a third and a half of the total number of herds that trek are killed on the journey and these are mainly calves that have major difficulties in navigating dangerous terrains, are highly susceptible to predators and diseases.
The herds move in lengthy lines with one animal behind another at canter speed over long distances and they don’t have a definite start point, endpoint or straight route for the trek but move rhythmically in a clockwise direction.
Studies from aerial photography show a kind of organisation in the movements as the wildebeest start to move though it’s not clear whether the animals have some kind of leadership that goes on, or they just follow the first animal that moves.
It’s not known how many migrations a herd or one wildebeest makes in their lifetime but at least one herd will make a trek in their lifetime. The migration is also economically significant contributing to the national income from the revenues collected from tourists that come yearly to witness the great migration.
Wildlife lovers, adventurists and well-wishers visit the terrains of Tanzania and Kenya to experience this spectacular wildebeest migration that is more than what meets the eye; it’s the earth thundering from the canters of wildebeest hooves moving in masses and battling obstacles in the water and on the terrains. The thrill of watching all this and more is profoundly phenomenon.
The migration happens year-round with different elements to each trek that give you the same thrill each time; so plan a trip to Serengeti National Park in Tanzania or Maasai Mara National Game Reserve in Kenya; better still visit both parks and experience this unforgettable animal trek; the great wildebeest migration.