When is the Best Time of Year to See The Wildebeest Migration?
The Great Migration or The Wildebeest Migration, as it is more commonly known, is famous amongst wildlife enthusiasts and casuals alike. Documented over the last several decades by television crews and shared with audiences around the world, it truly is one of the great events of the natural world.
The wildebeest migration is not a typical back and forth migration. It has no definite beginning or end but is in fact a never ending cycle of movement. Over 2 million individual animals travel up to a reported 2000 kilometres each year across the vast plains of the greater Serengeti ecosystem, Mara ecosystem and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The migration is characterised by approximately 250,000 zebra leading the way for an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest, with other herbivores such as gazelle, hartebeest and topi joining the action. This relationship works well as the zebra feed on and crop the long, tough grass in preparation for the arrival of the wildebeest who prefer short grass. Although common wisdom agrees the reason the animals migrate is in search of fresh grass and reliable water this has yet to be proven and interestingly not all wildebeest, zebra, and other herbivores migrate.
The Great Migration is a dramatic spectacle and truly epitomises the trials and tribulations of the circle of life. The calving season in the southern plains of the Serengeti gives new life to approximately half a million baby wildebeest. This joyous occasion is followed by a fight for survival as 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebra lose their lives over the subsequent year. Predators such as lion and hyena, crocodile attacks during the Grumeti and Mara river crossings, and thirst, hunger, and exhaustion all contribute to the demise of these unfortunate animals. However, as nature would have it their sacrifice provides much needed nutrition to ensure the survival of predators and scavengers in this unforgiving land.
This spectacular event is a must-see for anybody wishing to safari in Tanzania or Kenya. With many inaccurate sources on the internet misleading travellers as to the best time of year to experience the wildebeest migration we have written this blog to ensure you get the most out of your safari and are in the right place at the right time of year.
So, when is the best time of year to experience the wildebeest migration? The short and simple answer is it is actually accessible for tourists throughout the entire year and will be awe-inspiring at any time. However, the migration doesn’t provide you with the same experience year-round as different times of year provide unique events. It is therefore important for us to understand what experiences you are most interested in before advising on the best time of year for you to travel. For some the calving season is most appealing, others are desperate to see the treacherous crocodile-infested river crossings made famous by wildlife documentaries, whereas others are happy to be surrounded by huge herds of grazing animals. It is also important to consider your budget and the effort you are prepared to make in order to track the movements of the wildebeest as certain times of year are relatively inexpensive and easy whilst others require significant expense and effort.
Below we provide details of where the wildebeest are located at each time of the year and give details of what events you may expect to see and which areas to stay to easily access the herds.
January through March
Best Time to Visit For:
- Baby animals
- Predator action
- Spectacularly large herds
- Easily accessible
This is the time of year is when the wildebeest are arguably at their most relaxed. They congregate in huge numbers in the Southern Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The short rains that fall in November to December enrich this area with fresh grass and life-giving water sources, therefore sustaining the wildebeest for the next few months. This reliability of guaranteed food and water provide the wildebeest with confidence to give birth to the next generation of animals. Over these months half a million baby wildebeest are born. The most reliable month for calving is February when an estimated 8000 new animals are born every single day. This is a fantastic time of year to visit as it will provide you with an appreciation of the trials and tribulations of life on these unforgiving plains. Resident predators track the wildebeest in search of weak or sick animals and target them as their next meal to ensure the survival of their own family and species.
During this period the Ndutu area of the southern Serengeti is the place to base yourself for easy access to the herds. This is also excellent cheetah territory so provides you with an opportunity to combine the wildebeest with extraordinary cheetah sightings. Another option is the exclusive and upmarket Maswa Game Reserve just south of Ndutu. It isn’t cheap but if your budget stretches this far it provides the same experience without the tourists.
April and May
Best Time to Visit For:
- Resident game
- Large herds
- Easily accessible
- Lowest prices
- Seronera hot air balloon safari
As the calving season comes to a close the wildebeest begin their journey north towards the central Serengeti. During April herds are spread between the southwest and the central Serengeti. It is worth noting this is the wettest month in Northern Tanzania so although herds are very accessible travel can be difficult and safari activities may be disrupted by rain. We would advise staying in the central Serengeti during this month. Choosing a small lodge over a traditional bush camp may be worth considering at this soggy time of year.
During May the majority of the herds have reached the central Serengeti and congregate in huge herds which can be a spectacular sight. This is the perfect time of year to gain a birds eye view of hundreds of animals grazing below by embarking on a hot air balloon safari. As the month wears on precipitation significantly reduces and signals the beginning of the long dry season. The location of the herds at this time can be difficult to predict. Depending on the timing of the rains the herds may remain in the central Serengeti or have already moved into the Western Corridor and Grumeti area. We often recommend splitting accommodations at this time of year with 2 or 3 nights in the central Serengeti and 2 in the Western Corridor.
Best Time to Visit For:
- Grumeti River crossing
- Hot air balloon safari
The migration begins to divide with a smaller proportion of the wildebeest heading north whilst the majority move west towards the Western Corridor and Grumeti River. June is the most reliable month for Grumeti River crossings. Although not as spectacular as the notorious Mara River crossings the river still holds a strong crocodile threat and is much less dense in fellow tourist safari vehicles. Hot air balloon safari is also offered in the Western Corridor and this is certainly the best time of year to launch from here. We recommend staying in this area to allow quick access to the Grumeti River.
July to October
Best Time to Visit For:
- Spectacular Mara River crossings
- Remote and high quality safari in Northern Tanzania
- Crocodile and other predator action
Rainfall has ceased and the mercury climbs in the Serengeti through these months. The search for fresh pastures and permanent water sources becomes desperate for the herds. The migration now disperses with some herds heading through the Grumeti Game Reserve and Ikorongo Game Reserve whilst others push north in search of nutritious vegetation and permanent water sources. The exact whereabouts of the herds in July is difficult to predict as animals are widely dispersed throughout the Greater Serengeti ecosystem. There can be a distance of 50 kilometres between the front runners and those taking up the rear. The visual impact provided by the herds is therefore not as immense as earlier in the year.
However, from late July through late September the herds deliver arguably the finest show on earth as they are forced to make the treacherous crocodile-infested Mara River crossing into Kenya. The animals congregate on the steep banks of the Mara River as the anticipation builds and then all of a sudden a few make the crossing. The masses eventually follow and it truly is a sight to behold.
August and September are undoubtedly the most reliable time to observe this natural phenomenon. At this time of year it is possible to gain access via the Tanzanian side or the Kenyan side as the herds cross north into Kenya from Tanzania and may even cross back south again further up river. For authenticity we always recommend staying in Northern Tanzania as tourist numbers are significantly lower and the experience is much more personable. This is due to Northern Tanzania being more difficult to reach and is almost always accessed by light aircraft. The negative of this is it isn’t cheap to travel this far north and the high-quality camps carry a hefty price tag, especially during this peak season period. If your budget will stretch this far then it is certainly worth it. Alternatively, a more budget friendly option is to stay on the other side of the river in the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
We certainly wouldn’t discourage experiencing river crossings in the Mara as a good safari package can be designed around the river crossings. During September the herds congregate in the Mara and as it is a much smaller pocket of land than the Serengeti the visual impact can be impressive. We often recommend staying in one of the private conservancies closer to the Mara River to allow early access before the throngs of minibuses and safari vehicles arrive from further afield. This allows a more authentic experience and if things do become too busy at the river we often drive inland in search of the Mara’s impressive predator count.
At this stage we must point out that wildlife is wildlife and they have their own agenda. Even with the best research and planning in the world and travelling at the ‘best’ time of year it is impossible to guarantee a river crossing.
November and December
Best Time to Visit For:
- Reverse river crossings
- Lower prices
At only 1510 km² the Maasai Mara National Reserve is a small reserve by African standards, indeed it is only a tenth of the size of the Serengeti National Park. Therefore, its ability to support an influx of almost 2 million grazing animals is limited and its pastures are soon depleted forcing the herds to once again migrate in search of fresh vegetation. The promise of the first rains in the southern Serengeti is the catalyst for this move south. From mid-October through early November the herds once again risk their lives negotiating the Mara River. Travellers at this time of year are well advised to position themselves in the northern Serengeti to take advantage of this marvellous spectacle. The Maasai Mara also promises to be less dense in tourist traffic than in the peak months of August and September. Travelling in early November will see prices at camps and lodges significantly reduced but this late in the year would be a gamble if your sole purpose for travelling is river crossings. If the rains arrive early it is likely the herds will have already passed.
The herds at this time of year are difficult to predict and track as they are widely dispersed as they head to fresh pastures in the southern Serengeti. In November the herds hug the eastern flank of the Serengeti and north-west areas of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. By December the herds are widely spread between the central Serengeti, Ndutu area in the south and Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
You will still be able to see the wildebeest migration by staying in or close to these areas but without any major events or huge congregations of animals the impact isn’t as impressive as at other times of the year. Therefore, we advise it is worth seeing if you happen to be in the area for other reasons but if experiencing the best of the migration is high on your agenda then perhaps other times of year are stronger.