The Great Migration


Elton John famously sings about the “Circle of Life” in The Lion King. The piece speaks generally about the cycle of life and death.

The animated feature takes part on the continent of Africa. While John’s melodies emerge from an animated feature, the song is more apropos to its setting than most people realize. In the savannahs of Africa, a literal circle of life happens every year on a massive scale.

Often billed as the “greatest spectacle in nature,” the Great Migration of Africa is a thundering movement of fauna that helps enable the African ecosystem. Let’s explore!

Few places in Africa shout “safari” like Serengeti National Park. Located in northern Tanzania, this park teems with megafauna. The region is home to the largest population of wild lions on the continent (in the world?). Though Africa’s ecosystems are incredibly diverse – it’s a colossal landmass, after all – the prototypical notion of grasslands filled with exotic animals vividly lives in the Serengeti.

Map by Karell Africa

And the region happens to be home to one of the planet’s greatest movements.

Each year, millions of wildebeest, zebras, gazelles, impala, and eland make a counterclockwise circle across the savannah, as they chase the water cycle. Starting in the southern Serengeti, the animals move northward, eventually ending in the southern portion of Kenya. When they cross the invisible border between the nations, they enter the Masai Mara, a national game reserve. From there, the herds continue the rotation on the eastern portion of the loop, ending where they began.

All the animals involved in the migration are grass-eaters and grazing is the compulsion for their movement. The process begins each year between January and March. In February, wildebeests give birth to an influx of calves. In the span of just two or three weeks, half a million babies arrive! For the first few months, rain is plentiful in the southeast, producing enough grass to sustain the herd. By May, however, waters cease and the animals need to walk north to follow the clouds.

The herds stay near two large rivers, the Grumeti and the Mara, during June and July. By the end of July and early August, they reach Kenya, where they remain during the dry season. There, grasses have spent the past year regrowing. Rains begin to drench the area again in November, which prompts the animals to start the journey south again. Usually by the end of the calendar year, the animals have reached the southern portions of the Serengeti, completing another circle.

The gorgeous Serengeti - photo by Grahampurse
Migrating wildebeest as far as the eye can see - photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
A river runs through the Serengeti - photo by Swanepoel
Infographic by Abercrombie & Kent

Humans travel from around the world to witness the moving masses.

Watching the following videos, it’s easy to see why. In the first one, the scene appears to approach computer-generated imagery!

Of course, the Great Migration is not simply a walk in the park for these herds.

Hundreds of thousands of animals perish during the approximately 2,000-mile journey. Some succumb to starvation or dehydration; others die from overexertion. And if one manages to avoid sickness, physical breakdown, and the elements, one must avoid being eaten by one of a slew of mega-predators in Africa.

Big cats – cheetahs, leopards, and lions – prowl the land, while crocodiles stalk the rivers. Unfortunately, many of the migrators become meals for those higher on the food chain. But, this is, after all, a circle of life. Thankfully, the travelers play the evolutionary numbers game. With 500,000 wildebeest calves added to the herds each year, the species ensures it will thrive, despite the fact that 250,000 or so do not survive each migration.

A lion bides her time during the Great Migration - photo from Abercrombie & Kent
The waters are filled with crocodiles; still, the migrators must cross - photo from Abercrombie & Kent

Our planet has likely housed thousands of these types of mass migrations across the eons. Though ungulate herds form giant migrations in other wild parts of the world, such as the caribou in the Arctic, Africa’s Great Migration stands as the last large-scale cycle of large animals on Earth. In Africa, enough wilderness remains without overhunting to allow this incredible process to continue.

May we continue to conserve these creatures.

To conclude, here’s a photo of a mother wildebeest and baby:

Wildebeest and baby - photo from BBC

Further Reading and Exploration

Serengeti National Park – Official Website

The Great Migration – Serengeti National Park

The Ultimate Guide to Africa’s Great Migration – Abercrombie & Kent

The Great Wildebeest Migration/The Greatest Show on Earth – Expert Africa

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