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Migration 101

February 2, 2023  By: Gretchen

Many travelers are interested in seeing the Great Migration in East Africa. An ongoing, perpetual movement of wildebeest and zebra through the Serengeti ecosystem is a popular choice for safari, and we find that there are a lot of questions around this natural spectacle. We’ll address some of the more common inquiries here, but if you find we haven’t answered what you’d like to know, you can contact a Journey Specialist.

Photo courtesy Nomad Tanzania

What exactly is the Great Migration?

The Great Migration refers to the movement of approximately 1.5 million wildebeest, 250,000 zebra and various antelope species across the plains of East Africa. The migration travels through the Serengeti ecosystem of Serengeti National Park, the Masai Mara, Ngorongoro Conservation area, among other areas in Tanzania and Kenya. In an annual cycle, the animals cover over 1,700 miles on their endless journey. Their movement is largely driven by the availability of good grazing.

What are the most common misconceptions about the migration?

Common misconceptions include imagining it is one large herd of wildebeest/zebras that move all at the same time across the plains. They often split into groups, so there could be times when someone is seeing one huge group crossing the river up in northern Serengeti, while someone else could be watching herds down in western Serengeti, who are moving a bit slower and haven’t made their way up north yet. The distribution of the animals that are migrating is more widespread than is typically thought.

The image of millions of animals stampeding across the plains is another misconception. While it’s true that large groups of animals may stampede from time to time (especially during river crossings), it’s not a constant and it is not predictable.

Another misbelief about the Great Migration is that it is the world’s largest. That honor belongs to the straw-colored fruit bat migration that takes place in Zambia – another incredible spectacle of nature!

When can I see the migration?

The migration is happening all of the time, every day of the year. Its given location at any one time is somewhat confined to a pattern (though weather patterns can cause it to vary), making it important to work with an expert on planning your safari to ensure you have the best chance to see it during your visit.

lion hunting wildebeest

Will I still see lots of wildlife if I visit parts of the Serengeti/Masai Mara outside of migration season?

Yes! While the migration is always moving, lots of game are resident to each area, especially predators. This means that they do not move with the migration; they stay within a certain territory.

What is the best time of year to experience the calving season?

To have the best chance of seeing a wildebeest calf being born (a truly magical experience), we recommend traveling to southern Serengeti in February. This time of year is incredible not only for the calving, but also for the predator activity around the births. Cheetah and hyena in particular are active hunters doing their best to take advantage of vulnerable newborns. Be sure to plan your calving season safari well in advance to be able to get into your preferred camp.

Photo courtesy AAC traveler Robert Miller

When and where can visitors see the migration while avoiding crowds?

We have a number of personal recommendations for avoiding crowds, and the right answer for your safari is something you would determine with one of our Journey Specialists. A few go-to solutions are…

  • Private conservancies in Kenya and Tanzania are a great way to steer clear of the crowds. While you may encounter crowds when you go into the reserve to try and see river crossings, the remainder of your game drives would be in the private conservancy, away from other tourists.
  • We love June in western Serengeti to see the migration as they make their way up the Western Corridor. Western Serengeti also tends to get a little less traffic as there aren’t as many camps in that region as central Serengeti or the Masai Mara. October is another good month, as northern Serengeti and the Masai Mara are less busy, and it’s usually still a good time to catch the tail end of the migration action up in that region.
  • Another insider’s tip – if you do find yourself traveling to a part of the Serengeti or Masai Mara at a time of year when the migration is in full swing, we recommend adding time to visit another part of the park. For example, in February, go see the migration/calving season in Ndutu but then head up to northern Serengeti or one of Kenya’s private conservancies to have a quieter safari experience- no migration there at that time of year, but also no crowds and lots of incredible wildlife still to be seen! The Masai Mara & Serengeti are so vast, it is worth spending time to see more than the migration. Even the landscapes are different between different parts of this massive ecosystem!
Photo courtesy AAC traveler Jonathan Wisner

When is the best time to see a river crossing?

While there are no guarantees, July to October are the best months to see a river crossing. We can work with you to ensure you’re at a camp that is proximate to the migration’s location to position you for the best chance to see an awe-inspiring crossing!

A common misconception about river crossings is that when the herds cross the river up in northern Serengeti, that they are crossing from Serengeti over into Masai Mara. However, the river crossings up in northern Serengeti all happen within the Serengeti and the crossings that happen in the Masai Mara, are also within the Masai Mara.

Finally, if you have your heart set on seeing a river crossing remember that there are no guarantees with nature. You will also need to be patient – some of the amazing photos you see of river crossings are made by photographers that spend 2 weeks sitting in a vehicle waiting for it to happen!

Are you ready to see one of nature's most magnificent displays?