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Photograph of the week: Wildebeest migration river crossing in the Masai Mara

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Every year, between May and December, over 1.5 million wildebeest, 300,000 zebra and a host of other antelope including Eland, impala and Thomson’s gazelles, participate in the world’s greatest wildlife migration. This is the Great Migration.

In search of food and water, following the rains, vast herds move in a general clockwise direction through the Serengeti National Park. At one point, as shown in this photo, they cross the Mara River into Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve. In the process, they must navigate waters often in flood; dodge crocodiles in search of dinner; fend off hungry lions and other big cat; and survive what to some might look like a dangerous stampede of beating hooves.

But while the migration may seem like nothing less than frenzied chaos, research has shown a herd of wildebeest – and their followers – possess what is known as ‘swarm intelligence’. So what may look like a stampede or out-of-control mob of heaving horseflesh to the human eye, is in fact the wildebeest systematically exploring and overcoming an obstacle – such as a swollen river – as one.

Of course, the wildebeest, and their brothers in travel, don’t always overcome every obstacle. Every year during the migration around 250,000 wildebeest and 30,000 zebra are killed off. Some are taken by said crocodiles, lions and other carnivores, but some are taken by thirst, hunger, and pure exhaustion.

Watching those who survive in action though, is nothing less than spectacular.

Between January and March, half a million blue wildebeest – also known as gnu – are born each year in the Serengeti. This peaks in February when around 8,000 wildebeest are born each day. This influx of new mouths to feed means the migration is an absolute necessity, and with calves able to stand on their own feet within minutes of birth, the herds are ready to move as soon as their DNA tells them to. As for the zebra, well they are welcome to go along as they pose no risk to the wildebeest’s food source: zebra and wildebeest are able to graze in harmony because they each eat different parts of the same type of grass.

And so this 2-million-strong – yes 2 million – mass of flesh sets off on the world’s longest, largest overland migration. The animals will travel a total of 800km or more during each cycle. The herd isn’t always together, though: although the migration is referred to as a “mass movement”, the wildebeest do split up into splinter herds, with smaller packs going in search of their own food, while always circling the main, mega-herd. When you take these smaller, split herds into consideration, the whole migration can cover over half of the entire Serengeti.

Given the vast expanse of the Serengeti, and the fact that the migration can cover up to half of it, how do you know when, and where, you’ll get the best view of the migration? July to November is traditionally thought of as the best season to view the Great Migration, with July and August being peak ‘river-crossing’ time. This is when the wildebeest move into Kenya’s Masai Mara, crossing the Mara River in large numbers.

So plan your visit for July/August, and head for the Mara River. The herds are also always monitored, with guides and pilots sending in daily information, and you can check online to see where the migration is at pretty much all times. Check out Discover Africa’s HerdTracker website.

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