Many reasons why the modern day traveller and/or tourist heads to the diverse regions of Africa; The Safaris and natural wonders in the east, South West and the South of Africa, commodities in the west of Africa and ancient wonders in the northern parts of Africa. As we learnt during our trip, the people, cultures, lifestyle are not as homogenous as one expects. The influence of the British, French, Belgian and Dutch colonial rule are visible everywhere – mannerisms, food, name of the currency, driving systems et al.
People who are used to seeing Africa on wildlife channels and then choosing to discover them almost always end up heading to South Africa’s game reserves or to witness the annual twice a year event – The Wildebeest Migration across the Tanzanian Kenyan border.
The Serengeti Mara ecosystem combine encompass an area of 30,000 sq km. About 1.3 million of these brown beest’s are joined by Zebra and Thompson’s Gazelle to form the largest, long-distance terrestrial mammal movement in the world.
The migration commences from the southern fringes of the Serengeti. Early spring is when the Calves are born; the Wildebeest (or Gnu’s as they are called) calf spend exactly 9 astonishing minutes learning to stand and stabilize in the world after their birth as there is no time to get tutored in to the wild ways of the Serengeti; It is time to run. With calves in tow, the animals commence their run westward, and then, northward across the gushing Mara River and, in July-August, barge in to the Masai Mara in Kenya, before returning back to Tanzania. The Wildebeest lodge around 1000 Km of annual galloping through the grasslands; or an average of 30,000 km in a lifetime.
Humans or Animals, the urge to move seems to be inscribed in to our DNA’s; For the Wildebeest it is probably more pronounced. Biologists also aver that it’s the concentration of phosphorous in the savannah grass that guides the Wildebeest in to nutrient-rich corridors. Others point to the seasonal showers, which the animals track in search for tender vegetation and water. Yes, just juicy green grass and lots of water. The act of crossing is carefully planned. First, the scanning of the other side of the banks of the Mara river for any lurking predators, the presence of fellow Wildebeest encouraging the crossing and of course someone taking the lead. Wildlife enthusiasts waiting for a crossing at a particular time are in for disappointment. While we were able to watch a disciplined line of Wildebeest egging their counterparts on the other side to cross but they could not muster the courage to do so having sighted huge crocodiles on the banks.
When we finally watched the wildebeest take their decision and hurtle down in to the Mara it was late evening and in a completely unexpected area of the park. Once the decision was made, these wonderful creatures did not back off irrespective of the threat which was lurking.
It is during this time that predators lurk – Crocodiles, Lion, Cheetahs, Leopards, Hyenas – rely on the seasonal, predictable feasts the Wildebeest – and especially their calves.
Watching the Migrating Wildebeest told us that there was a predator lurking nearby for sure. Yes, a young female leopard was patrolling the steep and muddy banks with impeccable balance waiting for the right moment and entry point to grab its prey. It looked very much like a newbie out for its first kill – trying and failing, unable to net the bigger and heavier wildebeest, scared for a moment by the stomping herds but in the end she does manage to get hold of a young wildebeest probably a few weeks old and ends a satisfying day both for herself and us. Watch her in action.
The massive migratory movement also leaves in its wake a lot of manure and urine which ensures nitrogenous fertilizers for optimum production.
Challenges confronting the ecosystem
The second most populous continent after Asia is expected to double its population of a billion people over the next 20 years, with under 18 year olds comprising almost half of it. When human beings inhabit land, they raise fences to ward of predators, thus cutting and fragmenting the wildebeest migratory corridors. One one side is saving the ecosystem and the herds and on the other hand making sure that people benefit, improve their lives, and have good education for their children.
The need for cheap protein (bushmeat consumption) for households lead to deaths of about 70,000 to 129,000 wildebeest per year; This amounts to about 10% of the entire Wildebeest herd. It is still not clear if anti-poaching measures via community outreach programmes will lead to reduced consumption of bushmeat.
Making Wildlife Pay
When there are families to feed, it is a hard one to convince people to save wildlife and habitats. People who are claimants over lands that serve as wet-season pastures or dispersal areas for wildebeest, tourism, wildlife and civil stakeholders – mainly in Kenya – have made the animals “purchase back” their right to freely roam. About 900 sq km of land across 8 conservancies bordering the Masai Mara National Reserve are leased from its individual or communal land owners at advantageous rates. The lease prices under conservation are more advantageous than under livestock or agriculture. The returns – educational and job opportunities.
Masai Mara and Serengeti are wonderful destinations but the journeys they offer are Non-Pareil.
Getting there – Kenya Airways is the only airline offering direct service between India and East Africa. They fly twice a day between Mumbai and Nairobi. Other convenient but longer connections are via Dubai and Abu Dhabi. One could begin their journey at Nairobi or from Dar Es Salaam/Arusha based on the type of activity one wants to undertake.
Staying options – Plenty, but choose wisely after consulting your travel planner and reading reviews of the properties. Budgets, location, amenities, themes are key parameters one should keep in mind while selecting staying options. The hotels offer safari trips of their own. But, if you have planned on your own tour partner it could give you a lot more flexibility and continuity throughout your journey.
Dima Vilanova for facts and observations regarding Migration made in her article featured in the PAA Tanzania Magazine
Map of Serengeti for the Migration pictures