Destinations | Serengeti National Park and Migration

Serengeti is derived from the Masai language and appropriately means “endless plain” and is Tanzania’s largest and most famous Park. It has the largest concentration of migratory game animals in the world: One and a half million Wildebeests ,each one driven by the same ancient rhythm, fulfilling its instinctive role in the inescapable cycle of life: a frenzied three-week bout of territorial conquests and mating; survival of the fittest as 40km long columns plunge through crocodile-infested waters on the annual exodus north; replenishing the species in a brief population explosion that produces more than 8,000 calves daily before the 1,000Km pilgrimage begins again. The key element in understanding of “The Greatest Wildlife Show on Earth” is that it follows the general “rainfall gradient” across the ecosystem, with lower rainfall in the southeast (short-grass plains) and higher rainfall in the northwest. The migration moves from Kenya back to the short-grass plains of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation Area once the short rains have begun (usually in late October-November), and after the short-grass plains have dried out (usually in May), the migration moves northwest to higher rainfall areas and areas of permanent water – and fresh grass.

From December-May Wildebeest, Zebra, Eland and Thomson’s Gazelle usually concentrate on the treeless short-grass plains in the extreme south-eastern Serengeti and western Ngorongoro Conservation Area near Lake Ndutu in search of short grass, which they prefer over the longer dry-stemmed variety. This is the best time to visit the Serengeti. In April and May, the height of the rainy season, a 4wd vehicle is highly recommended.

Other species, common to the area during this period are Grant’s Gazelle, Hartebeest, Topi and a host of predators including Lion, Cheetah, Spotted Hyena, Honey Badger and Black-Backed Jackal. Kori Busterd yellow-throated Sand Grouse and Rufousnaped Lark are resident birds of the open plains, which attract large numbers of migratory Montagu’s and Pallid Harriers (from Europe) between September and March.

During the long rainy season (April – May), nomadic Lions and Hyenas move to the eastern part of the Serengeti. The migration, mainly of Wildebeests and Zebras, begins in May or June. Once the dry season begins, Wildebeests and Zebras must migrate from the area. There is no permanent water; and both of these species must drink on a regular basis.

The rut for Wildebeests is concentrated over a three-week period and generally occurs at the end of April, May or early June. After a gestation period of eight and one-half months, approximately 90% of the pregnant cows will give birth on the short-grass plains within a six week period between mid/end of January an d February. Zebras calving season is spread out over most of the year, with a slightly higher birth rate December-March. The best time to see Wildebeests and Zebras crossing the Grumeti River is in June/early July and November.

Wildebeests move about six to 10 abreast in columns several km long toward the western corridor. Zebras do not move in columns but in family units. As a general rule, by June the migration has progressed west of Seronera. The migration then splits into three separate migrations: one west through the corridor toward permanent water and Lake Victoria and the northeast; the second due north, reaching the Maasai Mara of Kenya around mid-July; and the third northward between the other tow to a region west of Lobo area, where the group disperses. At present, there are few roads in the region where the third group disperses; however, this may change. During July-September the Serengeti’s highest concentration of wildlife is in the extreme north. The first and second groups meet and usually begin returning to the Serengeti National Park in late October; the migration then reaches the central or southern Serengeti by December.

Short-grass plains dominate the part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area bordering the Serengeti. As you move northwest into the park, the plains change to medium-grass plains and then into long-grass plains around Simba Kopjes north of Naabi Hill Gage. Topi, Elephant, Thomson´s and Grant’s Gazelle, Bat-eared Fox and Warthog are often seen here.

The park, a World Heritage Site, comprises most of the Serengeti ecosystem, which is the primary migration route of the Wildebeests. The Serengeti ecosystem also includes Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, bordering on the north; the Loliondo Controlled Area, bordering on the northeast; the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, bordering the southeast; Maswa Game Reserve, bordering on the southwest; and the Grumeti and Ikorongoro Controlled Area, bordering on the northwest. The “western corridor” of the park comes withing 8 km of Lake Victoria.

It is also famous for its huge Lion populations and is one of the best places on the continent to see them. The spectacle of predator versus prey dominates Tanzania's greatest park. Golden-maned Lion prides feast on the abundance of plain grazers. Solitary Leopars haunt the acacia trees lining the Seronera River, while a high density of Cheetahs prowl the south-eastern plains. Almost uniquely, all three African Jackal species occur here, alongside the Spotted Hyena and a host of more elusive small predators. Most of the Serengeti is a vast, open plain broken by rocky outcrops (kopjes). There is also acacia savannah, savannah woodland, riverine forests, some swamps and small lakes.

The north is more hilly, with thick scrub and forests lining the Mara River, where Leopards are sometimes spotted sleeping in the trees. Acacia savannah dominates the central region, with short- and long-grass open plains in the southeast and woodland plains and hills in the western corridor. Nearly 500 species of birds and 35 species of large plains animals are found in the Serengeti.

But there is more to Serengeti than large mammals. Gaudy Agama Lizards and Rock Hyraxes scuffle around the surfaces of the park's isolated granite kopjes. A full 100 varieties of Dung Beetle have been recorded, as have 500-plus bird species, ranging from the out-sized Ostrich and bizarre Secretary bird of the open grassland, to the black Eagles that soar effortlessly above the Lobo Hills.

There is a saline lake in the south of the park, Lake Lagaja, known mainly for the populations of lesser and greater Flamingos.

Popular the Serengeti might be, but it remains so vast that you may be the only human audience when a pride of Lions masterminds a siege, focused unswervingly on its next meal.

About Serengeti:
Size: 14,763 sq km
Location: 335km from Arusha, stretching north to Kenya and bordering Lake Victoria to the west.

Getting there:
Scheduled and charter flights from Arusha, Lake Manyara and Mwanza. Drive from Arusha, Lake Manyara, Tarangire or Ngorongoro Crater.

What to do:
Game drives. Hot air balloon safaris, Maasai rock paintings and musical rocks. Visit neighbouring Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge, Ol Doinyo Lengai volcano and Lake Natron's flamingos.

When to go:
Year round.
To follow the wildebeest migration, December-July. To see predators, June-October

The route and timing of the wildebeest migration is unpredictable. Allow at least three days to be assured of seeing them on your visit - longer if you want to see the main predators as well.

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