The Science Behind Africa’s Great Migration

By Asilia Africa News | 14 June 2018

By Warren Glam – Content Writer

Every year, millions of hooves drum against Africa’s plains, raising dust and devouring kilometres as wildebeest, zebra and gazelles trek across the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. Called the Great Migration, their odyssey will lead them from drought to water and good grazing, though the way will be fraught with peril.

Crocodiles will claim some migrators as they traverse rivers, battling strong currents and the press of their herd’s wet, heaving bodies. Lions, leopards and hyenas will run down their share of prey on the plains. But ultimately, collaboration between the region’s two ecosystems will see the herds through danger and ensure their future. Indeed, these ecosystems support more large mammal species than any other place in the world. And they’ve maintained one of the world’s last remaining migrations of large mammals in a relatively unchanged state since the time of the hunter-gatherers.

The Ecosystems

Beginning in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and heading north into Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve, the Great Migration runs in a clockwise circle and covers around 2 900 kilometres. The never-ending journey goes from the southeast grassland region, to the northwest woodlands and back again.

The Southeast Grasslands

The Serengeti’s large herbivores must find the right quality and quantity of grass to support their species. Essentially, the ecosystem of the grasslands produces environmental circumstances that cater perfectly for their needs. More specifically, the ecoregion has the appropriate soil, climate and rainfall.

The grasslands lie just south of the border between Tanzania and Kenya. Over millions of years, the now dormant volcanic crater of Ngorongoro, the Kerimasi Volcano and Mount Lengai all deposited volcanic ash in these soils. When mineral-rich volcanic ash mixes with soils, the end product contains nutrients such as phosphates, nitrates, potassium, sodium and calcium, all of which are needed for the healthy growth of plants.

Also, the soil of the southeastern plains is a shallow, alkaline and very sandy loam. It overlies a calcareous hardpan that was created by the leaching of lime-rich soil. For the most part, the plains are treeless, given that deep-rooted plants and grasses can’t punch through the hardpan. But, the hardpan does allow minerals that would be unavailable in deeper soils to nourish short grasses. These grasses have adapted to the short growing season and heavy grazing of the region.

The Serengeti plains have the virtues of volcanic soils, meaning they’re extremely mineral-rich and fertile. Their short grasses contain much-needed nutrients such as calcium, nitrogen, zinc and sodium. Consequently, the plains are able to support large populations of grazers, giving them the vast quantity of nutrient-rich grass they need to survive.

Climatically, the eco-region is subtropical and averages maximum temperatures of around 26°C. An important feature of this climate is that it makes the region’s rainfall is strongly seasonal, with precipitation peaking during the long-rain period between March and May, and the short rains in November and December. By contrast, the dry season, which lasts from June to October, sees the plains become far too dry to sustain the herds.

The wet season allows the ecoregion’s incredibly fertile soil to produce the quantity of grass the grazers need. The dry season drives the grazers away and gives the plains a chance to rejuvenate ahead of their return.

Calving Season

The herds gather for calving season in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Conservation areas of northern Tanzania during January and February. The birthing takes place over a three-week period and will see more than 400 000 calves born some eight months after mating season. The highest calving rate occurs in February, when an average of 8000 wildebeest are born each day.

From April to May, the Serengeti’s southernmost grass plains start to dry out, causing the herds to migrate west and north towards the woodland of the Western Corridor: their transitional grasslands.

Transitional Grasslands

Rainfall increases and evaporation decreases as the herds march further away from the Crater Highlands. This movement leads them to different soils and grassland. The soils become more mature and deeper. The vegetation shifts to medium-height grasses that grow on lime-rich soil, underlain by a softer pan that woody roots can penetrate in places. This type of grass receives fairly heavy grazing during the wet season.

Medium grassland then becomes long, 30cm-high grassland, with bamboo and bluestem grasses being the dominant types. The soil in this leg of the migration is black cotton and still volcanic in origin. The herds graze these grasses on the way to and from the woodland, choosing shorter, more agreeable species beneath the overstory of tall grass. The grasses here are high in magnesium, which is important for lactating females and the growing young.

The Rut

By June the rains stop and the drought of Tanzania’s dry season drives the herds further north. At this time, individual groups gather into larger herds and the migrating wildebeest enter their mating season, also called the rut. Upwards of 500 000 cows will mate over a four-week period.

The last type of soil migrators encounter before reaching the woodlands is the tall, red-oat grassland, which grows on brown calcareous soil. It has a lighter texture and is better drained than the black-cotton variety. The area has a lot of palatable understory grasses, meaning the herds graze moderately here during the dry season.

The Two Rivers

Come July, the herds must wade the Grumeti, the first of two rivers cutting across their path to the woodlands. The Grumeti River is deep in places, particularly if rains have been good. Many animals drown in these waters, having no more to give after weeks spent travelling on ruined limbs and under an unforgiving sun. Some will fall to serrated teeth as crocodiles gorge themselves. Those that survive the water will labour up steep, muddy banks to resume their relentless march, with the constant threat of plains predators dogging their steps.

August sees the herds into Kenya and brings the promise of good grazing on the lush plains of the Mara. But first they must flounder in the Mara River’s treacherous waters, their flanks once again exposed to ravenous crocodiles.

The herds will be far smaller after they cross, having lost hundreds of thousands to starvation, malnutrition, exhaustion, predation and drowning. But each precious species will have done enough to survive. The thriving plains of the Mara will sustain them while the south prepares for their return.

The Northwest Woodlands

The Mara’s woodlands flourish on the less mineral-rich soils of the ancient granite shield. The area has a higher rainfall and lower evaporation rate than the hotter, drier short-grass plains, producing a more robust undergrowth. Also, the soils experience rich weathering and weak leaching, which leads to the build up of soluble salts, carbonates and bases. The deeper soils support larger tussock grasses.

But as grass production increases with the rainfall, forage quality goes in the other direction. This factor drives the herds back to the mineral-rich grasslands during the wet season.

Back Again

The short rains arrive in November and December, drawing the herds south to the rejuvenated Serengeti plains. More than 90 percent of the cows are heavily pregnant as the tightly packed herds trek back through wooded country, scattering into widely spaced groups once they reach the open plains.

The cycle of life will continue as they graze on fresh, sweet grasses and drink at seasonal waterholes, taking in the continent’s goodness ahead of the birthing season. In a short while, new calves will replenish the herds ahead of the next Great Migration.

The post The Science Behind Africa’s Great Migration appeared first on Asilia Africa.


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    A safari with Asilia Africa offers visitors the opportunity to visit a number of camps in prime locations in the East African bush, discover insights into the environment with a trained local guide, as well as an unparalleled viewing of African wildlife (including the Great Wildebeest Migration and the famed Big 5) while staying in our award-winning camps. In addition, daily game drives are included, as well as your selection of the many optional activities on offer dependent on the camp you’re staying at. In the spirit of warm African hospitality, all your meals and drinks are provided so you’re free to relax and enjoy your safari.

    Find out more about what to expect on your first safari with us here.

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    A safari with Asilia Africa is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Depending on your interests and desires, and time of year you wish to visit, there’s a safari experience to suit you. Whether you’re looking for something romantic and intimate, or even something a little more active, it’s entirely up to you. If it’s a family experience you’re after, some of our camps cater specifically to creating a magical experience for all ages, while others might want a more private safari experience for a small group. Get a better idea of what a safari with Asilia entails here.

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    Asilia Africa’s camps are ideally situated for access to the incredible wildlife of East Africa, as well as the beauty and serenity of the landscapes.

    Our safari holidays offer unparalleled and unforgettable wildlife experiences, from the Great Migration, Big 5, birding and more.

    In addition to daily game drives, East Africa boasts many activities, including climbing Kilimanjaro, hot-air ballooning, walking safaris, meaningful cultural experiences and relaxing on the beach amongst others.

    We've compiled a month-by-month guide to safaris in East Africa, read more here.

  • What is a typical day on safari like?

    Life on safari has a rhythm of its own, largely dictated by the animals’ movements. Generally, the most rewarding times for game viewing is in the cooler early mornings and also late in the afternoons when the animals are at their most active.

    A typical day on safari will vary depending on the camp you’re staying at, but will include early morning and late afternoon game drives, with time during the hottest part of the day to relax in camp. Get a better idea of what a safari with Asilia entails here.

  • Is it safe to go on safari?

    Absolutely. Asilia Africa has operated camps in East Africa for two decades and has maintained an exemplary safety record over this time. Our safety practices and procedures are not only effective in managing any emergency situation but also in preventing any unsafe situations from occurring both in camp and outside in the bush.

    Other than Encounter Mara, all our camps are unfenced, which guests soon find forms an essential part of connecting with nature.

    Our guests are safeguarded by 24-hour Askaari security who keep a lookout for animals, escort guests when necessary, and through their presence, help to keep the animals away from the camp area.

    Additionally, our camps maintain strict operational safety protocols, which all guests are briefed on upon arrival. In the unlikely event that a medical situation does occur, we have 24-hour medical back up available with offices in all our operating countries to ensure that our guests are safe from the environment and any unknown medical threats.

  • Can I bring my children along on safari?

    Without question! Family safaris in Africa are a worthwhile and meaningful experience, as can be seen in this video. Aside from spending quality time with your nearest and dearest under a wide blue African sky, a safari in Africa offers invaluable experiences including unique cultural experiences, memorable wildlife sightings, and the opportunity to learn more about nature. You can read more about our best family camps here.

    If you're thinking of bringing your teenager on safari, you may have a few questions so here's a quick guide to taking teens on safari.

    It is worth noting that some of our camps can unfortunately not accommodate children under the age of 5. Feel free to get in touch with us to confirm which of our camps are suitable for smaller children.

  • How does the weather influence a safari?

    While a safari holiday can be had at any time of year, it is worth noting that seasonality will impact the type of experience you’re likely to have as well as the cost of your safari.

    During the dry season, the wildlife tends to congregate around the few remaining watering holes. Vegetation at this time is sparse making the animals easier to spot.
    The wet season is abundant both in vegetation and wildlife, as this is the birthing season – which means predators come out in force to prey on vulnerable newborns.

    Whichever season you choose to travel in, rest assured that our camps are well equipped for the East African climate and to ensure your comfort at all times. We've compiled a month-by-month guide to safaris in East Africa, read more here.

  • What happens on a game drive?

    Game drives are an integral part of any safari. You’ll head out into the wilderness with your trained and knowledgeable guide in one of our specialised vehicles. We have both closed and open-sided vehicles and try to have no more than six guests in one vehicle, so everyone is guaranteed a window seat for the best view of the action. Our vehicles also have the added benefit of charging stations to ensure your gadgetry is never at a loss, and a cooler to ensure you’ll have a cold beverage or two along the way.

    We now have one of the first electric safari vehicles available at Ol Pejeta Bush Camp as well as an incredibly nifty photographic safari vehicle that is available for guests on request. Private vehicles can also be arranged in advance at an additional cost.

  • Is there wifi available?

    All of our camps do have basic wifi available in certain areas.It is important to note that while wifi is available, it is more than likely not at the same fast speeds that you may be used to, but sufficient for checking emails and keeping in touch with home.

  • Can I charge my phone? What type of plugs do I need?

    Electricity is available at 220/240 volts AC, 50 Hz. Primary Socket Type: British BS- 1363 (British Standard). Adaptor plugs will be available in some lodges but we advise that you bring at least one with you.Please be aware that the power supply is subject to cuts and voltage fluctuations even in major cities!On safari, most of the lodges are powered by generators or solar panels and these are often turned off during parts of the day and night to reduce noise and fuel consumption. Please also note that in most camps and lodges, power sockets for charging are only available in the main area.

  • What is the accommodation like?

    Most of our camps feature stylish and authentic tented suites in keeping with the classic safari experience. Each tent has a main bedroom with an ensuite shower, toilet and basin, decorated to reflect an authentic safari style while providing the necessary amenities and furnishings to provide a comfortable retreat.

  • What toiletries are included?

    Shampoo, conditioner, body wash, hand wash, and body lotions are all provided in camp. Please do note that hairdryers are only available at Matemwe and Sayari Camp. This is because, in the bush, electricity is a precious resource and is supplied largely from solar power and generators, so not all of our camps can support hairdryers.

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  • What is the Great Wildebeest Migration?

    The Great Wildebeest Migration is the largest animal migration in the world. Every year, more than 2 million animals (wildebeest, zebra, and gazelle) migrate in a clockwise direction across the ecosystems of the Serengeti (Tanzania) and the Masai Mara (Kenya). On the way, they have to cross crocodile-infested rivers, are hunted by predators, and face natural disasters such as droughts and flooding in a daily struggle for survival.

    Asilia Africa operates a number of camps specifically along the route of the migration to offer you a front-row seat to all the migration action. For example, Sayari Camp is located close to many of the Mara River crossing points in the Northern Serengeti. We have three mobile camps in the Serengeti which move to two or three locations in a year to ensure proximity to the action of the migration, while other camps are in a fixed location and offer additional amenities such as swimming pools.

    Still feel like you need to know more about The Great Migration? Read this blog post for everything you need to know about the Migration.

  • Which is the best camp for the Great Wildebeest Migration?

    Since the Great Migration sees the herds migrate slowly over a route thousands of kilometres long, the best camp for experiencing it will largely depend on the time of year. In addition, although the animals broadly follow the same ancient migratory route every year, there are occasional variations based on environmental or weather conditions, such as the rainfall in a given year.

    For this reason, Asilia Africa has permanent camps that cover the traditional migration route as well as semi-permanentcamps which are moved 2 to 3 times a year to ensure prime game viewing.

  • What is the best time to see the Great Wildebeest Migration?

    The Great Migration can be enjoyed year round. Different times of year and location will offer different encounters, so it’s a good idea to work closely with your travel agent to ensure you plan the ideal migration safari to suit your needs.

    The first few months of the year offer exceptional predator encounters in the Serengeti as this is the calving season for the wildebeest and newborns make for an easy kill.

    By July, the herds are heading into the central Serengeti where the wildebeest make their first river crossing, and take their chances against the waiting (and hungry) crocodiles.

    In August, the herds cross over into Kenya’s Masai Mara and by September, the big herds have fragmented into smaller groups. The last few months of the year bring the short rains, causing the Wildebeest to move back into the Serengeti where the animals brace themselves for the next calving season and predator attacks.

    You can read more here about what to expect from the migration each month as well as which of our camps are best positioned to enjoy this spectacle at those times of year.

  • Are all Asilia Camps open year-round?

    You can enjoy a safari with Asilia all year round, however, the season will influence the kind of experience you’re likely to have. To get an idea of what the different months have to offer, have a look here. If your dates are not flexible, drop us a line and we’ll structure the ideal safari to suit your needs.

  • How do I choose which camp to visit?

    Choosing your ideal safari will generally depend on a combination of the following factors: who you are travelling with (e.g. are you going with your family), where you want to go (e.g. Kenya or Tanzania), what you would like to see (e.g. Great Migration) and any special activities you are interested in doing (e.g. hot air ballooning or climbing Kilimanjaro).

    You can narrow down your choices using our safari tools for where to go and what to do, or you could check out some of our itineraries to get you started with some ideas.

    We’d love to hear from you so we can create the perfect safari to suit your needs.

  • Where are Asilia’s camps?

    We specialise in Kenya and Tanzania, home to some of the highest concentrations of wildlife in the world. Our camps are positioned in prime locations ranging from the world famous Serengeti and Masai Mara, through to critical private conservancies, as well as more pioneering areas somewhat off the beaten track.

    Kenya: Greater Maasai Mara, Mara Naboisho Conservancy & Ol Pejeta Conservancy

    Tanzania: Serengeti, Ngorongoro, Ruaha, Rubondo, The Selous, & Tarangire

    Zanzibar: Matemwe

  • How do I choose between Kenya or Tanzania?

    If you have more time available for your holiday, the bordering countries of Kenya and Tanzania can easily be combined with each other as well as with other nearby places like Uganda, Rwanda and Zanzibar. If you are going on a shorter trip (less than 10 nights is a fair guideline), choosing which country to enjoy will depend on what you want to see and do. For example, if you’re planning a migration safari, your destination of choice will be largely dependent on where the wildebeest are at your chosen time of travel.

    To provide you with the best advice tailored to your particular travel needs, we recommend contacting your preferred travel agent or simply enquire with us and we’ll get right back to you.

  • Can I combine my safari with a trip to Zanzibar?

    Definitely - Zanzibar is a great addition to any safari itinerary or even just as an idyllic escape on its own!

  • What are meals like on safari?

    Meals on safari feature wholesome homemade dishes with a hint of local flavour. We take great pride in growing our own fresh, organic produce wherever possible and supporting local communities.

    Our camp chefs are able to cater to any dietary requirements with advance notice, including preparing gluten free, dairy free, vegan, and halaal meals.

    Lunch is usually a buffet featuring fresh salads and meaty mains, while dinner is a 3-course meal served beneath the stars. Dishes feature beef, chicken or fish, and wholesome organic produce with a hint of local spices and flavours. You can read more about Asilia's culinary experience here.

  • What is the accommodation on an Asilia safari like?

    Most of our camps feature stylish and authentic tented suites in keeping with the classic safari experience. Each tent has a main bedroom with a shower, toilet and basin, decorated to reflect the local cultures while providing the necessary amenities and furnishings to provide a comfortable retreat. Do not worry about packing in shampoo, conditioner, body wash, or lotion - these are all provided for you in camp.

    Please note, all laundry in camp is done by hand and dried outdoors, therefore turnaround time is dependant on the weather. Out of respect to local culture and customs, we do not wash underwear. Washing powder is provided in all of our guest rooms should guests wish to wash their own.

  • What is included in the price of my safari?

    The overall cost of your safari can vary depending on a range of factors including seasonality, activities, any special offers that may apply as well as other factors.

    Generally, a safari at Asilia’s properties will cost you anything from USD $450 per person, per night, and upwards. Your accommodation costs are all-inclusive, which means that all meals, local alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and game drives with our expert guides are included.

    For a more accurate estimate, it’s best to contact a safari specialist travel agent who can package an itinerary to suit your needs and budget. Alternatively, you can get in touch with us.

  • Can I book my safari directly with Asilia?

    We handle our booking process through a trusted group of highly experienced East Africa safari experts. We operate this way due to there being many nuances involved in planning a well-arranged, unforgettable safari holiday in East Africa. We know through experience that this is simply the best way to ensure our guests enjoy a seamless trip matched to their individual needs. Due to the volumes handled by these agents, they’ll also ensure you get the best possible overall price. If you’re thinking of joining us on a trip to East Africa and you are not currently working with an agent, simply enquire on our website and we’ll arrange for the best agent matched to your needs to tailor-make the ideal itinerary to suit all your needs.

    If you're unsure whether to book far in advance or not, this blog post may help provide some clarity.

  • How do I get from the airport to your camps?

    Getting around in East Africa requires significantly more planning than other destinations. Distances can be large; roads may be few. Our safari experts know their way around and can arrange all the transfers you require.

  • What are the vaccination requirements?

    Certain vaccinations may be required for travel to Africa, for example, often you will need a yellow fever vaccination. To be sure, consult your travel agent and your local Travel Clinic to obtain the latest health travel advisories. Concerning Visas, your travel agent will help there too.

  • What are the visa requirements?

    Kindly consult your relevant embassy for full details of visa requirements. Please indicate clearly that Asilia Africa is the DMC / ground handler and not the address of first overnight stay.

    For addresses and telephone numbers please visit our "contact us" page and either use Kenya (Nairobi) or Tanzania (Arusha) information depending on which country you are visiting.

  • What are the points of entry to get to your camps?

    For International visitors, the following apply:

    Kenya: Nairobi
    Tanzania: Dar es Salaam or Kilimanjaro Airport

  • Help! I’m planning my first safari. Where do I start?

    One way to start researching is by reading up more on the different safari destinations to visit, such as Tanzania or Kenya.  We also have some handy tools to help you along, including our camp finder and our experiences page. Another great place to draw inspiration from and to whet your appetite is by browsing our list of itineraries. These can be booked as-is, or customised to suit your needs.

    We recommend talking to a specialist East Africa consultant who will assist you with your plans.  In addition, they’ll be able to arrange your transfers, flights, and any additional activities you require. If you do not already have an agent, simply enquire with us and we’ll put you in touch with one of our trusted East Africa specialists.

    Find out more about what to expect on your first safari with us here.

  • Can I still go on safari if I have special medical needs?

    A safari can be suitable for a wide range of ages and physical conditions. With advanced notice, our camps are capable of catering to certain special requirements, so it’s best to advise your travel specialist early on in your booking process.

  • Are safaris suitable for people in wheelchairs?

    Some of our camps are accessible by wheelchair. It’s best to chat to your consultant as they will be able to advise which of our camps with be most suitable.

  • What do I pack for my holiday?

    There are a few handy items you won’t want to forget when going on safari such as a hat and sunblock to name a few. However, it is important to note that certain light aircraft transfer flights will have a smaller and stricter luggage limit. Please note, all laundry in camp is done by hand and dried outdoors, therefore turnaround time is dependant on the weather. Out of respect to local culture and customs, we do not wash underwear. Washing powder is provided in all of our guest rooms should guests wish to wash their own.

    Do not worry about packing in shampoo, conditioner, body wash, or lotion - these are all provided for you in camp. You can read our recommendations on everything from clothing to photography to toiletries in this blog post.

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