By Britta Foulis
For many people, the thought of the Great Wildebeest Migration brings to mind images of thunderous river crossings with crocodiles snatching at the heels of wildebeest as they make their way across East Africa’s rivers.
Others may picture the seemingly never-ending line of millions of wildebeest on their great trek, however, the amazingness of the calving season is something that many people may overlook.
Calving usually takes place between January and February of each year. In January the herds begin making their way to the south of the Serengeti after the rains start falling. The question of how the herds know when it is raining or not is something many people have questioned and the answer is that we actually do not know! Many people say that they can smell the rain, others believe they can sense when the pressure in the air changes. The only thing we know for sure is that where it rains, the herds follow. Within a two to three week time period, over half a million wildebeest are born with as many as 8 000 wildebeest being born on the same day!
The herds spend the majority of these three months in the Ndutu and Ngorongoro Conservation areas, although not within the crater itself. Many years ago, volcanoes in the area would erupt and the volcanic ashes that are left behind have led to the soil being rich in nutrients meaning that the grass that grows here is perfect for young wildebeest to munch on and build up their strength in the first few weeks of their lives.
The zebra and gazelle that join the thousands of wildebeest on their journey eat the grass shoots that are less appetising to the baby wildebeest, leaving behind only the most nutrient-rich grass shoots that are freshly sprouted and soft enough for young wildebeest mouths to pull from the earth. These grasses are also said to help aid the wildebeest mothers in lactating and making sure their milk is full of the goodness needed to raise strong and healthy babies.
With the promise of rains in the near future between February to May, the young wildebeest are almost always guaranteed fresh and constant grass all the way up into the central parts of the Serengeti.
It should come as no surprise that, with all of these baby zebra, gazelle and wildebeest stumbling around on their wobbly legs, the number of predators in the area reaches an all time high during this time of the year. However, an easy meal is no guarantee!
These mothers have been following this route for thousands of years and know most of the tricks that predators pull. Wildebeest mothers instinctively know to give birth on the shorter grass plains where approaching predators are easier to spot. Other mothers join them here and actually form protective barricades around the younger and most vulnerable new additions to the herd in order to ensure they have the greatest chance of survival.
Predators also have to deal with extremely over-protective mothers who will do everything in their power to protect their young so if you are travelling to the Serengeti during this time you are guaranteed to see some action unfolding between mothers, their calves and the hungry predators prowling the surrounding areas.
It is not only the older, more-experienced predators you will have the chance to see though, they too have co-ordinated their birthing times to coincide with the birth of their prey so that their young have the highest chance of survival too. With thousands of baby wildebeest running around it is much easier for a mother lion, cheetah or leopard to find a meal for their hungry cubs as well as give them the opportunity to learn how to hunt for themselves by practising on young calves before they have to go out and fend for themselves, young cubs learn valuable lessons during this time which is crucial to their success.
All of these factors go to show that the timing and location of the calving season was purposefully selected in order to increase the chances of survival, both for prey and predator alike. The calving season is truly a remarkable time in East Africa and has so much to offer any safari-goer looking to see something other than the usual river crossing.
We have three mobile migration camps that move throughout the year to ensure they are located in the best possible position to witness the Great Migration. Be sure to check out Olakira Camp, Ubuntu Camp and Kimondo Camp and include at least one in your next trip to Africa!