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Running with the herds

ISSUE 5
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Liz Harper tracks the spectacle of the annual migration on the plains of Tanzania


One and a half million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle journey on a perpetual cycle of clockwise rotation through the plains of the Serengeti and the neighbouring Masai Mara, following the rains and searching for food. This annual circular pilgrimage is considered to be one of the most spectacular natural wildlife shows on earth.


As this extraordinary animal mass moves from the southern Serengeti plains at the end of the wet season, towards the Masai Mara, it showcases a breathtaking and moving display of animal instinct, survival and loss. In any given year, a wildebeest may cover an incredible distance of some 1,200 miles. The journey is brutal, with over a quarter of a million animals falling by the wayside, victims of predation, or collapsing through exhaustion, hunger or thirst.


While the migration is dominated by wildebeest, they are not alone in this voyage. Zebras are often the front runners in the show, leading the way, with gazelles interspersed and bringing up the rear. Resident animals also get caught up in the excitement with small herds joining the throng as it travels through their territory, and then dropping back and returning to their home ranges as the migration continues its relentless quest.


feasting and excess


The crossings of the Grumeti and Mara rivers provide not only the toughest obstacles to the herd but also the greatest opportunity for predators and scavengers. It is also the climax for those viewing the migration.


Lions and crocodiles lie in wait, while vultures line the riverbank. For them, this is a time of feasting and excess. The river, littered with the bloated corpses and dismembered limbs of the fallen, offers little encouragement to those about to embark on a crossing. Animals back up as the numbers build on the banks, hooves scrabbling, heads tossing and the sound of grunting reverberating out onto the plains. A waiting game ensues with no individual prepared to make the first move, despite the lure of the sweet, green grasses on the other side. A spectacular scene unfolds as, following the tentative steps of the first mover, the herd lunges into the river and the race for life commences. While many wildebeest fall victim to the currents and the lurking crocodiles, some simply get trampled underfoot as a result of the fight to get to the far bank and relative safety.


There is a sense of calm in the western corridor of the Serengeti after the passing of two million grazers and eight million hooves. The landscape is temporarily ripped up and barren, but just weeks later, displays signs of recovery. "The migration defines the Serengeti ecosystem and is the reason that there are such large volumes of wildebeest. What's more, the urine and dung deposited during the transition across the plains increases the fertility of the soil and more than compensates for the short-term damage," explains Benson, the guide on my Tanzania safari.


new growth


While the herds offer an organic fertilisation, the park ecologists also undertake a series of controlled burnings of large swathes of the land to further help with the rejuvenation, the ash going back into the soil and acting as a fertiliser. With new rainfall comes the new growth. And so the cycle continues.


One challenge to travellers is that there is no way of predicting exactly what time the herds will start to move and this year, we were caught out by nature. "Wildebeest have incredible instinct and can sense rain from 50km away," says Benson. "The migration is entirely dictated by the rainfall. The herds normally stay in Grumeti (the western corridor of the Serengeti) for two months but this year they were here for less than three weeks before moving on."


But we were far from disappointed to have arrived after the stampede had passed through. While the landscape was obviously bearing the brunt of millions of hooves, new growth was already making an appearance, with soil rejuvenation well underway. The game viewing was spectacular with every day presenting new sights, from the juvenile play of lion cubs to watching the pride hierarchy in action when dealing with fresh kill; observing (and smelling) hundreds of grunting, wallowing hippos to marvelling at the grace and speed of a hunting cheetah. In a way, we were better off, as the hordes of visitors had moved on with the herds. Migration or not, the Serengeti delivers an extraordinary experience.


Leap of faith


It was not long after dawn. Brooding lilac storm clouds had moved beyond Kenya's far hills, a warthog with tiny babies scuttled through the long grass and an African fish-eagle soared above us, its haunting cry barely audible above the sound of a thousand wildebeest.


We had walked from camp as far as the Mara River, and now we were looking at an army of gnu. To my right, beyond a stand of acacia trees, two lines of rigidly cantering wildebeest - all twig-thin legs and sloping backs - filed north across the plains of the Serengeti. In front of us, another group was gathering on the bank, trotting forwards and backwards in nervous unison, scanning the water for a crocodile - the one thing they didn't want to meet when crossing the river. But cruising through the Mara was the unmistakable shape of a large Nile croc, its slow movements and seemingly languid patience in chilling contrast to their skittish indecision. Advancing to the bank's edge, they sent clods of earth tumbling over the lip and then, spooked by a noise, pulled back, falling over each other. Eventually, a couple of adults made the leap, front legs tucked in tightly, before landing with a splash.  Blinkered by the drive to survive, they began a frantic swim to the opposite bank, ignoring the floating, bloated carcass of a lone calf being swept downstream. It bumped between exposed roots as the water carried it west towards Lake Victoria. Marabou storks circled above, eyeing lunch from the air, waiting for this casualty of the annual migration to beach on a sandy spit. I felt acutely alive that morning, as if I was close to the very heartbeat of the world, watching vignettes of birth, survival, death – every stage of life itself – acted out in this vast Tanzanian theatre of animal drama.

WAY TO GO

andBeyond

Tel. 020 8704 1216 / www.tanzaniaodyssey.com

Africa specialist andBeyond offers three nights at the Grumeti Tented Camp with return flights from London to Kilimanjaro on KLM. From £2,800 per person on an all-inclusive basis.

 
Wildlife & Wilderness

Tel. 01625 838225 / www.wildlifewilderness.com

Wildlife & Wilderness offers a selection of tailor-made tours in Tanzania, including extensions to the coast, Zanzibar and Rwanda.


Skysafari by Elewana

Tel. +255 754 250 630 / skysafari.com

Offers ultra-luxurious safaris in Tanzania and Kenya by private, executive class aircraft, staying at sumptuous lodges and camps, including The Manor in Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti Migration Camp.

 
Mara Engai Indian Ocean Retreat

www.masaimarauk.com

Combine your safari with a beach stay at Mara Engai Indian Ocean Retreat at Kilifi, a luxurious hideaway with 18 rooms and suites on the beach north of Mombasa.

 
Explore

Tel. 0845 291 4541 / www.explore.co.uk

Offers 18 different walking itineraries, treks and safari options in Tanzania.

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