Photographer: Shripal Daphtary/Unsplash
Photographer: Shripal Daphtary/Unsplash

Why the Great Migration Needs to Top Your Bucket List, in 15 Photos

Forget HD documentaries. You need to see it for yourself.

Few sights in the animal kingdom illustrate life’s bloody struggle in a more visceral way than the great migration. This perpetual movement of animals between Tanzania and Kenya, following the best seasonal grazing in the Serengeti National Park and Maasai Mara National Reserve, reaches the crocodile-infested waters of the Mara River in mid- to late July. Breathtaking numbers of weary wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, impala, and eland face this watery challenge during the world’s largest animal migration—a life-and-death lottery. For those that make it, greener pastures await … as do the big cats.

Wildebeests on the Move
Wildebeests on the Move

Blue wildebeests, also known as white-bearded wildebeests, make up the bulk of the great migration that covers 1,200 miles of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. The rumbling mass of 1.5 million hoofed beasts heads north from the Serengeti’s dry, depleted grasses to the Maasai Mara’s greener plains, with the first herds crossing the treacherous waters of the Mara River from mid- to late July. By January the beasts have made their way back to the southern Serengeti again where about half a million calves are born through March, before dry grasses prompt their departure in May again.

Whether you are planning a trip or just want to follow the fascinating journey from afar, a team at the University of Glasgow has collaborated with a research group in Tanzania, which allows you to track various animals in the park in real time.

Photographer: Martin Harvey/Getty Images

Crocodiles
Crocodiles

The stillness of the Mara River’s Nile crocodiles as they wait for the arrival of their prey makes the moment they snap into action all the more terrifying. Reaching a maximum of about 20 feet in length and 1,650 pounds in weight—second only to the saltwater crocodile—these crocs can survive for long periods without food, but when they do eat, they can fill up on half their own body weight at one sitting.

This most unlikable of creatures does have one redeeming feature, however, as a responsible parent. Unlike most other reptiles, Nile crocodiles guard their eggs and gently roll them in their mouths to help them hatch.

Photographer: Suzi Eszterhas/ Minden Pictures/Getty Images/Minden Pictures RM

Zebras
Zebras

About 200,000 zebras add a touch of striped glamour to the muddy-gray mass of wildebeests. They’re usually first to arrive in the Maasai Mara reserve following the river crossing, and they stay put through October, when the first herds begin their journey south again along the eastern edge of the Serengeti in search of new grasses.

Zebras’ bold markings have long puzzled biologists, given the number of predators on the prowl—theories include their stripes having a cooling effect (scientists have found the hotter the location the more stripes a zebra has), a way of repelling disease-causing insects, and an optical illusion when mixed with grassland to confuse predators.

Photographer: Manoj Shah/Getty Images

Ballooning
Ballooning

While there’s nothing quite like viewing wildlife at close quarters on safari, ballooning provides another amazing perspective. From up high, you can take in the vast Serengeti (its name derives from the Maasai language, meaning “endless plains”) and huge numbers of animals on the move across the Maasai Mara game reserve and at the river crossing.

Photographer: Jonathan & Angela Scott/Getty Images/AWL Images RM

Early Start
Early Start

Set your alarm before 5 a.m for unforgettable sunrise launches and postflight breakfasts from Serengeti Balloon Safaris and Mara Ballooning.

Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

On Safari
On Safari

Tourists gather along the Mara River to witness the stunning sight of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles, eland, and impala taking their chances against the crocodiles and currents. While the migration times can vary slightly each year, the river crossing is at a peak through July and August.

Photographer: Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

Singita Mara River Tented Camp
Singita Mara River Tented Camp

Base yourself at a river camp to witness the action close at hand. Singita’s Mara camp in Tanzania is a beauty, with plenty of eco-credentials (entirely solar-powered and using recycled and natural materials). Four one-bedroom en suite tents and two family tents have stylish interiors, combining canvas, wood, and leather with vibrant Maasai hues and local artwork. There’s a plunge pool, spa tent, and living areas that extend to decks where you can spot big cats, crocodiles, elephants, and hippos year-round. Be aware the price you’ll pay for being at the center of the action is the heady aroma of wildebeests on the move during migration time.

Source: Singita

Cycle of Life
Cycle of Life

It’s harrowing to witness seemingly endless numbers of weary wildebeests lining up on the banks of the Mara River before taking their chances against hungry crocodiles and currents. About 10,000 animals die in the river every year, but their plight is essential to the ecosystem, providing food for the crocs, vultures, and fish, as well as nutrients for the river.

Photographer: Carmen Brown Photography/Getty Images

Leopards
Leopards

A herd of wildebeests survives crossing the crocodile-infested Mara River, only to stray into the path of a leopard on the other bank.

Photographer: Paolo Torchio/Barcroft Media/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Maasai Tribe
Maasai Tribe

Young Maasai warriors perform the adumu or aigus, a competitive jumping dance. The distinctive dress and culture of the Maasai is a fascinating aspect of a trip to Kenya, and some welcome visitors to their villages to share their culture for a fee. Following the best conditions for their cattle, the Maasai—relating to speakers of the Maa language—are nomadic and semi-nomadic, moving within the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and Tanzania, the Samburu of Kenya, and the semipastoral Arusha and Baraguyu of Tanzania.  

Photographer: Buena Vista Images/Getty Images

Hippopotamuses
Hippopotamuses

Hippos graze on grass for hours through the night, remaining in the Mara River’s mud and water during the day to keep cool. These herbivores are happiest in groups of about 15, but overcrowding brings out their territorial side. While hippos’ aggressive reputation is well-deserved—they’re the most dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for more human deaths than any other—there have also been reports of them saving animals from crocodile attacks in the Mara River.

Photographer: Paul Souders/Getty Images

Gazelles, a Cheetah, and a Jackal
Gazelles, a Cheetah, and a Jackal

A herd of Thomson’s gazelles keeps a watchful eye on a cheetah and a jackal as they graze the savanna of Kenya’s Maasai Mara reserve.

Photographer: Anup Shah/Getty Images

Elephants
Elephants

Elephants can be seen year-round in families of about 10 females with their offspring, which continue to rely on their mothers through adolescence. Families can also join together, forming larger herds led by a matriarch, while adult male elephants roam either in herds or alone.

An aerial count this year by the Kenya Wildlife Service recorded 2,493 elephants in the Maasai Mara, compared with 1,448 recorded in 2014. The 72 percent increase has been attributed to stiffer penalties on poaching and an increase in rangers and equipment.

Photographer: T.S. Elliott/Getty Images

Predators
Predators

The cast of predators in the story of the great migration includes lions, leopards, and cheetahs. The abundant source of meat means the lion population sits at about 3,000, making the Serengeti one of the best places in Africa to see big cats in action or (more likely) slumbering, considering lions spend up to 20 hours a day sleeping—especially after a feeding.

Photographer: Federico Veronesi/ NIS/ Minden Pictures/Getty Images/Minden Pictures RM