It’s not often that we get to tell our story to humans, but we’re going to let you in on some secrets about who we are and where you’re most likely to find us if you’re planning a Great Migration safari.
We’re most famous for our migration from the Serengeti in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara in Kenya. Each year, we travel over 1 600 kilometres on this incredible journey that really never ends. We move from north to south, east to west looking for our favourite food (which is grass), as well as water and minerals that we need to stay healthy, especially when we have our young.
Some clever scientists have tried to understand us based on historical behavioural patterns that are handed down from wildebeest to wildebeest, but we often like to change things up a bit and arrive at our next destination a few weeks or months later (or earlier) than humans expect. We like to blame the rains, but we really just like to keep you humans guessing. Otherwise, what’s the fun in it for us?
First of all, what are we?
You may need to use a bit of imagination, but this is how humans describe us:
- We are antelopes and belong to the bovidae family, the same family as cows and goats.
- Roughly one million years ago, we split into two families; the blue wildebeest (we like northern and eastern Africa) and the black wildebeest (we prefer southern Africa)
- We stand at around 1,2 metres high at the shoulder and can weigh up to 250 kilograms.
- We have large heads with long faces that look almost like a cow’s, with widely spaced eyes so that we can see predators that try to attack us from the sides (you may have to use a bit of imagination here)
- We are evenly built in front, with a more slender hindquarter. We have skinny legs in comparison to our size and build. Some humans think that we look odd, but our legs are incredibly strong and we can run up to 80 kph
- Although we exhibit sexual dimorphism (where our males are bigger than our females), both sexes have horns that can measure up to one metre from head to tip in order to protect us from predators
- We love to feed on short, fresh grass, which is why we follow the rainfall seeking lush grass pastures
- For those who are interested, our scientific name is Connochaetes
- In groups we are referred to as an implausibility of wildebeest (how rude!) or a confusion of wildebeest (the audacity!)
We may be found all over Africa, but only about one and a half million of us take part in the Great Migration. Travelling with us are about 200 000 zebra (a group of zebra is called a dazzle; what’s so special about them?) and the sheer number of us moving around is part of the reason why we’re so famous.
We don’t follow the same concept of time as humans, but we can try to help you understand where we will most likely be throughout your human year.
January, February, March
In January, we’re spread out over the southern plains of the Serengeti, namely the Ndutu area and the Ngorongoro Conservation area. Now, the Ngorongoro Conservation area is not to be confused with the Ngorongoro Crater. I have a few distant cousins who live in the crater and they do not take part in the migration. During this time, all the cows are busy calving and what a spectacle it is. We have to be so careful with the little ones (about 500 000 of them) because there are so many predators waiting to snatch a snack.
Throughout these months, we’re feeding on the lush grasses and the minerals that we get from the fertile soils. Some cows are still giving birth, but the majority of our babies are growing up nicely as we get ready for the long journey ahead. With so many mouths to feed, the grasses are being grazed to the ground, and everybody is getting anxious to move on. Are those rain clouds in the distance?
April and May
As April approaches, it starts raining more heavily and most of the herds are starting the long trek north. We are all pretty much spread out, but can you Imagine millions of us, all moving in the same direction? Are those the Moru Kopjes around us? Central Serengeti, here we come!
Things can get a bit confusing, especially in May, when the mating season begins. All the bulls need to look good for the cows, and we attract our future mates with a loud grunt. Humans say that it sounds like ‘gnu’, ‘gnu’ which is where we got our other name. In our language, this grunt means “Pick me!”.
June and July
We’ve finally reached the area that the human’s call the ‘Western Corridor’ and it is here that we prepare to cross our first obstacle; the Grumeti river. Who decided to put crocodiles in rivers? It simply isn’t fair! We lost some of our fellow wildebeest in the crossing, but as my mother always said, “This is the Serengeti and you have to accept the circle of life.”
There is plenty of fresh green grass in the Grumeti Reserve, but there’s no time to stop, we have an even bigger river to cross; the Mara river. Somehow, the crocodiles always seem bigger and hungrier in that river.
It’s August and we’re about to cross the Mara River. All that pushing and shoving, no wonder the humans think it’s so disorganised. What they don’t know is that we follow a swarming instinct, similar to bees so this is natural to us. Did you see the size of that crocodile? I’m sure he’s the same crocodile that ate my friend George last year. He was a zebra I did the migration with. Poor George, he thought that it was a log in the river and what a fright he got. George wasn’t the cleverest zebra around.
September, October and November
After the harrowing Mara crossing, we’ve finally started crossing the Kenyan border into the Masai Mara reserve. The grass up here is so good and there is so much of it. There’s plenty of drinking water too, what more could a wildebeest want?
Life carries on through October. Some of us are still in the northern Serengeti and some of us are in the Masai Mara. We can’t stay here too long, the November rains are coming and we’ll have to cross the Mara river again once the short rains arrive. The grass is getting thinner as more of our friends start joining us.
Now that it’s December again, the rain has stopped falling and the grass is becoming green. It’s about time too; I was getting a bit worried. Our cows are getting ready to give birth so we know it’s time to move back to the southern Serengeti. I can see the predators begin licking their lips; they seem to know that the new calves will arrive in about a week or two.