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Safari guide Henrik Hult.
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Safari Patrol:
Seeing the migration
January 2010
Vast herds of more than a million wildebeest and a few hundred thousand zebras live on the savannas on the border between Tanzania and Kenya. These herds move seasonally from pastureland to pastureland, and their migratory habits have given them the name "the great migration" or just "the migration".

More about the migration

Most of us have seen the migration on television – herds of migrating wildebeest or zebras crossing rivers, where hungry crocodiles are waiting. But you can also see it live on a safari in Kenya or Tanzania. It's a good show. So travel companies of course use the migration as an attraction when marketing their safari tours.

Now, if you decide to go there, will you see the migration?

Where to go
First, you won't see the migration unless you go to the area that these huge herds normally occupy. You have to go to Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya or Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. There's no point going elsewhere, as the migration never goes there.

When to go – thumb rule
The herds migrate not only between pastures, but also between the two parks named above. To see the migration, you have to visit one of them at the appropriate time of year. The thumb rule is:
Go to A) Masai Mara in Kenya from August to October, or B) Serengeti in Tanzania from December to June.

Professional safari guide Henrik Hult in Serengeti, Tanzania.
Safari guide Henrik Hult
on the migration
Impact of rainfall
Now remember, that's a thumb rule, and it's not that simple in practice. The herds migrate to find good grazing and fresh water, not because the calendar tells them to. What really controls where the migration goes, and when, is the local rainfall, which makes fresh grass grow and fills water holes and seasonal rivers.

The Masai Mara and Serengeti region has two rainy seasons and two dry seasons every year. This means a fairly regular annual rainfall pattern, which results in a fairly regular migration pattern. This makes the thumb rule above possible. But it's not an absolute rule. The onset and duration of the rainy seasons and the amounts of rain aren't consistent from one year to another, and the local weather may vary, just like it does in other parts of the world, bringing more or less rain than usual during a particular season. Such variations may change the migratory paths of the migration, and makes it hard to predict the whereabouts of the migration in advance.

Recent deviations from the thumb rule
If you want to book your safari at least a couple of months before going, there won't be any 100% reliable information available telling you where to go to see the migration. So you have to rely on the thumb rule, and accept that you may not see the migration, should it deviate from its normal pattern.

It has done so a number of times during the 2000's, including the two last fall seasons. In 2008, the herds left Masai Mara in Kenya very early and had reached central Serengeti in Tanzania already in the middle of October. In 2009, good herds were still in the Serengeti region during September and October. Other herds didn't fail to reach Masai Mara, but the total number of animals getting there wasn't as good as during a normal thumb rule year.

This has been typical for the 2000's – when the migration has deviated from the thumb rule, it has done so by arriving late to Masai Mara, by leaving Masai Mara early, or by getting to Masai Mara in reduced numbers. When this has happened, the high season in Masai Mara hasn't been as good, in terms of animal numbers, as it should, while Serengeti has had a prolonged high season.

Serengeti is a safer bet
The opposite hasn't happened during these years, i.e. Serengeti hasn't lost any of its migration seasons to Masai Mara. Judging from this, booking a tour to Serengeti according to the thumb rule should be a safer bet than a tour to Masai Mara, as the presence of the migration is less predictable in the latter park.

Serengeti also has a longer normal migration season than Masai Mara, making it the park where the migration spends most of its time. Serengeti's disadvantage is its size – it's much larger than Masai Mara, and huge parts of it have no or few roads and can't be accessed. If the migration goes there, you can't see it because you can't go there.

Making sure you see the migration
If seeing the migration during your safari is a very high priority to you, you can't book your tour well in advance. Instead, you should be prepared to travel to Masai Mara at any time during August to October, or to Serengeti at any time during December to March. Keep yourself updated (on the web or by communicating with local tour operators) on the whereabouts of the migration, and go as soon as the migration has reached and established itself in the park.

For most safari-goers, though, seeing the migration or not doesn't make the safari a good or a bad one. The migration is a very nice bonus to seeing all the other animals, which is, however, the true main experience of an East African safari.

Zebra migration in Serengeti, Tanzania.
 
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Page updated 3 January 2010