What is the sound of nearly two million wildebeest and zebra moving across the plains of Tanzania’s Serengeti and Kenya’s Maasai Mara? Cliched as it sounds, it’s nearly indescribable. Sublime, really. We’ve witnessed this massive migration firsthand and have felt it more than we’ve heard it. Pounding hooves create a pulse for the planet as the creatures move in a steady current across Africa’s Great Plains.
Nature’s greatest show offers action, drama and intrigue as the circle of life is unveiled before you. The dance between predator and prey unfolds, as lion and cheetah stalk the herds in their wake and take down the weakest members of the herds. For those whose bucket list includes this ancient land migration, Nat Hab’s immersive migration trips in East Africa place you right in the midst of the action, our Land Cruisers acting as a tiny island in a wave of wildlife.
Why do these animals migrate? What exactly is the Great Migration? And are there other must-see migrations elsewhere on Earth? (Short answer: yes!) Today we’ll dive deeper into the call of the wild Africa, as well as learn about Africa’s “Garden of Eden,” the famed Ngorongoro Crater. And we’ll tell you where else you can go to see mighty migrations, from Monarch butterflies to polar bears.
Why Do Animals Migrate?
Animals move with the seasons from one habitat to another for food, better living conditions and/or for mating. As opposed to emigration, during which animals move to a new, permanent location, migration requires a return trip home. Of all the factors that drive migration, food may be the most motivating. In the case of Tanzania’s wildebeest and zebra, this means fresh grasses and water that are difficult to find during the dry season. The zebras munch on the long grasses, while the wildebeest dine on the fresh shoots left behind.
Climate conditions and seasons drive migration for many animals, including monarch butterflies, which make their journey from Canada all the way to Mexico to keep warm over the winter. The return journey takes place over four generations, during which the butterflies lay eggs on milkweed plants. The caterpillars that eat the milkweed transform into the butterflies that finish the trip. Their only guidance? The sun and the Earth’s magnetic field.
Whether it’s to find a mate, raise their young or spawn, reproductive reasons also factor into animal migration. In the case of salmon, they start out in rivers and migrate to the sea to feed and to grow. They’ll spend up to seven years in the ocean before migrating back to the rivers in which they were born to spawn.
So why don’t the animals get lost? Between changes in day length, chemical cues, temperature, the sun, the stars and even landmarks on the ground, the animals miraculously find their way every year, despite oftentimes passing through dangerous conditions. It’s a cycle that began long before we were here and will, hopefully, continue long after we’re gone.
What Is the Great Migration in Africa?
Certainly one of the best-known examples of animal movement, the Great Migration in Africa occurs each year as enormous herds of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles and other antelope species migrate on a loop path through Tanzania and Kenya. They follow seasonal rains straight through perilous territory, across the Serengeti, into Kenya’s Maasai Mara (with its predatory lions, leopards, cheetahs and hyenas close behind), and then back again.
Nat Hab migration trips are adjusted seasonally to ensure that we are as close as possible to the herds, allowing us to better witness Africa’s most spectacular wildlife phenomenon. Between December and March, the herds will congregate in the Ngorongoro Crater in the southern corner of the Serengeti, as well as the Ndutu and Salei plains. By May, they’ve moved onto the grassy plains of the Serengeti’s Western Corridor. In June and July, they’re attempting the dangerous Grumeti River crossing, where hungry crocodiles await the weakest of the bunch. From August to October, the animals are moving from Tanzania into Kenya’s Maasai Mara, crossing the second treacherous river, the Mara. Finally, until December, the herds are found throughout the Serengeti in Tanzania, starting up in the northeastern corner and making their way to the southern portion and back home to give birth.
Why Should I Visit Ngorongoro Crater?
The Ngorongoro Crater is a must for any wildlife enthusiast. This 100-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site is the world’s largest unbroken caldera and home to approximately 30,000 to 40,000 birds and animals. The caldera was formed around three million years ago when a massive Rift Valley volcano erupted and collapsed.
Today, the permanent lake, open savanna and mature woodland—all surrounded by steep, densely forested walls—offers some of the most fertile and richest grazing grounds in Africa and supports the highest density of big game in Africa. Great herds of wildebeest can be found here early in the year, giving birth to their calves along the lower northern slopes of the Ngorongoro Crater Highlands and around Olduvai Gorge. Within the nearly 16-mile-wide volcanic bowl, you can expect to see zebra, massive bull elephants, Africa’s highest concentration of lions, endangered black rhino and elusive leopards. As the land dries out, the wildebeest and zebra gear up for the migration ahead.
More Mighty Migrations
While Africa’s Great Migration may very well be the “Greatest Show on Earth,” impressive migratory behaviors exist throughout the animal kingdom, and around the globe. Many of our Nat Hab adventures feature these important events, including the caribou of Alaska and the gray whales in Baja.
See Monarchs in Mexico
Bear witness to the massive monarch migration, a congregation of some of the world’s most delicate creatures. Each year, monarch butterflies make their way 3,000 miles down from cold, northeastern regions of the United States and Canada to Mexico’s Central Highlands to roost and breed. The actual wintering grounds weren’t discovered until 1977, and we still don’t know how an infant generation of butterflies finds it anew each year. What we do know is that the site is extraordinary. What at first looks like trees covered with rusty autumn leaves reveals itself to be millions of monarchs clustered together while fluttering their parchment-thin wings. The ethereal sight inspired the Aztec belief that the souls of the dead are reborn as monarchs.
Commune With Caribou
The caribou migration is the longest land migration on the planet. Arctic terns hold that record in the air, while humpback whales hold it in the sea, but these long-legged creatures can’t be beat on land. They migrate 2,000 miles each year between their winter and summer grounds. The migratory caribou we witness on Nat Hab trips live in the arctic tundra, boreal forests and mountains of Alaska and Canada. Not all caribou subspecies are migratory, but the ones that are migrate based on food availability and the presence of predators. In the spring and summer, when calving, lactating, molting and developing antlers, caribou need abundant food sources. Furthermore, the calves are extremely vulnerable to the grizzly bears, wolves and even golden eagles that share their wintering grounds, inspiring the caribou herds to move farther north in large groups.
Buddy Up to Belugas and Bears
Your breath catches when you first see a massive polar bear emerging from the barren landscape surrounding Hudson Bay. The planet’s largest land carnivores spend the summer here, waiting for the bay to freeze in the winter, allowing them to hunt for ringed seals from the ice. Between July and November, about a thousand polar bears make the journey to Churchill, known as the “polar capital of the world” for good reason.
They’re joined by migrating beluga whales, who also come to town every summer. These charming cetaceans winter in the high Arctic, then journey to Churchill where, when they’ve all arrived, they outnumber the town’s population three to one. Our immersive beluga tours are timed during a Churchill summer to take advantage of this prolific wildlife, both on land and in the sea.
Wave to the Whale Sharks
The world’s largest fish migrates thousands of miles to the warmer waters of neighboring countries to breed during the winter months – particularly to Mexico’s Quintana Roo waters on the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula. According to National Geographic, “The largest-ever study of whale shark migrations, nine years in the making, shows that the hundreds of school bus-sized animals that feed in a plankton-saturated stretch off the Mexican coast come from far and wide.” More than 800 of the enormous fish gather here between May and September, far more than make their way to feeding locations in western Australia, Indonesia and Belize.
Our whale shark adventures in Mexico deliver you right to the side of these gentle filter-feeders, where you can see the checkerboard pattern of pale dots and stripes covering their thick gray skin and watch them swim with their mouths open to catch plankton.
Pal Around With Penguins
The largest of the world’s penguin species, the emperor penguin is particularly known for its migratory patterns. Each March, the penguins travel up to 100 miles to reach their nesting grounds. Colonies of penguins arriving at the same time claim their ground, providing a place for each female to lay an egg and for males to guard the eggs for the next four months. After laying their eggs, the females make the journey back to the sea for food. They return to regurgitate food for the chicks, then return once again to the sea to feed themselves. The males leave their egg-sitting duties around this same time, leaving the chicks alone until Dad returns. Nourished and refueled, the males return and find their chicks by listening for their distinctive call. Now, both Mom and Dad take turns feeding the checks and returning to the sea for food—a cycle that continues for about nine months. Once the chicks have matured, they’ll return to the sea with their parents to learn to swim and catch their own food.
These amazing mass migrations, made over vast distances and in large numbers, are astonishing to humans. To the animals, from crustaceans to insects, reptiles to mammals, these behaviors ensure their species’ survival. Here at Natural Habitat Adventures, we deliver you to the sidelines of these live nature shows, with an eye toward conserving through exploring. It’s our goal to not only witness nature and wildlife, but to protect it, too.