Zebras are the new record holder for longest land migration, endpoint to endpoint. ©Eric Rock

Africa’s Great Migration has long been a symbol of the continent’s abundant wildlife. The Serengeti Plains fill with millions of wildebeests and other animals, all traveling from the Ngorongoro region in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara in Kenya in search of food and water as the seasons change.

Although the term “Great Migration” is thus inextricably linked in our minds with wildebeests, the results of a new WWF study may start to change our thinking. A report published online last week in the Cambridge University Press journal Oryx finds that there is a new, longest-land-migration-from-endpoint-to-endpoint record holder: the Burchell’s zebra (Equus quagga).

A few thousand of these zebras cover more than 300 miles in a straight-line, to-there-and-back journey across Namibia and Botswana. According to Robin Naidoo, the study’s lead author and a WWF senior conservation scientist, this is the longest, big-mammal migration ever documented in Africa.

Witnessing the Great Migration tops nearly every list of desired safari experiences. ©Patrick Endres

Traveling with a sense of purpose          

To record the zebras’ movements, Naidoo and colleagues from WWF, Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Elephants Without Borders and Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks outfitted eight adult zebras with GPS collars.

“We had put collars on these zebras because anecdotal information indicated they had been showing up in the Salambala Conservancy [in Namibia] at the beginning of the dry season and leaving at the beginning of the wet season,” Naidoo explained to me in an e-mail last week. “But it wasn’t clear where they were moving to and from, so we wanted to determine that.”

What the researchers found is that the zebras were traveling a route that runs along a north-south axis between the floodplains of the Chobe River (which forms the border between Namibia and Botswana)—specifically the Salambala Conservancy—and the grasslands of Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana. In the dry season, the Chobe River provides a reliable source of drinking water. When the rains start in December, however, temporary waterholes fill up. The zebras are then able to move away from the permanent water source at Chobe and exploit fresh grazing areas, such as the nutritious grasses at Nxai Pan National Park.

Larger than Austria and Germany combined and nearly twice as large as the United Kingdom, the KAZA lies in the Kavango and Zambezi River Basins where Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge. These impalas in the KAZA can migrate freely across borders. ©Boundless Southern Africa, flickr

WWF’s Naidoo is quick to point out, however, that in terms of actual hooves touching ground, the Serengeti migration remains longer; estimates are as high as 1,200 miles. The wildebeest cover more miles because they don’t move as directly, meandering in an almost circular fashion. The zebras’ migration is longer in the sense that the distance between the two endpoint destinations is greater. Also, many more animals are making the migration in the Serengeti as compared to the one just documented.

“We were certainly shocked—as was everyone familiar with wildlife conservation in the region—to find that the zebras were moving this far,” Naidoo said. “No one expected that.”

Cooperating with migration in mind

Around the world, there has been a decline in migratory species, due to fencing, habitat destruction and lack of adequate corridors. This new finding underscores the importance of learning more about migrations and the animals that undertake them.

The KAZA is home to almost half of Africa’s elephants, as well as an array of other animals, such as African buffalo, African wild dogs, cheetahs, crocodiles, hippos, lions, rhinos and zebras. They are fortunate to live in such a large conservation area. ©Eric Rock

Luckily for the zebras, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe signed a treaty in 2011 to create the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). At 109 million acres, it is the world’s largest conservation region. The treaty allows wildlife to migrate freely across borders and commits its signatories to transnational wildlife management and cooperation—particularly important as climate change causes habitats to shift. In return, all five nations benefit from a region with plentiful wildlife that will provide tourism opportunities.

“Our study provides a scientific rationale for the need for protected area complexes the size of KAZA,” Naidoo said in his e-mail. “The zebra migration is fully contained within the boundaries of KAZA, starting roughly at its center and going down almost to its southern edge. Our data on these zebra movements show that KAZA is a very appropriate size in relation to the scale of movements of such species as zebras, elephants and buffalo. If wildlife is going to be the fundamental plank upon which conservation efforts—that are also designed to improve human livelihoods—are based, the space needs of wildlife are obviously critical to conserve. KAZA has the potential to demonstrate how thinking about large-scale wildlife conservation can benefit not only nature and biodiversity, but people as well.”

What’s especially exciting about the results of this new report is that it reminds us that we still have a lot to learn about the natural world. “We can’t rule out that there may be other migrations out there that are longer but haven’t yet been documented,” Naidoo said. “It goes to show there are still things about nature that we don’t fully understand, even in this day and age.”    

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,