The Last of the Great Herds on the Move
By “Awake!” correspondent in Kenya
THRILLING! Awe-inspiring! One of the greatest spectacles on earth! Tens of thousands of animals on the move across vast stretches of African plains! The annual migration of great herds of wildebeests, zebras, gazelles and other animals certainly is a phenomenon to behold!
A brief safari to Kenya’s Masai Mara Game Reserve, on the very edge of the famous Serengeti Plains, afforded us an opportunity to witness what may be a passing scene.
The Masai Mara Game Reserve, located in the southwestern corner of Kenya, is a huge, unspoiled landscape of rolling hills, acacia trees and green grass savannah. Within the reserve’s roughly 700 square miles (1,800 square kilometers) are said to be some 95 different species of mammals and over 450 species of birds. We will see, not only a host of smaller animals, but also the big five of African game animals—elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and cape buffaloes. Around the Mara River is a sizable hippo population, as well as a number of crocodiles. It is noteworthy that the Masai graze their cattle right alongside the plains game, taking their chances with the Mara’s large lion population.
Since our safari is to be a brief one, we want to take advantage of every daylight hour. Leaving Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, at 4 a.m., we set out on the 170-mile (274-kilometer) journey to the reserve. By the time we reach Narok and the end of the paved road, we are deep in Masai country. As the light of day slowly begins rolling back the darkness and a beautiful sunrise unfolds, we observe that the vast plains are teeming with wildlife.
We are still more than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the entrance to the reserve, but already great herds of ruminant plains animals are visible. Off to the right we see a sizable herd of Thomson’s gazelles. These happy, gregarious little creatures easily win many a tourist’s heart—and ours too. Light reddish brown in color, with a broad black band separating the white belly region, a “Tommy,” as it is affectionately known, is constantly wagging its tail. No, the tail does not wag from side to side like that of a dog, but round and round, in a complete circle. Someone once said that he thought a “Tommy” wags its tail incessantly because it is so happy. Whether this is true or not, a “Tommy” certainly is an amusing little creature.
Just ahead is probably the most graceful of all the plains animals, the impala. It is a sleek, reddish-brown creature with enormous limpid brown eyes. The male possesses large lyrate horns. This animal is the very picture of elegance, whether standing motionless atop an anthill or bounding off on the run in some prodigious and fluid leaps. The leaps seem to add to its defensive capabilities in the light bush country, which is the impala’s natural habitat. We easily understand why the big cats or other predators have difficulty bringing down a prey that virtually takes to the air in flight, leaping from the clutches of the adversary. Though the nimble impalas are not performing especially for us, we are thrilled by their leaps. Why, some of them seem higher than our car! Others cover a distance the width of the road, perhaps 20 feet (6 meters) or more.
The plains are alive with wildlife! There are hartebeests, with their strangely shaped horns. Present, too, are topi, Grant’s gazelles, giraffes, waterbucks, buffaloes, warthogs and some small herds of wildebeest and zebras. Surely, with all these animals in sight, the king of beasts must be nearby. Already our journey has been well rewarded, but we rush on. Why? Because we anticipate seeing the migration spectacle itself—thousands of wildebeests and zebras on the move across the vast plains.
Our first glimpse of the phenomenon is from the veranda of the lodge. The rolling hills to the rear of the building should be a luscious green or golden brown, but today they are dark, almost black. They must be covered by a tremendous herd of wildebeests! A quick look through the binoculars confirms that conclusion. Why, there must be thousands of them! Quickly we get settled, make arrangements to pick up a ranger, and we are off on safari.
Wildebeests and zebras are everywhere! It is as if we are driving through a sea of animals. And they—especially the wildebeests—are on the move, slowly, almost in single file, seemingly following a leader. Onward they go. Nothing seems to deter them. Over plains, through valleys, across ditches and streams they keep on moving. At times like these, the animals can be oblivious to what happens around them. The tragedy of having one snared by a predator seems to go unnoticed. Pushing, shoving, trampling—yes, some are crushed along the way as the great herd just keeps going forward. When drinking at a river, as many as three can be on top of one another. The result? Many deaths.
Driving a bit closer, we can hear the distinctive sonorous bleating grunts. What a strange sound! Wildebeests are very noisy animals, and their incessant lowing—with so many voices together—produces a mighty discordant roar across the plains.
The wildebeest, or gnu, most numerous of the larger animals of East Africa, is a strange-looking creature. Unmistakably an antelope, it is closely related to the hartebeest. The gnu’s oxlike front portion, with massive shoulders and the horselike black mane and tail, along with a beard under the neck, tends to disassociate it from the other, more graceful, antelopes. There are two kinds of wildebeests and the variety that inhabits the plains of Kenya and Tanzania is the brindled gnu or blue wildebeest. It is dark gray, crossed by darker bands on the foreparts, thus having the “brindled” appearance. Anywhere from four to four and a half feet (1.2 to 1.4 meters) high at the shoulders, the large males can reach a weight of 600 pounds (270 kilograms). The male is a powerful, robust, courageous creature and, in defense, it can repel the attack of a lion.
Wildebeests are very gregarious and are seen mostly in large herds, although it is not unusual to see a lone male living a solitary life. These animals are rather curious about what is happening around them. When disturbed, they dash off a short distance and then wheel around to see what has frightened them. In flight, they toss their heads from side to side, prancing about and throwing up their heels in a wild, erratic manner. To the human onlooker, this performance is sometimes a bit ludicrous.
Due to the spread of civilization, annual wildebeest migrations probably are not on the same scale as they were in years gone by. Nevertheless, they still provide an unparalleled sight. Reportedly, on one occasion there was a buildup in a herd for three days, until the animals covered an area some four by eight miles (6 by 13 kilometers)! According to one onlooker, grass that was three feet (one meter) high was then eaten down to four inches (10 centimeters) in just two days!
The annual trek of the wildebeest may cover several hundred miles in one direction from the southern Serengeti Plains in Tanzania northward into Kenya’s Masai Mara. Generally, from July to September, these animals can be seen on the Mara Plains, walking and running, often in single file. Normal everyday affairs, such as calving, continue throughout the migratory trek.
Why do these animals migrate? Apparently, in search of food, although wildebeests have been known to leave areas of good grass and to enter those of poorer grass quality. The authors of the book Serengeti Shall Not Die carried out extensive research on the basic kinds of grass found in the Serengeti Plains. Their findings, along with those of others, seem to indicate that wildebeests prefer a type of grass with protein content equal to average hay. When these grasses are sprouting, the animals wander along, grazing in a somewhat circular route. And, when the cropped grass has again grown several inches, they return and graze it once more. Some researchers feel that, besides this, there is some kind of inherent instinctive urge that keeps these animals on the move. Others say that wildebeests do not feel safe in the high grass due to the danger of preying lions and so keep on the move in search of shorter grass. Whatever is responsible for their migration, it is a spectacle worth seeing.
What Does the Future Hold?
Daily, the demands of civilization and the destructive acts of some selfish men endanger, not only the wildebeest, but all the animals of the African plains. The near extinction of the American bison makes us wonder what may yet happen to the wildebeest. Ever-expanding human populations requiring more living space and farmland make it increasingly difficult for conscientious governments to preserve the environment needed by the marvelous creatures of the African plains. Despite growing pressures, however, some are making tremendous efforts to protect this living legacy coming from the Creator. Through the protective measures of game parks and reserves, the wildebeests and other African animals may be spared the extinction already suffered by far too many living creatures.
Our two-day safari has come to an end, but what an experience it has been! Tens of thousands of animals on the move is a sight to be remembered. For many years to come, we will recall this thrilling spectacle—the annual migration of the wildebeests, the last of the great herds.