The Greatest Show on Earth

Only in the last half a century have the great herds of migrating wildebeest spilled across the Mara River and into Kenya. Strange-looking and ungainly, and yet it is these gnu that offer one of the greatest spectacles on Earth each year, and that would create a memory I will cherish for a lifetime.

At the first light of dawn in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, safari trucks speed off into the sunrise in hopes of a close encounter with one of Africa’s glamorous cats.

The early morning is the best time to catch a glimpse of the beautiful and elusive animals before they seek shelter from the midday heat. Yet while lions, leopards and cheetahs are thrilling to see in the wild—offering some of the sexiest photographic memories—it is the strange-looking and ungainly wildebeest, however, that offers one of the greatest natural spectacles on earth.

The wildebeest—or gnu (pronounced g-noo or new)—is a bovid antelope belonging to the family of even-toed horned ungulates that includes cattle and goats. With its shaggy mane, long thin face, pointed beard and spindly legs, the wildebeest is immediately recognizable on the Serengeti plains. It is also quite possibly the single most important species in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

From their historic breeding grounds in Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area to their long grazing layover in the Mara, each year an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelle, make a 500-mile migratory circle in search of food. They are constantly on the move, devouring thousands of acres of grassland before continuing on to greener pastures.

While they do have distinctive family groupings within the herds, wildebeest travel as a giant swarm. Over the course of the migration, they experience the full cycle of life as they run a gauntlet of never-ending dangers. During a six-week period in February and March, nearly a half-million calves are born.

Remarkably, nearly 80 percent are born during the same two weeks. Within minutes, a newborn calf can stand and then run with the herd. Drawn by thunder or the smell of distant rains, huge numbers soon spread out over Tanzania’s southwest plains, enjoying nutrient-rich grass and abundant water.

In late May to early June, wildebeest begin their rut, as males battle over females. By July, the migration begins its turn northeast for the Maasai Mara, where they will graze until October before returning south to their breeding grounds in Tanzania—with pregnant females leading the way.

By the time we arrived in the Massai Mara after first spending a few days at the Samburu Game Reserve and Lake Nakuru, it was mid-October. The feasting was nearly over, and rains were threatening on the horizon.

Thousands of animals had already started their migration south, and the rest were forming into single-file lines stretching for miles across the border into Tanzania. All over the Mara these lines were converging around corners and over hills. We encountered huge pockets of wildebeest apparently reluctant to leave—only the last few stragglers remained north of the Mara River.

I have made several trips to the Maasai Mara, but this was the first time I have seen the great herds on their annual journey.

It is actually a relatively new phenomenon to witness the migration in the Massai Mara at all. In fact, it has only been in my lifetime that the migration has spilled across the Mara River and into Kenya. Disease, human investment and shifting rain patterns in the Serengeti- Mara ecosystem have combined over the last 40 years to change the equation for the great herds on the grasslands of East Africa.

During the first half of the 20th century, the wildebeest population was devastated by rinderpest—a highly contagious virus that is thought to have been introduced to East Africa by domestic cattle.

In the 1950s, a broad-scale program was initiated to eradicate the virus, and in 1962, the last case of rinderpest was found in wildebeest. From a population of 250,000 in 1961, the number of wildebeest swelled to nearly 1.5 million by 1978, and has remained stable ever since.

The other contributing factor to the adjusted migration route and rapid population growth was a significant change in rainfall patterns that brought increased precipitation to the northern Serengeti-Mara region during the dry season. With a healthy population and increased supply of reliable food just to the north, the wildebeest would thrive for decades and affect the lives of countless other animals.

At a time when human population growth threatened animal habitats all over the world, the wildebeest extended its range and helped to sustain the big cats of East Africa.

Following lunch and a brief siesta, we boarded our safari truck for an afternoon game drive. In a routine that had developed after days on safari together, we found our respective positions in the truck, readied our cameras, and started peppering our Kikuyu guide, Peter Muigai Muruthi, with dozens of questions about what we were seeing through the dusty windows of our Land Cruiser.

Thirty minutes out, we slowly pulled into a clearing along the Mara River where Muigai (as he prefers to be called) shut off the rumbling diesel engine, revealing the soundtrack of East Africa we had come to appreciate. The afternoon wind on the grasses, the distant songs of exotic birds, the rush of the nearby river, and the increasingly familiar grunts, growls and snorts of the world’s greatest animal sanctuary had become an enjoyable and familiar part of our safari experience.

At first glance, it was quiet along the river. We spotted a group of four zebra walking towards the water as we positioned our bean bags on the rim of the roof hatch to support our long camera lenses.

Along both sides of the river, several other safari trucks were now beginning to gather. Suddenly, it felt like something was about to happen…and soon. Previously hidden among the rocks and trees above the zebra, hundreds of wildebeest emerged and nervously assembled along the steep bank.

As our excitement grew, a few more zebra joined the others carefully sipping water at the riverbank. Skittish by nature, zebra will often take a quick drink of water before jumping back from some unseen danger, repeating the process until they have had their fill. But when Muigai broke the silence in his commanding baritone voice with the single word—“crocodile!”—it was clear that these zebra had something to fear.

Coming around the corner of a small peninsula, we could see a long wake moving quickly through the water. We barely had time to focus our cameras when the massive 18-foot crocodile sprang from the river at the unsuspecting zebra.

They jumped with incredible agility and scampered away unharmed. Adrenaline rushed through us as we checked our cameras to see if we had captured the moment—it happened so fast.

Then as we began to relax and catch our breath, a single wildebeest entered the water. Cries of “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!” came from the front of our truck as the anticipation of what might happen gripped us. The croc was slow to react. As the wildebeest exited the river safely on the other side, two others began their crossing.

A nearby pod of hippopotamuses started grunting loudly in a chilling chorus of understanding—they knew what was coming next. 

Seconds later, 10 more wildebeest, then 20, then hundreds, jumped into the water in a disorderly mass. Through the dust and chaos, we lost sight of the crocodile. For a few brief minutes, the river was overwhelmed with fearless beasts frantically swimming to safety—and then…it was over. The heart-pounding drama gave way to an orderly walk towards the rest of the migrating herd.

We stood speechless for several minutes as the dust settled and quiet returned to the Mara, and we noticed the zebra were still on the far side of the river.

Their simple quest for water had erupted suddenly into a brief but wild frenzy. After the dust had settled, we thanked Muigai for putting us in the right place at the right time to experience one of the most dramatic scenes in the greatest show on earth. He responded with a characteristically humble “You’re welcome,” fired up the engine and led us away from the river in search of Africa’s glamorous cats.

We did soon encounter a resting cheetah that posed patiently for us in the fading afternoon sun; but on this trip, it was the strange-looking and ungainly gnu that created the memory we will cherish for a lifetime.

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