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01 July 2017

An introduction to the Great Migration’s Calving Season

Day one, and a wildebeest is welcomed into the world amongst the short grass plains of Tanzania’s southern Serengeti and northern Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Within a matter of minutes the calf is ready to run, heading off into the Serengeti with its mother watching its every move. Over the next few weeks, that calf is raised upon its mothers milk whilst its mother grazes on some of the most nutrient rich grasses in the whole of Africa. The time is between December and April, the peak of the Serengeti Great Wildebeest Migration’s calving season. This is a major highlight in the migrations calendar; and a major attraction for travellers at this time of year. Approximately 400/500,000 wildebeest are born in a matter of weeks, cleverly timed to overload the predator concentrations, which are reputedly the highest concentration anywhere in Africa, at any time of year.

Where is the Great Migration located, and why?

At this time, due to the onset of Tanzania’s short rains in November and December (that can often be heavier than the long rains of April and May) the Migration is spread out across the entirety of the Serengeti’s southern short grass plains and north/north west sections of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. For the next few months – officially Tanzania’s wet season - the herds will be spread out Kusini in the southwest of the Serengeti through the Moru Kopjes, the Ndutu Plains (actually in the northern section of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area) and as far east as the Gol Mountains and Salei Plains to the north of the Ngorongoro Crater itself. Herds will also be found as far south as Kakesio, a stunning area on the northern border of Lake Eyasi and the Rift Valley itself. It is a vast area with the herds moving around the region based on localised rainfall.

Much of this area is officially ‘arid savannah’ (especially the east where there are even Oryx found). Rain is unpredictable here but due to the volcanic soil that carpets this specific region, it is a region that is home to the most nutritious grasses in the entire Serengeti eco-system. With good rain the entire area can transform into a seemingly endless pasture of lush, nutritious grass that’s grown in fertile, volcanic soil…providing the perfect combination of minerals for wildebeest and especially their young.

Rich in minerals such as phosphorous, magnesium and sodium (good for muscle growth and young bones), the herds would stay in these short grass plains forever if they had the choice. However, the start of the dry season kicks in and this arid savannah slowly turns into a dust bowl at the peak of the dry season, leaving the herds with no choice but to move on. Only the desert ‘adapted’ survive here for the rest of the year.

The peak of this calving season usually occurs in January and February, but you will see new-born in December and also March. There are irregularities - 20% of the new born wildebeest are born outside of this traditional calving period.

Their +/- 600 kilometre round trek takes the best part of the year, but the herds leave the short grass plains as late as possible, and return as soon as they can. April and May usually sees them leave, whilst December sees their return. One satellite tagged wildebeest turned his 600 kilometre round trip into a 2,400km long adventure…imagine doing that in the first few months of your life!

The movement of the Great Migration is different every year!

If the southern Serengeti is parched of rain (which is certainly possible in the far East around Gol and down towards Ndutu due to the rain shadow of the Ngorongoro Highlands) then the herds retreat towards the centre of the Serengeti, where the soil changes and rain is more reliable. To minimise the risk of this unpredictable movement a ‘perfect safari’ would include two areas inside the southern Serengeti and NCA. The woodland of the Maswa Game Reserve to the south west can also be their wet season refuge if the short grass plains dry out.

However one thing remains constant; the sheer quality of game. Packed with predators and scavengers the short grass plains can be absolutely outstanding. This is an area that is widely regarded as the finest game viewing region on the entire continent, and calving only adds to the scene. There is no better place in Africa, at any time of year, to see such an amount of game.

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