The first thing I learned about the Great Migration, one of the world’s awe-inspiring natural phenomena, is that it is not, in fact, natural. Contrary to my romantic miscalculations, the Great Migration is not some primal tradition from the days before automobiles were used to track the animals’ movement. Even Ernest Hemingway, who wrote extensively about his safaris in Africa, wouldn’t have seen the Migration; it only dates back to the mid-twentieth century.
In the late 19th century, an epidemic nearly depleted the wildebeest population in the Serengeti. After veterinarians found an inoculation for the disease, the wildebeest population slowly rehabilitated. By the early 1960s, the population boomed, becoming too large for the Serengeti’s grasslands to sustain. Subsequently, the herds had to migrate to find reliable grazing lands. They began moving north, eating their way from the Serengeti, in Tanzania, to the Masai Mara, in Kenya, and back around to Serengeti. This created a circular grazing pattern now referred to as the Great Migration. Other herbivores, including zebras and Thompson gazelles, have followed suit.
For six months of the year, few herbivores can be spotted in the Masai Mara Reserve. To those on safari, this might not sound devastating; most people come to see the lions and the cheetahs, not the wildebeests, which are truly the ugliest creatures I’ve ever seen. But without much hunting during those months, predators have a rough time, and if you go to the Mara during the months without the prey, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Although we’d timed our trip to see the Great Migration in the Masai Mara, we almost missed it. In recent years, due to water scarcity and climate changes, the Migration has become less predictable. The Migration happened later this year, and it wasn’t until we were Mara-bound that we heard the good news– the Migration had begun.
The Migration happens in waves. First the zebras, eating the longer grasses, cross into the Mara, then the wildebeests, and finally the gazelles. By the time we arrived in the Masai Mara, the wildebeests were making their way across the reserve.
We heard the wildebeests before we saw them. They croaked like frogs, emitting ribbit-like groans that sounded lazy and sad. Our guide explained that, although each ribbit sounded equally discordant to me, no two wildebeest calls sounded the same. This was a useful tactic for mothers and children traveling together–a call from a lost child sounded distinct against similar cries.
When we finally saw the herds, the sight was indescribable. The number of wildebeests was simply overwhelming. As I sat there watching them, I tried to think of some word, some detail that could capture the magnitude of the sight before me. They were still ugly, there was no salvation for those beasts, and yet the sheer volume of them made them extraordinary and almost beautiful.
Although most zebras entered the Mara before the wildebeests, cashing in on the prime grass, other zebras preferred to stay behind. Wildebeests have an excellent sense of smell but poor eyesight. Conversely, zebras’ eyesight is strong, but their sense of smell is weak. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship, one of many that we saw in the bush.
Our guide told us to look closely at the adult zebras’ stomachs. The majority of them had swollen, lumpy stomachs that fell to the right. My mother, more familiar with pregnancy than I, observed that they were pregnant. Zebras gestate for an entire year, and the migratory period in the Mara lines up with the birthing season. Nearly all the female zebras were about to burst.
By the next day, the herd had advanced to the river crossing. At first, the herd’s movement seemed to be a contained chaos, like people pouring out of a building during a fire drill.
The wildebeests charged through the river rhythmically, continuously without stopping. Then, out of nowhere, one of the wildebeests stopped. The surrounding herd then stopped as well, and they began galloping back to where they’d already crossed. Mid-river, they encountered other wildebeests crossing from the other side, resulting in a gridlock. We watched as they ran back and forth across the river, with little ascertainable logic, but our guide explained that mothers often lost their children and would go back to search for them. The confusion and deliberation offered predators the perfect opportunity for lunch.
A kill was a common request among tourists, especially during the migration period when the prey vastly outnumbered the predators. When we arrived in Kenya, I expected, partially dreaded, seeing an animal devoured. I’d assumed that the moment a predator came into sight the prey were finished. But nature, it turned out, was much slower and fairer than I’d envisioned. Although speedy, predators such as lions, cheetahs, and leopards could only sprint short distances and were easily fatigued. Instead of chasing wildly into a pack of gazelles, the predators targeted a single animal among the herd, either the young or the injured. They’d wait until the prey came close enough, which rarely happened. The prey, either from the lion’s smell or the mass of jeeps that surrounded them (though the park tried to minimize the tourists’ impact on the land, the prey were aware of the jeeps and knew what a semicircle of vehicles meant– imminent danger), stood immobilized, ears perched ready to sprint to safety.
The sight never ceased to confound me. If I knew a predator was nearby, I would have hightailed it out of there, but the prey just waited, frozen with anticipation. The strategy evidentially worked, because despite the numerous hunts we’d witnessed, we’d yet to see a kill.
But unlike normal hunting expeditions, during the Migration, the lion didn’t target a single prey. Instead, she waited at a river crossing for the herds to descend into the river. When the herd was within her grasp, she pounced ferociously, anticipating that one of the wildebeests would be trampled by the other stampeding wildebeests and slip down the bank into her open maw.
As the wildebeests wildly leapt up and down the banks of the river, we watched a lion stalk their movement.
The lion inched slowly towards the herd, camouflaged by the foliage. Suddenly, a frantic ribbit echoed around us and the wildebeests ran back up the bank. One of them had seen the lion.
The lion inched away from the crossing, returning again to her hiding place. She waited a few minutes until a new, unknowing herd approached. The wildebeests began charging wildly down the river and the lion wasted no time to descend upon them.
It happened so quickly, we barely saw her pounce. She was on top of the wildebeest, wrapping her mouth around its neck. Lions suffocate their prey. She held her mouth steady around the wildebeest’s neck and we watched as the prey went from stirring wildly beneath her grip, to sporadically spasming, to completely still. Success. A meal for her pack.
After the kill was complete, the lion took a moment to survey the area. The land was still. The wildebeests had disappeared completely; it was difficult to believe that only moments before hundreds of them had been fleeing the area. But the lioness wasn’t looking for wildebeests. Often, hyenas wait in the periphery, hoping to either overpower the lone hunting cat or to spy her hiding place for her kill and steal it while the lion ran back to find her pack. With no hyenas in sight, the lion began the laborious process of dragging the wildebeest into the bushes.
She stopped periodically to rest, and we could see browning blood in the fur around her mouth as she panted, trying desperately to catch her breath.
We watched the lion until she disappeared behind the bushes, and both she and the carcass were obscured in the leafage. That was our last sight of the Great Migration. Although the animals continued their circular journey towards Tanzania, we had to return to our camp and head back to Nairobi.