The annual wildebeest migration, which covers the savannas of East Africa between June and August, is a natural phenomenon like no other. In search of access to the fresh grass that sprouts in Kenya’s Masai Mara after the mid-year rains, these bearded grazers will gather in Tanzania by the hundreds of thousands before galloping north with their young calves in tow.
The climax of this saga often comes when the animals are forced to cross fast and dangerous waterways like the Mara River, teeming with hungry crocodiles who look forward to this annual event like a festive buffet. The “herd intelligence” that determines when the animals rush through the dangerous current to reach the rich pastures on the other side is still not fully understood by scientists, but the resulting spectacle is seen as one by tourists the “wonder of the world” celebrates the natural world. ‘
Still, getting to the Masai Mara at the appointed time is not enough to ensure visitors see this amazing exodus in action. Herds often wait for days on the distant river banks, biding their time and growing in number before deciding to make their daring leap to safety. Many tourists remain unimpressed and spend hours at such intersections hoping to catch a glimpse of these mass maneuvers.
This creates a delicate dynamic that highlights some of the tricky tensions between tourism and conservation. Wildebeest are naturally fearful creatures, and the slightest noise and disturbance are often enough to convince them to abandon a crossing attempt or wait to try their luck another day.
When dozens of noisy car engines or hundreds of talkative tourists crowd the riverside to scream at the sight in front of them, it can disrupt this important natural phenomenon. This makes visitor management and the regulatory considerations of the authorities who manage the reserve all the more important.
When our news team finally caught our own view of a crowded wildebeest river crossing, we were surprised. We’d spent hours dutifully waiting at one of the more predictable wading spots on the Mara River, only to go home empty-handed. Two days later, while driving to a movie in another area, we saw some tell-tale signs of movement on the horizon.
Imagine our luck when, while investigating, we came across a hectic mass crossing over an otherwise deserted section of a tributary of the Mara River that runs along the Tanzanian border. We will not soon forget the sound of galloping hooves and the sight of the crashing bodies of animals crashing up the bank.
It was another reminder that the best shots on the field often come when you least expect them.