The annual wildebeest migration that grips East Africa’s savannas between June and August of each year is a natural phenomenon like few others. In their quest for access to the fresh grass that sprouts up in Kenya’s Maasai Mara in the wake of the mid-year rains, these bearded grazers will mass in their hundreds of thousands in Tanzania before galloping northwards en masse with their young calves in tow.
The climax of this saga often comes when the animals are forced to cross swift and dangerous waterways like the Mara River, which are teeming with hungry crocodiles who look forward to this annual event like a holiday buffet. The ‘herd intelligence’ which governs which moment the animals choose to crash through the perilous current to reach the rich pastures of the other side is still not fully understood by scientists, but the resulting spectacle is hailed by tourists as ranking among the ‘wonders of the natural world.’
Still, simply coming to the Maasai Mara at the appointed time is not enough to guarantee that visitors will see this astonishing exodus in action. Herds often wait for days grazing on the far riverbanks, biding their time and growing in numbers before deciding to make their daring dash to safety. Many tourists are unperturbed, spending hours at such crossing points hoping to catch a glimpse of these mass-maneuvers.
This results in some delicate dynamics that throw into relief some of the tricky tensions at play between tourism and conservation. Wildebeest are by nature timid creatures and even the slightest noise and disturbance is often sufficient to convince them to abort a crossing attempt or wait to try their luck another day.
When dozens of noisy car engines or hundreds of chatty tourists crowd the river bank to exclaim at the sight before them, it can interfere with this important natural phenomenon. This makes the visitor management and regulatory considerations of the authorities which govern the reserve all the more important.
When our news team finally caught our own view of a massed wildebeest river crossing, it caught us by surprise. We had spent hours dutifully waiting by one of the more predictable fording points on the Mara River only to go home empty handed. Two days later, when driving to film a feature in a different area we saw some tell-tale signs of movement on the horizon.
Imagine our luck when, upon investigating, we came upon a frantic mass-crossing in full swing over an otherwise deserted stretch of a Mara River tributary that runs along the Tanzanian border. The sound of the galloping hooves and the sight of the animals’ straining bodies crashing up the bank is not something we will soon forget.
It was yet another reminder that, when in the field, the best of shots can often come when they’re least expected.