The Great Migration

When folks describe the great migration in East Africa as one of the natural wonders of the world….they’re not wrong! It’s an ever-changing, ever-evolving twelve month cycle in which several million Wildebeest, Zebras and various other grazers constantly move to pursue the area’s rainy cycles and subsequent greenest grasses. In their migratory path, the animals traverse from the Tanzanian southern Serengeti plains in the early part of the calendar year northward into Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve by late summer. After spending just a few months in the Masai Mara, they return southward across the Kenya/Tanzania border, arriving back in the southern Serengeti by the end of the year, having completed their 1200 mile journey across East Africa.

Their Jan-March stay in the southern Serengeti is the Wildebeest’s calving season when experts estimate 500,000 calves are born each year. After a few months, the mothers then launch their newborns onto their annual migratory journey. It’s a perilous time for the newborns as predators are anxiously awaiting an easy meal and the herds aren’t always protective of their youngsters.

Although one can visit Tanzania and view the Great Migration at any time of the year, a substantial portion of visitors want to view the animals as they cross the Mara River on their way to and from Kenya which usually occurs in the late summer. The crossings are a life and death spectacle in which life can hang by a thread and a successful crossing can be torpedoed by high water and a fast current, by salivating Nile Crocodiles, by being too old, or by being too young.

It Begins

No two crossings are the same…..sometimes a few hundred animals….sometimes many thousands. Sometimes animals arrive at the river and jump right in. Other times, they may wait hours or days to cross. As animals arrive at the river the herd grows larger and moves about with no obvious plan or direction, And then for no apparent reason, a single animal jumps into the river and is instantly followed by the entire herd.

Taking the First Leap

Once the crossing begins, chaos ensues. Animals are swept downstream, young ones are separated from the herd, animals sense the crocodiles and try to return to the river bank, animals jump on top of each other and struggle to keep afloat. Most make it across but some do not.

The scene is captivating and heartbreaking at the same time. One marvels at this essential act of the natural world where life and death come together as a one act play and the strongest survive. But your heart aches for the young ones who are not strong or wily enough to conquer the current or the elderly ones who no longer have the required strength or energy.

Taking the Plunge
The Rush is on!

And waiting for them are these mammoth Nile Crocodiles, the largest of which can grow to be 20 ft long and weigh as much as 2000 lbs.

Waiting in the River

As a photographer, I try to capture the many small extraordinary moments within the entire tableau that crystallize the effort and struggle of the participants.

The Struggle
Jumping to Safety
Conquering the Mara River
Going over the Top

The Great Migration is an annual “cycle of life” event in which an estimated 500,000 animals are born and 250,000 animals perish from a combination of thirst, hunger, exhaustion, or predation. It’s a Wagnerian opera on hooves and a spectacle in the truest sense of the word. If given an opportunity to witness it, don’t pass it up!

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Frank Binder