Ecologist surprised at abrupt end to Serengeti-Mara wildebeest migration

Monday October 25 2010

Wildebeests migrate. A change in the  migration pattern has caught ecologists by surprise. Photo File

Wildebeests migrate. A change in the migration pattern has caught ecologists by surprise. Photo File 

By Adam Ihucha

A change in the spectacular wildebeest migration schedule in the great Serengeti-Mara ecosystem has caught ecologists offguard.

Traditionally, the wildebeest used to roam in Maasai Mara Game Reserve for at least three months and return to Serengeti National park, but this year they are reported to have spent less than the usual period.

“In September, the wildebeest were supposed to be still in Maasai Mara, but by then they they had started their return journey to Serengeti,” Tanzania National Parks Authority spokesperson Pascal Shelutete told The EastAfrican in Arusha.

Ecologists speculate that last year’s drought, which hit northwestern Tanzania’s thick vegetation and dried up its rivers, killing thousands of animals, might have disrupted the natural wildebeest movement.
Conservationists in Tanzania have now embarked on monitoring the new development.

Quoting a Tanapa ecologist Dr James Wakibara, Mr Shelutete said though it was too early to comment, preliminary observations show that the change in weather patterns could explain the new phenomenon.

The wildebeest migration attracts thousands of tourists every year, generating millions of dollars for Tanzania and Kenya.

According to the Tanzania Tourist Board, the change in the animal’s migration pattern and times, calls for a thorough investigation to establish the factors behind it.

“I am aware of wildebeest late departure from Serengeti to Maasai Mara, and the early return to Serengeti. Is this a climatic change phenomenon? Let the scientists find out,” TTB managing director Dr Aloyce Nzuki told The EastAfrican by e-mail.

To the surprise of many, the wildebeest came back early to the Serengeti. As of early August, some wildebeest were seen in the northern part of the Serengeti and in the southern part of the Maasai Mara around the Sand River and in the Trans-Mara areas.

With the Maasai Mara having some decent rain and the Serengeti remaining mostly dry, the wildebeests ventured north but by early September an estimated 200,000 wildebeest had crossed over to the Klein’s area east of the Serengeti.

Traditionally, the wildebeest spend three months in Maasai Mara and nine months in Serengeti but for this year it appears it was two and 10 months in Maasai Mara and Serengeti respectively.
“This makes for an interesting research case,” Dr Nzuki said.

Mixed reaction

Tanzania’s tour operators received the sudden change in the wildebeest migration with mixed feelings with some regretting that their clients who wanted to witness the first group of wildebeest migrating from Maasai Mara to Serengeti missed out on the opportunity.

“Some tourists booked their safaris last year and would have liked to observe the earliest group of wildebeest migrating from Maasai Mara to Serengeti, but luck was not on their side,”  Thomson Safaris conservation project manager Daniel Yamat said.

Operations manager for the Mount Kilimanjaro Safari Club George Meing’arrai says the premature return of the wildebeest was an advantage for the tourists who were in the northern tourist circuit in September because they enjoyed one of nature’s most spectacular events as a surprise bonus.

It was also reported that huge herds of wildebeest arrived two months early at Klein’s Camp in western Tanzania. The company says on its website that an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 wildebeest were in the wilderness concession by early September — something that has not been witnessed before.

The endless plains of East Africa are the setting for the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle — the 1.5 million animal ungulate migrations.

From the Serengeti plains to the Maasai Mara over 1.4 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebra and gazelle migrate in a clockwise fashion over 2,800 kilometres each year in search of pasture.

The wildebeest’s life is an endless pilgrimage, a constant search for food and water. An estimated 400,000 wildebeest calves are born during a six-week period early in the year — usually between late January and mid-March.

Nearly 700,000 tourists visiting the Tanzania northern tourist circuit annually tour Serengeti for its wildebeest.