The greatest wildlife spectacle on earth has become unpredictable because of climate change, as awesome as it remains.
Today my McGrath Family Safari left the Moru Kopjes at 7 a.m. and arrived our camp near the Mara River on the Tanzanian side around 5:30p. During that time we saw two enormous groups of wildebeest, despite reports that they were all in Kenya.
From just after the Grumeti River near Seronera to Lobo, a distance of about 25 miles, we drove continuously through wildebeest. I estimated a quarter to a third of a million.
After we arrived at the Kenyan border for lunch, we headed west then north again towards the Mara River. From about the Lemala Camp position on the river to about 10 miles southeast of Kogatende, we saw another 100-150,000.
If my very rough estimations are even slightly correct, it means that we saw – today in Tanzania – from around a quarter to a third of all the wildebeest and zebra known in East Africa.
Is this the migration?
For years and years, 30 of my own career to be exact, the more or less circular migration of the great herds was a given that you get nearly set your watch by. Safaris were appropriately planned several years in advance to intersect the best of the great herds.
The beginning of the year began with the rains that attracted all the herds together on the southern grassland plains. Here they calved – all of them, around the last week of February. There was a minor hiatus in precipitation in February in the south, more in the north, but the rains were continuous until often an abrupt stop in late May or early June.
A few weeks later the herds freaked and started running north. The calves were strong enough by then to do so.
They would sometimes break into three sections, often not, with some going into the western corridor and others sticking to the eastern Serengeti. Then by the end of June, virtually all the wildebeest moved across the great Sand and Mara Rivers into Kenya, where they stayed until October.
It just doesn’t happen that way, anymore. Calving is erratic and occurs almost everywhere on the migration route. This year hardly any calving occurred on the southern plains.
Read my “OnSafari” reports for the last several years. This year we found most of the migration in March where it traditionally would have been in June, and we later found it in April where it traditionally would have been in February.
On the McGrath safari last Wednesday, we left the crater to enter the Serengeti. We visited Olduvai, where it was bone dry and few animals, but by the time we hit the Lemuta Kopjes the plains were covered with wildebeest.
From Lemuta west to the main Serengeti road, we easily saw 100,000 wildebeest. This is an area where traditionally they calve in February. Today is nearly July.
In all these unusual cases, the wildebeest were where the grass was growing, of course because it had rained. The rainy season is now all mixed up. Overall precipitation is greater than normal, but it comes in dangerous torrents followed by mini-droughts.
The wilde are adjusting.
The “migration” was never only wildebeest. It was a third zebra as well, but I’ve also noticed that the zebra are separating from the wilde in ways they didn’t before. For the last several days with the McGraths, for example, we encountered around 20,000 zebra starting at the Simba Kopjes through the top of Seronera and west into Moru.
Zebra, no wilde. (Well, maybe one or two or ten or twenty.) And today with the fractions of millions of wilde we saw, hardly any zebra.
Zebra have different eating habits and preferences than wilde. Perhaps climate change is differentiating these even more.
This is fascinating and perhaps troubling, but nowhere near as troubling as the commercial sites, like herdtracker.com, which claim to tell you where the wilde are.
Today, well, the wilde are everywhere. Large herds literally can be found in the furthest south and furthest north part of the Serengeti. Presumably, too, there are many in Kenya.
Irritated by sites like herdtracker.com motivated by commercial advertising, the Frankfurt Zoological Society is in the beta stage of a much more exact migration locator which will be launched soon as SerengetiTracker.com.
The FZS is radio collaring a number of different wilde which it believes come from different parts of the herd, and these will be tracked by satellite.
This is good, but not even this will be complete.
Meanwhile, my McGrath Family Safari couldn’t be happier. After all, they weren’t supposed to have seen the migration.