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Unique Safaris: Picture Yourself on Safari in the Serengeti in Tanzania

March 24, 2019

Understanding the Serengeti National Park

What makes the Serengeti Special?

The Serengeti is famous for the migration, which is the annual movement of wildebeest and zebra in search of food and water. Herds travel between the northern tip of the Serengeti all the way to the short-grass plains of the southern Serengeti with multiple diversions in between.

The wildebeest herd is 1.5 million individuals. This is the second-largest movement of mammals in the world (bat migration is the largest movement of mammals) and there is no other location in Africa that hosts a herd of this size. This is the primary reason why Tanzania is usually listed as the #1 safari destination on the continent. You will only see this volume of animals in the Serengeti. Unique Safaris specializes only in Tanzania so our reputation depends upon our outstanding knowledge of the movement of animals in all of the parks. As large as the herds are, it is important to also understand the enormous size of the Serengeti National Park and that seeing good wildlife also depends upon the company’s knowledge of all the remote areas of the park and a willingness to travel there.

Meg, are there any other animals that migrate with the wildebeest?

There are an additional 350,000 zebra that follow the movement of the wildebeest. Zebra like to travel with wildebeest to take advantage of the wildebeest’s extraordinary sense of smell. Wildebeest can smell rain clouds more than 50 miles away. Wildebeest love to travel with zebra because zebra have an extraordinary sense of sight and can see predators before wildebeest do.

Can you see the Big Five in the Serengeti?

While the wildebeest and zebra migrate for food and water, most other wildlife in the Serengeti keep territories and habitats and are always residents of different areas. And the Serengeti is also famous for being able to spot all of the Big Five. These five animals are of keen interest to be seen and originally the term was coined to represent the five animals hunters most wanted to see. All of the Big Five can be seen in the central Serengeti at all times of the year.

The most famous predator and the first of the Big Five is the lion and the Serengeti boasts a population of over 3,000 individual lions, the largest population in any one park in Africa. While the population of lions is considered endangered on the continent, the number of lions in the Serengeti has remained very steady due to the huge number of hoofed animals available for prey.

The second animal among the Big Five is the black rhino. Rhino are highly endangered and have been poached for their horns. They were absent from the Serengeti due to poaching until the mid-1990s when a few individuals began to migrate from Ngorongoro Crater area back to the central Serengeti. There are now approximately 38 black rhino breeding successfully in the central Serengeti, especially in the Moru Kopjes. They are closely guarded by anti-poaching patrols.

The elephant is the third animals comprising the Big Five. Elephants are found in all areas of the Serengeti.

Leopards are one of the most successfully adaptable cats in Africa. They are solitary and elusive and difficult to count for an official census. In fact, in Tanzania leopards are not allowed to be collared (for tracking) because the weight of the collar can impede hunting. So we really don’t know how many leopards there are in the Serengeti.

The Cape buffalo is the last of the Big Five. It can often be seen in large herds and they do not migrate during the year. Buffalo is a favorite prey animal for lions but it usually requires many members of the pride to bring one down. Large herds of buffalo are often known for chasing lions away from a calf and they can be unrelenting in chasing them down.

What other Wildlife do you commonly see?

The giraffe is the national animal of Tanzania and is highly protected from poaching and hunting. It is possible to see a large journey of giraffe numbering up to 40 individuals in some areas of the Serengeti. Lions will hunt giraffe when they are really hungry and it is considered a dangerous prey since one kick of their powerful legs can break a lion’s jaw ending its ability to survive.

Meg, in addition to the mammals, what else do people love seeing?

Birdlife is abundant in the Serengeti as well. There are over 500 species of birds just in the Serengeti and even the mammal lovers are fascinated at the diversity of raptors and vultures. Watching a kill from start to finish including the influx of vultures to fully digest and recycle each kill is one of the most amazing sights for the wildlife enthusiast.

Serengeti Migration
Courtesy Tanzania Tourism

This fairly standard map attempts to explain the migration; the problem is the migration is much more complicated than this; there are always diversions and sections of the herd that break off. And the movement is never this linear. Experienced guides who have a passion for the bush are necessary to understand all these variables.  It is not uncommon for travelers to visit the Serengeti and never see the herd as hard as that is to believe. It is also important for visitors to spend time in the central Serengeti since most of these animals remain here all year round.

Meg, What is the most important factor to be able to understand the migration in the Serengeti?

Weather, weather, weather. The herds move for food and water and travelers should not be concerned about when it might rain. With few exceptions, rains are usually short bursts during the late afternoon and evening and the rain will stimulate activity.

Wildebeest can travel up to 50 miles overnight in search of rain clouds in the green season months of November-May. The enormous size of Serengeti National Park means you can often see where the rain is falling at the same time as seeing brilliant sunshine in the same horizon.

Rain-soaked predators wait out the storms but know that rain is their lifeblood and often brings more herd animals into their vast territories at different times of the year. Cats do not migrate with the herds but they eagerly await their return to various habitats.

Three Important Life Events

During the migration, there are three important life events that occur at different times of the year and in different locations. The wildebeest calving takes place preferably on the southern plains and during the months of Jan-early March. The migration to the southern plains is a great example of swarm migration which is the concept of ‘safety in numbers’.  750,000 pregnant females descend on the southern plains to drop their calves and graze on the short grasses which are rich in calcium, magnesium, and phosphorous- essential nutrients for lactation. At the peak of the calving season, there are 10,000 babies born each day, ensuring a relatively low mortality rate since predators cannot consume such large numbers.

The Rut or re-breeding of the herds usually occurs in May and early June in the Central Serengeti. The unusual behavior of forming harems and males challenging for breeding rights is seen only at this time of the year. May is an excellent time to consider for those most budget-conscious due to low rates but abundant wildlife and activity in the easily accessible central plains.

The river crossings are the last life event and occur usually July, Aug, Sep and all of Oct sometimes stretching into Nov with the changes in weather patterns. The Mara River is located in the extreme northwest and can add significant cost to a safari itinerary due to the distance to travel there.

Witnessing a crossing is never a guarantee, but it can be exciting. An extension to the Mara River can always be planned if your budget allows. The shrinking habitat of the Maasai Mara and the more nutritious grassland in the Serengeti means that 70% of the wildebeest herds now stays in the Serengeti.

Meg, this information has been great. What would be the next step for people who are thinking about visiting Tanzania with Unique Safaris?

Call Meg at 1-612-800-8701

There are many questions that this presentation might stimulate for you.  Please don’t hesitate to call and learn more about what you might see and experience in Tanzania or to discuss the various itinerary options we have designed to get you started on planning.

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