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What is the great wildebeest migration?

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What is the great wildebeest migration?
It's a spectacular sight when countless ruminants cross the Serengeti in search of greener pastures. Vincent Noyoux reveals the secrets of wildebeest migration
It starts like a scene from Out of Africa. Leaving Mount Kilimanjaro behind, the bush plane flies over the gaping Ngorongoro Crater, casting its shadow over tawny land that resembles lion skins sewn together with the rivers’ green thread.
We’re in the Serengeti in Tanzania, in the northern part of the national park, near the Kenyan border. We’ve yet to set foot on the ground, but the safari is underway. Herds of elephants bathe in the Mara River. Half-submerged crocodiles come into sight, and on the bank sit masses darker than boulders, the hippopotamuses.
It’s all wonderful, but we’re here to see something else: the blue wildebeest. With its spindly legs, grey-blue coat, wild mane and a long, bumpy face that gives it a stubborn air, this ruminant is not the elite of the African safari.
"It’s all wonderful, but we’re here to see something else: the blue wildebeest"
Wildebeests live in herds of about 30 that assemble in huge numbers during the great annual migration.
“The cycle starts early in the year in the southern Serengeti and moves west, then north to the Masai Mara (Kenya), east and back south,” explains our guide, Erasto Macha. “Wildebeests follow the rain, which provides green grasslands. They remain in the northern Serengeti from July to early October, but August and September are when we see the most.” He estimates there are 1.5 million here.
If it weren’t for the Mara, which is subject to massive fluctuations depending on rainfall upriver, their migration would be smooth sailing. Rising on the Kenyan side of the Great Rift Valley and flowing into Lake Victoria, it’s the longest and only perennial river in the Serengeti. It’s also the most dangerous to cross.

A vibrant ecosystem

The Land Cruiser we’re travelling in crosses an acacia savannah, and there’s a parade of animals: elephants, giraffes, warthogs, buffaloes, ostriches, antelopes and topis. Crocodiles and hippopotamuses soak in the water as vultures fly overhead. All of the actors are in place: On the opposite bank, a black line forms at a spot at the river’s edge, and the growing horde congregates.
The wildebeests are about to cross, but they seem to hesitate. And who could blame them? The waters are crawling with crocs and hippos. When one wildebeest makes its move, the entire group follows. “Their best strategy is to cross in a line rather than head-on,” Macha says. “In a compact group, the young wildebeests would inevitably end up crushed and then drown.”
Several hundred thousand zebras follow them, he says, but the more cautious zebras never cross first. “One theory is they remember dangerous places. But what we do know is they share the grass: zebras graze the top of the grass and wildebeests eat the rest.”
The group at the edge of the Mara still hesitates. Will they or won’t they? We place our bets. The wait can take hours. Sometimes, the wildebeests turn back. That’s what happens today. As the light shifts from gold to glowing red, they scatter sheepishly in the bush. Defeat in such a glorious setting.
We head back to Sayari Camp, the first of its kind in the northern Serengeti. Unlike other lodges, it’s just a stone’s throw from the Mara River, which is very practical when a river- crossing alert goes up. The decor blends South African design and Tanzanian handicrafts that distill into a subtle safari-chic atmosphere, and it isn’t uncommon to see zebras and wildebeests roaming between the tents. To come and go after dark, guests have to call a staff member by walkie-talkie.
The nighttime savannah rustles with a thousand sounds. A hyena’s high-pitched call sends shivers down your spine as you lay in bed. Step out onto the terrace, and your flashlight will illuminate a myriad of wildebeest eyes, glimmering dots.
At dawn, we take to the sky in a hot-air balloon. Like the sun, we slowly rise. The basket skims the tops of the acacias and glides low over impalas, antelopes and zebras. The spitting burner sends large herds of wildebeests into a panic, and they gallop off into the vast yellowish-green plain. In a few weeks they’ll have reached the Masai Mara, whose hills peek out in the distance.
We watch as the hyenas’ limping run clashes with the graceful leaps of the oribi—the ballerinas of the savannah. From the sky, the wild wonder calls to mind an earthly paradise, but the animal bones that litter the ground tell the story of the struggle to survive. Here, there are the hunters and the hunted.
A lioness lurks in the bushes. Wildebeests graze a few dozen metres away, unaware. A more alert zebra catches sight of the large cat and remains on the lookout, ready to flee. The lioness stalks them. What is she waiting for? But animals are on their own time.
"From the sky, the wild wonder calls to mind an earthly paradise"
The Serengeti teems with life. On the banks of the Mara, mongooses leapfrog the rocks. Standing in the water, Masai giraffes nibble acacia leaves. “They spot danger first, and the zebras understand that,” Macha says.
Further on, there’s a group of chubby-cheeked hippos with bulging eyes. But we aren’t fooled by their aura of serenity. These territorial animals charge without warning, killing nearly 500 people a year in Africa—far more than all the big cats combined. Two teenagers quarrel and growl, opening their mouths wide to bare their frightening teeth.
The radio crackles: Wildebeests have been spotted a few kilometres away. The SUV sets off down the track. On the other side of the river, lines of wildebeests arrive from all over as the group swells. But no one wants to go first. Their hesitation forces them to post-pone, and they disperse.
The unexpected occurs elsewhere. As we observe a group of impalas, one of them makes a loud whistling noise. “Something alerted it,” says Macha. We all turn our heads. Lying on a branch, hidden among the leaves, a leopard looks on. It coolly unfurls its tail beyond the foliage, betraying its presence; if it hadn’t been for the impala’s warning, we’d never have seen it.
The leopard climbs higher and sets its topaz eyes on us in an imperial gaze. Leopards often pounce on their prey, usually an antelope or an impala, in one bound. They’re powerful enough to haul it into a tree so they don’t have to share with other carnivores. This one will wait until night to attack, something its eyesight and patience permit.

Sunrise on the safari

Safaris start in the early morning, when the wildlife is most active, and as the Land Cruiser crosses the savannah under a sky dotted with clouds, we watch lion cubs play under their mother’s watchful eye. Then they quickly disappear into the tall grass. “The wildebeests are going to cross,” Macha says with certainty. Soon enough, an epic scene unfolds right before our eyes.
Thousands of wildebeests stamp on the bank of the river, the depth of which can fluctuate quickly. The most dangerous 100 metres of their lives lie ahead. Pressured by the group, one decides to cross. And then the flow is unstoppable. Water sprays as the wildebeests jump in. It’s a dark and nervous army, an avalanche of horns on the Mara River.
Crocodiles are ready to attack as the hippos fiercely guard their territory. The smaller wildebeests are the easiest prey, but the mass of moving legs complicates any assault; a crocodile slowly moves forward and propels itself in a flash, its jaws just missing the target.
The wildebeests that make it to the other side climb out dripping wet. A youngster stands alone, a few metres behind them. Crocodiles loom, and we bury our eyes in our binoculars and hold our breath. The safari becomes a thriller—a cruel and fascinating death scene that plays out right in front of us.
But the little wildebeest survives, barely, and we think back to one we saw yesterday whose flanks had been slashed. “A crocodile attack,” Macha had confirmed. “A hyena will finish it off when it gets too weak to run.”
Yet the biggest threat to the wildebeests is drowning. Sometimes hundreds of carcasses float in the river. “In just 15 minutes, 3,000 to 4,000 wildebeests cross it,” says our guide.
Drowned wildebeests are a feast for scavengers. Bare-necked and wrapped in their sinister cloak, vultures perch on the branches of a dead tree. These gravediggers play a vital role in the eco-system. By removing remains, they help prevent the spread of diseases and preserve the savannah’s ecological balance.
Afterwards, we park under a clump of trees among the impalas and set breakfast on the hood. The sun splatters warm colours over the Serengeti. A zebra foal nudges its mother. Elephants silently cross the landscape in single file as their calves play games with their trunks. This is the way of the wild: from fear to tenderness.

Setting out on foot

The sun sets on our final outing, and we’re on foot for the first time. A ranger armed with a .458 Winchester Magnum is with us. And that’s a good thing. As simple bipeds without fangs or claws, we’re more vulnerable than a baby antelope. We tread cautiously, quietly, in an eerily deserted savannah.
Suddenly, Macha freezes: “Behind the rock, 30 metres away…” And we see the wisps of a lion’s mane behind granite.
"As simple bipeds without fangs or claws, we’re more vulnerable than a baby antelope"
We feel a quiver of fear, but we don’t run or the lion will assume we’re prey. In any case, we’d be too slow. “Stay together and walk away slowly,” Macha says. The lion sticks its head out and follows with its eyes. What is it thinking?
“You never know what an animal was doing 30 minutes ago,” our guide adds in a low voice. “Maybe it ate, maybe it had an unfortunate encounter, maybe it was injured.”
In the evening, before dinner, as is the custom at the lodge, we sit around a blazing campfire and talk about our day, just as Ernest Hemingway, who wrote extensively about hunting and fishing, might have done. About leopards perched in trees, lions ready to pounce, crocodiles on the attack. Our stories sound like tall tales, except they’re absolutely true. The sky over the Serengeti witnessed them all.
© 2022, Le Figaro Magazine. From "En Tanzanie, la grande épopée de la migration des gnous", by Vincent Noyoux, Le Figaro Magazine (10 Octobre 2022). 
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