This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture
Every year a massive migration occurs on Earth.
More than 2 million creatures—wildebeest, zebras, and gazelles—travel nearly 1,600 kilometers across grassy plains, low hills, and small woodlands. They’re seeking food.
This Great Migration takes place on the Serengeti plain of eastern Africa, a vast grassland covering about 30,000 square km in Tanzania and Kenya. Both countries have placed the migration area under protection—mainly in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania and Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.
The southern Serengeti is mainly a treeless short-grass savanna. The northern Serengeti has taller grasses and woodlands of flat-topped acacia trees. The name Serengeti comes from a word used by the Maasai people who live there. It means “endless plain.”
Wildebeest make up the majority of the migrating animals by far. About 1.5 million wildebeest are part of the moving herds. Also called gnus, wildebeest are large antelopes with curved horns, oversized heads, and pointed beards.
The Mara River
As the Mara River flows southwest and then west before emptying into Lake Victoria, it cuts through the Serengeti. It also cuts across the route of the Great Migration in Kenya. In fact, the river is the animals’ biggest obstacle.
Crossing the Mara
The 395-kilometer-long Mara River snakes across the land from Tanzania into Kenya. It’s a vital source of water for the region’s animals, but crossing the river can be dangerous. Many animals are crushed to death in their urgency to get to the other side.
Crocodiles attack and devour others. About a quarter of a million wildebeest die each year during the migration. Those that don’t perish during river crossings or because of land predators die of thirst, hunger, or exhaustion.
King Vulture IV (2015-11-03/2015-11-03) by Carolina Raptor CenterCarolina Raptor Center
White-backed vultures are Africa’s most common vultures. As scavengers, they’ll feed on the carcasses of the animals that don’t survive. In recent years, the population of white-backed vultures has declined due to a similar decline in prey.
Ready to Cross
These wildebeest are crossing a rocky stretch of the Mara River. They’re on the move day and night throughout the migration. They’re big beasts—up to 2.5 meters (8 feet long) and 270 kilograms (600 pounds)—who need lots of food.
Since they’re used to grazing continuously, now they are intent on their goal of reaching grassy plains.
The rest of the herd has already crossed. You can see a line of hundreds of animals stretching off into the distance.
Vans and trucks loaded with tourists park on the opposite riverbank. The tourists are armed with cameras, ready to shoot photos of the migrating animals.
Plants and Animals
In December and January the wildebeest are in the southern Serengeti, grazing on the short grass that the short rainy season (October-early November) produces. Calving season is from January to March, when the young are born.
From March to May—the long rainy season—grass is plentiful in the south. But in May, when the dry season begins, the land dries up quickly. Then the animals begin their journey north to the taller grasses of Kenya’s Serengeti. They’ll return south in November.
The Serengeti is home to a variety of wildlife. Giraffes typically roam the grasslands in small groups, feeding on trees. Lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards are large predators that use the Serengeti grasses for camouflage as they hunt for prey.
Tourists Waiting for a Crossing
The Great Migration attracts tourists from around the world, and their numbers are increasing. While tourism dollars greatly help the economies of Tanzania and Kenya, tourism has a negative impact as well. Among other problems, roads scar the land.
Vehicles can not only be visually jarring on the natural landscape, they can also cause noise and air pollution.
See the hippo in the water and the one on land? Hippos are, in fact, semi-aquatic: they spend as much time in water as on dry land. They are herbivores, or plant eaters, but they are also fiercely territorial.