The Rut and The Crossing

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The Rut and The Crossing

The Rut

As the rains set in, the herds head north-west past the granite outcrops of the Simba and Moru koppies and into the woodlands of the hilly country west of Seronera towards Lake Victoria. This is the time of the annual rut, with half a million cows mated in less than a month as the herds consolidate in the woodlands and on the plains of the Serengeti’s Western Corridor. The peak of the rut seems heavily influences by the state of the moon, with the full moon in May/June being a good bet for anyone seeking the most action.

Seemingly vicious fighting between dominant or territorial males takes place during the rut, though there is generally little actual violence or serious injury. And in spite of these energetic duels, the males have little say over their choice of mates, for it is the females who do the actual choosing.

The Crossing

From the western Serengeti the herds head north, following the rains (or their effects) into Kenya and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve. On their trek the wildebeests’ path is cut several times by rivers: in the Serengeti by the Mbalangeti and the Grumeti, and in Kenya by the Mara. For most of the year these rivers are relatively placid, but they can become violent torrents in response to rainfall in their catchments areas, and then they present major obstacles to the progress of the wildebeest.

The rivers and indeed the few isolated lakes in the south of the Serengeti, are terrifying to the wildebeest firstly because of the animals’ fear of the water itself and the creatures it may hide, and secondly because water generally means vegetation, and thickets that may conceal predators. Yet the wildebeest have an inherent instinct to trek in a certain direction at any cost – despite their terror. The lakes in the south – Ndutu, Masek and Lagarja – for example, are little more than a few kilometers long, and could easily be walked around. But natural selection steps in once more: the wildebeest that crossed the lakes in previous generations survived to breed, so the waters pose no fear to their progeny; those that did not make it gave no further input to the gene pool.

In his definitive documentary on the migration, The Year of the Wildebeest, filmmaker Alan Root describes how he watched a crossing at Lake Lagarja, where, once the main body of the herd had crossed cows that had become separated from their calves turned back to look for them re-entering the water and swimming back. On reaching the other side, still not reunited with their offspring, they turned back once again. This to and fro went on for seven days, until eventually the numbers of arriving wildebeest built up again and the stragglers were forced to move on with the main body of the herd. Thousands of wildebeest died in the lake that year. While such tragedies may appear to be a disaster for the wildebeest, the deaths only represent a mere handful of the hundreds of thousands of calves born each year. Without a degree of natural mortality, the wildebeest population could spiral out of control.

Wildebeest arrive at the Mara River in their tens of thousands, and gather waiting to cross. For days their numbers can be building up and anticipation grows but many times, for no apparent reason, they turn and wander away from the water’s edge. Eventually the wildebeest will choose a crossing point, something that can vary from year to year and cannot be predicted with any accuracy. Usually the chosen point will be a fairly placid stretch of water without too much predator-concealing vegetation in the far side, although occasionally they will choose seemingly suicidal places and drown in their hundreds. Perhaps, once again, this is because crossing places are genetically imprinted in the minds of the animals.

Some fords do attract larger numbers of animals than others though, probably because they’re visible from a greater distance and the arriving herds are able to see others of their kind either in the process of crossing the river or grazing on the lush grass on the far side.