The awe of witnessing the Great Wildebeest Migration can be topped by only one thing: seeing the migrating wildebeest calving. If you visit the Serengeti during February and March, you’ll get to witness this show of nature – one of Tanzania’s best safari experiences.
It was February, and we’d come to the Serengeti to see the amazing spectacle of wildebeest calving. Mobile migration camps follow the herds throughout the year and position themselves close to the wildebeest during calving season.
We chose a beautiful, semipermanent mobile camp in a remote part of the southern Serengeti. It had large tents of wood and canvas, offering a true Out of Africa safari experience. Our camp was very intimate, with only eight guest tents, each with en-suite bathroom and a common area for meals and relaxing between game drives. From our private verandah, we could enjoy a morning cup of tea or coffee while keeping our eyes peeled for game.
On our first morning we set out early, thrilled at the prospect of witnessing the wildebeest calving. We headed towards the plains in an open game-drive vehicle. As we drove our guide, Paul, set the scene for us: ‘The principal players in this incredible drama are the wildebeest, numbering about 1.7 million, with supporting roles for some 400,000 Thomson’s gazelle, 300,000 zebra and 12,000 eland.’
‘Pregnant wildebeest are attracted to the calcium and magnesium-rich grass, which is good for milk production. Wildebeest calving occurs from late January to mid March, when more than 80% of the females give birth over a period of a few weeks. Never far away are the carnivores. Lion, hyena, leopard, cheetah and lesser predators await the annual calving with eager anticipation.’
‘In reality there’s no such single entity as “the migration”. The wildebeest are the migration – there is neither start nor finish to their endless search for food and water, as they circle the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem in a relentless round of life and death. The only beginning, I suppose, is the moment of birth.’
And we were here to see the greatest birthing of all on the short-grass plains at the southernmost extent of the wildebeests’ range. We drove onto the plain and into an enormous herd of wildebeest that stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. They hardly paid our vehicle any attention.
Paul drew to a halt. Beside us stood a wildebeest cow, her back legs splayed. Just then a baby emerged, a thing of gawky legs and blood and blue placenta. It was a blob on the ground, then a thing of awkward movement, a stagger, a fall, up again, another fall. Within moments, it was properly on its feet and getting its bearings. Mom and milk being primary coordinates.
‘The wildebeest cows drop their young in a synchronised birthing that sees some 300,000 to 400,000 calves born within a few short weeks, eight and a half months after the rut,’ said Paul in a hushed voice.
We remained parked for a long time. All around us were other newborns, bobbing about on Plasticine legs or gamboling along on their first frolicking escapades. A baby wildebeest gains coordination faster than any other ungulate. I was astonished to learn that it can run with the herd at the age of five minutes and is able to outrun a lion soon thereafter!
The cows looked on seemingly with both pride and concern. And the concern was justified. I watched as a jackal approached one baby, trying to grab hold of a stick-like leg. But a group of mothers quickly intervened. Heads down, horns scything, they chased the pesky dog away.
But bigger predators were in the offing too. We drove on across the plain, where scenes of high drama were playing themselves out. We passed large packs of hyena and every now and then a group of lion, many of them fat, bloody-faced and recumbent from all the meaty bounty.
‘It may seem that the wildebeest are doing the predators a favour by dropping their young all at the same time,’ said Paul. ‘But in fact a surfeit of wildebeest veal in a very short period results in the predators’ becoming satiated. They’re simply unable to consume as much as they would if the calving happened over a longer period. The predators thus have only a limited impact on the population of newborn calves. Any calves born outside the peak are far more likely to perish.’
Just then, a group of lionesses broke from cover and bounded towards a herd. The wildebeest took off in thundering flight. One baby had lost touch with its mother and slipped behind the bunch. In a flash, a lionesses had brought it to the ground with one flick of a plate-sized paw. The cats leapt onto the hapless babe as they tore at its flesh. It was over in seconds.
Sitting around the campfire that night, we marvelled at the spectacle we’d witnessed. What made it even more special was that this was low tourism season. Having so few tourists, spread over the vastness of the southern plains, made this a unique and soulful experience – a true luxury Tanzanian safari.