The Makgadikgadi Zebra Migration is one of Southern Africa’s most surprising phenomena. Each year, Botswana zebras trek between the Okavango Delta and Makgadikgadi Pans in search of fresh grazing. Why some cover this tough journey and not all, scientists are still figuring out.
It was mid-February, after the heavy December–January rains that had pooled in Botswana’s vast Makgadikgadi Pans and transformed the harsh, lunar-like landscape into flourishing green vistas exploding with life.
As we drove along the pans, we were thrilled to see thousands of flamingos carpeting them in a sea of pink. ‘The larvae of shrimps lie dormant in the wet clay beneath the salt crust,’ explained our guide, Chris. ‘When the rains come, the pans fill with water and over 70,000 flamingos come to feed on the shrimps that hatch from these dormant eggs.’ We stopped to take pictures, awed at seeing so many greater and lesser flamingos in one place.
‘The pans are the remains of a giant lake that once covered this region,’ Chris continued. We skirted the pan on the edge, careful not to get stuck in the deceptively slick mud. Vultures perched in the trees and Chris pointed out a kori bustard, one of the heaviest flying birds, as it strutted across the shrubs.
The 4×4 traversed the otherwordly landscape, which overwhelmed us with its vast open vistas, plunging skies and sense of space. We were headed to the Boteti River on the western side of the park, which is where Chris assured us the zebra would be grouped en masse.
‘This Botswana zebra migration, which features plains zebra, was discovered by accident,’ Chris told us. ‘Scientists didn’t know that zebra migrated such great distances here until tracking devices revealed they moved from parts of the Okavango into the Makgadikgadi Pans.’
‘Researchers have since studied this phenomenon closely, and recently the conservation group “Elephants Without Borders” uncovered information on yet another Botswana zebra migration – from the Chobe Floodplains near the Namibia–Botswana border to the Savute, then on to the grasslands of Nxai Pan, where the zebra spend about 10 weeks,’ he continued.
‘With a 500km return journey, this is the longest point-to-point big-mammal migration in Africa, and it’s still unknown why zebra choose to cover this great distance when there’s other, nearer wet-season destinations.’
‘Isn’t the Great Wildebeest Migration between Tanzania and Kenya longer?’ we questioned. ‘In total, yes, but the animals there walk in a loop, sometimes meandering back and forth. Here, they walk almost in a straight line between the Okavango and Makgadikgadi, which are about 250km apart as the crow flies. So this migration is longer between its two most extreme points,’ Chris explained.
Suddenly we saw them on the horizon, a straggle of black-and-white zebra trudging wearily towards the river, certainly not the masses we’d expected. ‘Unlike other migrations, the zebra here travel in small groups,’ Chris said. ‘Some families leave earlier and others later.’
As we followed them to the banks, they joined their brethren to gulp up the water, truly becoming the dazzle of zebra we’d been hoping for. Some grazed on the grassy banks, others raced away from our vehicle, kicking up dust and playfully chasing each other like young ponies, while wildebeest grazed between them contentedly, keeping a wary eye on our movements.
And with good reason. As the zebra move across the pans, so do their predators. Proof of their activities came in the decaying carcass of a young zebra covered in a tangle of vultures found upriver.
We moved off to a better, less odorous vantage point. Seeing so many zebra in one place was very special and we could hardly imagine the journey they’d been through, the challenges they’d faced and the losses they’d experienced. There are few wild places where animals can roam freely, and this was one of them.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch as we watched the zebra mill about, while wildebeest honked and munched at the nutritious long grasses. Suddenly we saw an astonishing sight – horse riders cantering towards the zebra. Looking carefree and happy, they slowed down as they neared them, then they mingled freely among them.
Chris told us that horse-riding safaris are a great way to experience the zebra migration on the Makgadikgadi Pans – and it certainly looked like fun! We decided to book ourselves on a horse-riding safari before we left.
Of course, it wasn’t just wildebeest and zebra out that day. We spotted ducks, geese and pelicans, migratory birds that follow the rain much like their larger counterparts. We also saw herons and egrets, cormorants and darters, and more waders than we could count.
Though we could have returned to our luxury Botswana lodge any time, we decided to stay in the pans for sunset. Chris laid out some snacks and poured us a drink each as the sun slowly disappeared. My partner took my hand as we watched the distinctive black-and-white flanks, flecked with the colours of the setting sun, slowly became one with the encroaching night.