Encyclopedia Britannica will tell you that animal migration is “the regular, usually seasonal, movement of all or part of an animal population to and from a given area.” Wikipedia concurs, saying “animal migration is the relatively long-distance movement of individual animals, usually on a seasonal basis.” How dull they make it sound!
I am here to show you that animal migrations in Africa are fascinating. They offer some of the continent’s most incredible wildlife experiences, where thousands, and sometimes millions, of creatures, driven by ancient urges and following inherited mental maps, fearlessly embark on incredible journeys.
I am going to explore with you what I believe are the six most impressive animal migrations in Africa, ranging from millions of flamingos in Kenya to thousands of whales off the coast of South Africa. I’m going to include the well-known Great Wildebeest Migration of East Africa, of course, but did you know there’s a second wildebeest migration each year in Zambia? And speaking of Zambia, the largest mammal migration in the world takes place here, and this is going to be our jumping-off point.
1. Fruit Bat Migration: Kasanka National Park, Zambia
Between October and December each year, about 10 million (more than the entire human population of New York!) straw-colored fruit bats descend on a tiny patch of evergreen swamp forest inside Kasanka National Park in northern Zambia. These fox-faced, yellow-furred fruit bats have a wingspan of 30 inches and are the second-largest fruit bat on the continent (adults can weigh almost 1 pound). The bats come to feast on the wild fruit that appears with the first rains. Scientists are not sure exactly where they spend the rest of the year, though they do know that for some, it is deep in the rainforests of the Congo.
Whilst this experience is not typically at the top of the traditional safari traveler’s bucket list, the spectacle of up to seven million pounds of flying mammals over a three-month period is a spectacle to enthrall every nature lover. Kasanka is the only place in the world where the migration can be witnessed, and viewing the Kasanka bat migration could well prove to be one of your most fruitful wildlife experiences.
Wasa Lodge, located on the shores of the lovely Wasa Lake, is the closest lodge accommodation to see the bats. There is also a seasonal “fly camp” and a number of self-catering campsites.
Editor’s Note: Sarah mentions the straw-colored fruit bat migration (and much more) in 6 Once-In-A-Lifetime Animal Experiences In Africa.
2. The Great Wildebeest Migration: Serengeti, Tanzania
Whilst the bats don’t leave a single footprint behind when they leave, the same cannot be said for the next contenders on our list of greatest animal migrations in Africa.
At the end of the rainy season in East Africa, zebra and blue wildebeest head toward new pastures on a circular migration of 500 miles around the Serengeti. Herds of almost two million, sometimes stretching up to 25 miles long, move across the Serengeti and Masi Mara plains in search of food and water. This is Africa’s most famous migration; in human terms, it would be the same as if every person in Philadelphia or Phoenix packed their bags and all moved, all at once!
Facing multiple dangers from both land predators and crocodiles, the wildebeest and zebra complete a 500-plus mile round trip during the migration. One in six will die from predator attack, thirst, or exhaustion, but a half million new calves will also be born. This is not one event, but rather a year-round loop that never really ends, so there is always something to see. Highlights of the year include the herd crossing the Mara River (July–October) and calving season on the plains of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area (January/February) when all the herds join together in one giant group.
In May, during the long rains, as the herds begin to move northward through the Serengeti and toward the western corridor, staying at either Mwiba Lodge or Kusini Camp in the southern reaches of the Serengeti will give you front-row seats. To witness the herd’s frantic splashing and thrashing as they cross the crocodile-filled Mara River, I’d recommend Nomad Lamai as the place to put you at the heart of an unforgettable wildlife drama.
Editor’s Note: Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park gets top billing in Sarah’s 10 Best Safari Parks To Visit In Africa, but as you can imagine, Africa offers plenty more.
3. Zebra Migration: Southern Okavango To Nxai Pan National Park And Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana
Whilst the wildebeest in Tanzania may wander on a huge circular journey, in 2012 researchers started to comprehend what is now thought to be the longest linear, land mammal migration in the world; when the plains zebra in Botswana undertake an annual round trip of over 600 miles.
In this lesser-known natural phenomenon, more than 40,000 zebra, driven by thirst, move seasonally in search of greener grazing spots. As the winter dry season begins, they begin to assemble in the salt pans of Nxai and Makgadikgadi before starting their 300-mile journey to the “promised land” of the Boteti River. They will retrace their steps in November when the annual rains begin again. This is an incredibly photogenic migration, with the striped zebras really standing out against the sun-bleached landscape. You can really feel the excitement as the zebra get closer to the Boteti River, and you certainly share their joy when they arrive. If that wasn’t exciting enough, predators lurk, taking full advantage of the easy prey.
Stay at Jack’s Camp in the Makgadikgadi from January to March to see the migration in full swing, or Meno a Kwena from September to October for the best view of the herds at the Boteti River.
4. Wildebeest Migration: Liuwa Plains, Zambia
They might be wildebeest, but this definitely isn’t Tanzania’s Serengeti. Instead, we’re on the golden grasslands of Liuwa Plains National Park in the far western corner of Zambia. Liuwa is home to the continent’s other great (and second-largest) wildebeest migration. Here 40,000 ungulates move north to greener pastures every July, before heading back south as the rains build in late October. The numbers might not be as spectacular as in the Serengeti, but the setting is remote and wild and the experience is definitely one of my favorite African animal migrations. Not to mention that it occurs in my home country; whilst it’s not exactly on my doorstep, it certainly is a lot closer than the other wildebeest migration further north on the continent. The Liuwa Plains wildebeest migration is an incredible natural phenomenon, yet it is scarcely known, which is good news for safari buffs, as it means it doesn’t attract the crowds you are likely to encounter in the East African Masai Mara/Serengeti migration. As a result, for a tourist, the whole experience seems a little more wild and authentic.
The wildebeest migration follows the rains, and November is usually the best time to see the huge herds grazing. If your budget can stretch to it, I’d suggest you stay at Time + Tide King Lewanika. Otherwise, there are a number of campsites to choose from.
5. Flamingo Migration: Rift Valley, Kenya
Taking a short break from mammals, you may remember the famous scene in the movie Out of Africa where a tiny yellow biplane soars over Lake Manyara with its million or so coral-colored flamingos. If so, you already have an idea just how beautiful the pink wings of flamingos can be when viewed en masse.
Each year, from April to June, tens of thousands of vibrantly colored lesser and greater flamingos fly into Kenya’s Rift Valley lakes to breed, in what is one of the continent’s most under-reported animal migrations. The warm soda lakes of Nakuru and Bogoria have a high mineral content, and the waters are rich in algae and tiny shrimp, causing the flamingos to turn pink (a classic and vivid example of “you are what you eat”). Each lake has large, shallow areas where the flamingos wade, heads turned upside down in their distinctive feeding posture.
The number of flamingos you’ll see at either lake depends on the amount of algae in the lakes at any given time (less algae equals fewer flamingos), but the best months are usually April through June, and I’d recommend staying at either Loldia House (close to Lake Naivasha), or The Cliff (overlooking Lake Nakuru).
Editor’s Note: Intrigued by flamingos and Out of Africa? They come up in Sarah’s 13 Best Books To Read Before Your First Trip To Africa — a worthwhile resource if you’re planning a trip.
6. Southern Right Whale Migration: Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa
From June through November, if you cast your eyes over the crashing waters of South Africa’s southern coastline, you may just spot another of the continent’s great animal migrations. At least 37 different whale species are found in the waters off South Africa, but during annual whale migration season, Hermanus becomes a whale-watching mecca as hundreds of southern right whales migrate from their summer feeding grounds in the Antarctic to the oceans around the Western Cape. The whales come to breed and to calve and nurse their young, spending up to five months in the area. The total estimated migratory population of southern right whales in the area is 12,000. In season, in excess of 100 are known to frequent the waters close to shore near the town of Hermanus.
Hermanus (particularly Walker Bay) offers some of the best whale watching in the world, either by boat or from the rocky shore, with whales often spotted only meters from the shore. If you miss them in Hermanus, you could also hire a car and drive up the Garden Route (the 500-plus-mile “Whale Route” extends all the way from Cape Town to Plettenberg Bay) and your chances of seeing these magnificent migrating mammals is high.
The whales begin their migration back to the icy waters of the Antarctic in November, a 3,000-mile journey which they do at an average speed of 2.5 miles per hour! Once back at their feeding grounds in the Antarctic, they will spend the summer (December–May) feeding on up to 2,000 pounds of krill and plankton a day before returning to South Africa again the following year.
May I suggest a stay at The Thatch House Boutique Hotel in Hermanus for whale watching with an added “splash” of luxury?
So, there you have my pick of the six greatest African animal migrations. With a bit of luck, perhaps we will bump into one another at one of these incredible places someday.