The annual migration of wildebeest through the Serengeti and Masai Mara eco-system each year is probably the world's most filmed natural event. It evokes everything that is wild and perhaps connects us to a time, not too far back in our past, when great migrations of herbivores were commonplace across the world's grasslands and open spaces. The buffalo migrations of the North American plains are now a memory, and in the last couple of decades populations of Saiga Antelope, once numbered in millions, have crashed.
The wildebeest of the Serengeti are still with us however, with more than half a million animals following the seasonal rains across the rift valley highlands each year, accompanied by a whole caravan of other herbivores. Gazelles and about 250,000 zebras also join the party in a constant search for nutritious short grasses that this species absolutely needs to survive. This cycle in turn sustains a remarkable and robust population of Africa's greatest predators - Lions, Leopards, Wild Dogs, Cheetah and some truly enormous Nile Crocodiles that lie in wait at key river crossings on route.
Wildebeest are large, quite strange looking members of the Antelope family with their forelegs larger and more developed than their hind legs; similar to related Topis and Hartebeest. Contrary to what you might believe, not all wildebeest migrate; where food and water is available year-round, these animals decide to stay put. The population in Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater is a good example of this.
Wildebeest get their name from early observations of the males' wild rutting behaviour. Males stake out small impermanent territories, where they begin frantic snorting, scent marking (from glands in their faces), through leaping, kicking and cavorting; rather like drunk teenage boys on a late night disco binge, all to impress the ladies! During the following wet season, a co-ordinated mass calving event takes place, which is their defence against predation; there are simply too many calves for the lions, leopards and hyenas to eat. Almost as soon as they are born, the Wildebeest are ready to run - another adaption for a dangerous life on the plains.
Blue Wildebeest (sometimes called the Brindled Gnu) are found in habitats ranging across East and Southern Africa, with a second large migration also taking place in Zambia's Liuwa Plain National Park.
This species is currently considered not endangered, but it's also good to bear in mind that the second wildebeest subspecies, the Black Wildebeest, with sharper, upward raised horns and remarkable white mane of hair on their backs, was hunted to near extinction in the wild in South Africa in the 19th Century. From perhaps only 300 remaining individuals, the Black Wildebeest has been rescued from the brink by a few dedicated individuals. Their population is now around 20,000, mainly in South Africa and Namibia. Proof that with a little help, great comebacks are possible!