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Seven Magnificent Mammal Migrations to Add To Your Africa Bucket List

The Mystery of Migrations

Throughout the year, for reasons often imperceptible to our human senses, species respond to ancient signals that tell them it is time to move.  On some occasions, these movements involve small populations or are restricted in their distance.  While on others, the numbers run into millions, and the distances covered are vast.  


The move may be precipitated by a localized event, such as a fire, but most mass migrations are annual events undertaken to reach essential resources, breeding grounds or escape harsh environments.  The triggers that set off migrations are varied, from the scent of rain over the horizon to the change of the seasons and the promise of greener pastures elsewhere.

A Universal Imperative

Migrations are common amongst all forms of wildlife; including the daily planktonic migration from the ocean’s depth to its surface, incalculable swarms of insects crossing continents on multi-generational diasporas, endless streams of birds moving between the hemispheres, synchronous shoals of fish traversing oceans and merging tributaries of mammals treading deep pathways across the earth.


The move may be precipitated by a localized event, such as a fire, but most mass migrations are annual events undertaken to reach essential resources, breeding grounds or escape harsh environments.  The triggers that set off migrations are varied, from the scent of rain over the horizon to the change of the seasons and the promise of greener pastures elsewhere.

A Benefit to All

Beyond the survival of the species concerned, migrations’ secondary benefits to the environment include pollination, seed distribution, as well as energy and nutrient exchanges.  Predators experience a temporary glut of prey, while the health of prey populations is regulated as the sick and injured are removed from the gene pool.  Their paths mark the strands that define the interconnectedness of all living things, reminding us that we too depend on these events for our own survival


Africa’s mammal migrations are amongst the most remarkable and accessible wildlife spectacles one can see, drawing a mix of conservationists, researchers, and tourists who will witness Herbert Spencer’s principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ in real time.  Our fascination with these events – whether scientific or lay persons – indirectly contributes to the perpetuation of these ancient rites of passage, as funds are granted for research and local economies benefit through tourism and international conservation initiatives.  


Sadly though, ignorance and greed also led to the disappearance of some great migrations, as happened when veterinary fences erected in the 1950s in Botswana blocked the traditional migratory routes of zebra and wildebeest, leading to the deaths of millions of animals and accelerated desertification.


In this article, we reveal seven of Africa’s most awe-inspiring migrations along with where and when to find them, also explaining their importance to man and beast alike.  Traveling from the past to the present and by land, sea and air – we invite you to journey with us as we explore this vital, mysterious and magnificent extravaganza.

Africa’s Great Mammal Migration

Springbok Migration

The springbok migration of yesteryear

South Africa’s national animal, the springbok, once roamed the country in herds so vast it was said that the dust they generated could choke a man.  Tales were told of wagon parties swamped in their midst, of travel delayed by days as the herd crossed the landscape.  No one knows how large these herds were – with estimates running into the tens of millions – we only know that it is a spectacle that was last witnessed in 1896 and is unlikely to ever be repeated.  


We know too that there is one common denominator in all the factors that led to the demise of what probably dwarfed today’s largest migrations – man.  Between hunting, fencing and farming, the once great herd was slaughtered, blocked and divided, until only remnant populations were left, largely confined to national parks and private lands.  Today, the Mountain Zebra-Camdeboo Corridor Project is exploring whether parts of this migration might be resurrected across central South Africa.

The longest mammal migration of them all

As the sun dips ever lower in its trajectory across the northern horizon, diminished light in the Antarctic Circle results in decreased algal growth beneath the ice.  With their food source suspended, krill populations plummet, reducing in turn the preferred food of humpback whales that consume it by the ton through the summer.  This is an opportune time for these once-endangered leviathans to tap into their stored energy reserves, turning north in search of warmer waters essential to their breeding success.  

Over 15,000 humpbacks set off on the longest of all mammal migrations, heading to the subtropical waters off northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania.  Taking into account the return journey to the Southern Ocean, the migration covers upwards of 10,000 miles.  As they pass close to the shores of South Africa from June to November, you can get an up-close glimpse of the whales, ideally from one of the permitted whale-watching vessels that depart from locations from Cape Town to Richards Bay.  

With an annual population growth of 7%, the migration is a rare chance to celebrate a conservation success story – although there is a concern as to whether the effects of climate change will upset this success.  There is already evidence of this in the region’s southern right whale population, with females migrating to breed less frequently, presumably due to a lack of food.

The largest mammal migration on Earth

The Kasanka National Park in Zambia is often overlooked due to its small size and relative scarcity of wildlife.  Yet every year, it plays host to the largest concentration of migrating mammals on the planet.  This incredible event takes place annually from October to December, attracting a high demand for the limited camping facilities.  Notably, the park is also renowned for excellent bird-watching.

Up to twelve million straw-colored fruit bats migrate over thousands of miles from the Congo Basin to the Kasanka forest to feast on the fruit of a variety of trees, borne a few weeks after the first rains of the season.  The migration is vital to the regional forest ecosystem with the bats essential to pollination, seed dispersal and nutrient exchange while providing a valuable food source to both predatory birds and mammals.

The migration that we almost lost forever

Zambia is also home to the second largest land migration on the African continent – that of over 30,000 wildebeest and a similar number of zebras, over some 300 miles.  Until recently, the numbers of both species were dwindling as the Liuwa Plains National Park was neglected and threatened by the expansion of neighboring rice farming activities.  

Almost poetically, the park, which was conceived as part of the conservation legacy of a 19th-century paramount chief, rose from its ashes thanks to a unique public-private partnership.  It has since received considerable protection along with substantial re-stocking programmes and investment in tourism infrastructure.  

With this, the benefits to the grasslands and shaping of predator-prey relationships are seeing this park emerge as the must-see park in central southern Africa.  The migration takes place around November each year as rising water levels force the herds southeast in search of fresh grazing. The best time to visit is after the first rain in November as the flush of new grass emerges.

The migration of the largest land mammals

While the majority of the ancient migratory routes of elephants no longer exist, one can still witness what it might have looked like before fences and settlements interrupted their  long-distance migrations by visiting northern Botswana.  Renowned for having the highest density in the world, Chobe National Park is said to be home to some 50,000 African elephants, of an estimated 130,000 in the country.  

During the dry season – from June to October – as resources become scarce, many of the elephants head west toward the Linyanti and Savute regions of Botswana.  Others head over into Namibia and Zambia, thanks to the creation of the  Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – a trans-national wildlife corridor created in part to facilitate the return of historical natural wildlife movements.

The continuation and expansion of the Botswana elephant migration are essential in promoting nutrient cycling, as dung is trampled back into the earth in the wake of the elephant’s progress.  Surpassed only by man in their ability to change their environment, elephants are ‘ecosystem engineers’.  Their destructive feeding habits are critical to vegetation dynamics, simultaneously shaping predator-prey dynamics by creating grasslands which allow new species to move into areas they previously found too thick.

The greatest show on Earth

The most famous and dramatic of Africa’s migrations – the East African wildebeest migration – pauses only in the southern Serengeti plains of Tanzania.  From January to March;  the females give birth and strengthen their young for the arduous trek that lies ahead.  By April, the great herd of up to 1.5 million wildebeest along with hundreds of thousands of zebras and other antelope, start to leave the depleted grasslands, heading northwest to the Western Corridor of the Serengeti.  

Predators, swollen rivers and massive crocodiles await as they surge across the Grumeti River heading northward.  Come July/August, the crossing of the Mara River is considered the most dramatic event of the migration, before finally reaching the Masai Mara, where they will graze until November.  As summer intensifies, the herd now begins its southward leg via the Eastern Corridor, reaching the southern Serengeti in late January for the next calving season.  

As with other migrations, the benefits to the ecosystem are vast, as are the inputs to the national economy brought through tourism.  Nonetheless, there is a concern in some quarters due to growing human encroachment on the route, the possible impact of mass tourism, and political differences over land use – all of which could be to the detriment of the great migrations’ integrity and future.

Why Witnessing a Migration is a Must-Do Experience

While human migration is largely a thing of the past, except when driven by conflict or natural disasters, we retain a primal connection to the migratory instinct.  Witnessing a migration is an opportunity to connect with Nature, be awestruck by its diverse beauty, and learn more about nature’s interconnected complexities.

It is a very attractive vacation option for people of all ages and from all walks of life.  If you love Nature – whether you’re a well-traveled retiree, value sharing unique experiences as a family, are traveling on a budget, or are looking to broaden your knowledge and possibly contribute to a conservation cause – then a migration-centered safari is for you.  For photographers, migrations offer unparalleled opportunities to catch dramatic images that showcase Nature at its abundant best.

How to Witness an African Migration

Given their popularity, if you’d like to see a migration firsthand, you’ll need to start planning well in advance.  Once you’ve decided on which of the migrations you’d like to see, you’ll also have to consider the timing, as migrations are typically seasonal events but can nevertheless never be accurately predicted.  Here is a breakdown of when the migrations mentioned above, occur;


  • The Serengeti-Masai Mara migration is best witnessed from July to October. 
  • The zebra and wildebeest migration of Liuwa Plain occurs in November. 
  • The elephant migration in Botswana takes place from July to November, while the two zebra migrations occur from December to May in Nxai Pan and June to October in Makgadikgadi Pans. 
  • Kasanka National Park’s fruit bat migration occurs from late October to early December.
  • The humpback whale migration is best witnessed from late June to November along the South African coast.


Be sure to book with a reputable tour operator, such as Fair Trade Safaris, which specializes in African travel and has additional insight into the logistics of migration-specific safaris.

Mammal migrations in Africa are a remarkable natural phenomenon that offers a unique opportunity to witness nature’s splendor, understand ecosystem functioning, and support conservation efforts. Seeing a migration should be on everyone’s bucket list, and with proper planning and guidance, it can be a life-changing experience that creates lasting memories.

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