When European explorers first arrived and wondered at the great grassy plains of East Africa the best part of a hundred years ago, one of the things that impressed them most of all was the abundance of the plains game -- an abundance that was intensified two or three times a year when millions of animals congregated in small areas and trekked in dense herds, often many miles in extend, in search of seasonal rains and sweet young grass.
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Background: When European explorers first arrived and wondered at the great grassy plains of East Africa the best part of a hundred years ago, one of the things that impressed them most of all was the abundance of the plains game -- an abundance that was intensified two or three times a year when millions of animals congregated in small areas and trekked in dense herds, often many miles in extend, in search of seasonal rains and sweet young grass.
The migratory habits of certain antelopes -- notably the springbok of Southern Africa -- were already well-known, though by the eighteen eighties and nineties the vast herds of many millions of springbok which had sometimes taken several days to pass watchers in the early nineteenth century had already ben decimated by hunters in search of meat and by farmers whose crops the antelopes had ravaged.
But the East African migrations were something else again. Not only did they involve many millions of animals, but these creatures were of several species: wildebeest, hartebeest, zebra, topi and others among the herbivores, to say nothing of the hundreds of prides of lion and other predators which find these seasonal concentrations of their prey provide a time of easy pickings.
Today, it's been estimated that no more than seven percent of all the animals that once lived in East Africa survive. Yet, so huge were the numbers a hundred years ago, that this still comes to a lot of animals; and thanks tot the care which has been taken by the Governments of Kenya and Tanzania to preserve the game in National Parks and Game Reserves, the annual migrations still take place in the orasslands -- a nerennial wonder to both citizens and ??? famous Serengeti National Park nd in Kenya's Masai Mara Game reserve which is only separated form the Serengeti by the national boundary dividing the two countries. Plains game, of course, know nothing about such boundaries, and in most years cross and re-cross two or three times between Kenya and Tanzania during the course of a vast ad almost circular peregrination which ensures them at any time the best available supplies of food and water.
The actual route they take and its timing depend, of course, on the weather which can be as unpredictable in East Africa as anywhere else in the world. In years of abundant and widespread rainfall over the plains, there may be no migration it all, as the animal can find ??? grace and plentiful water without moving. In yours of drought's or very irregular rain, they may concentrate in vast numbers in the few ??? where there is enough to eat and drink. And unseasonable weather may mean that the migrations begin and end at unseasonable times of year.
1973 and 1974 have bene untypical years from the point of view of rainfall in East Africa. The long rains which normally come in March and April failed in 1973, and though the animals in the Serenguti and Mara did not suffer as badly as in other places -- Nairobi National Park, for instance, where the drought was responsible for the death of thousands of plains game, especially hartebeest -- yet they found survival hard enough. The short ranis of October and November, 1973 were also disappointing, and by the time this year's long rains came round again in March, the situation in many areas was desperate, with a severe shortage of good green grass for the millions of herbivores that depend upon it. However, these rains turned out again untypical, and instead of failing steadily for a couple of months were spread out and extended for into what is normally a dry season.
Perhaps this is the reason that the migration near the Tanzanian border in Masai Mara came several months early this year. Normally, tourist -- especially keen photographers -- congregate at Keeckorok Lodge in this area in November and December, knowing that they will get on opportunity at this time to sea and take pictures of the great herds, often within only a mile or two of the lodge. But the 1974 migrations has already started, and long lines of game -- mostly wildebeest -- have already begun to stretch out, impaled by the instinct that leads them where the grass is greener and the water easier to find.
The most impressive way to witness the migration is, of course, for the air. Viewed from above, the lines of wildebeest look rather like the troops of ants one sometimes sees leading from a bowl of sugar in the pantry to their pest. Here and there, the lines condense into great masses, all apparently moving towards some distant goal. In some places, the wildebeest trek placidly along tracks worn by the first-comers; in others they plunge and kick as wildly as unbroken ponies as they career across the plains or leap across the small streams that interested. But everywhere they seem to know where they are going; there is no hesitation in the imperative which seems to turn the herds of several thousand animals into single creatures each in ??? single goal.
According to Mr. Simeon Tipis, the Chief Game Warden of the Mara, there ae as many as 40,000 to 50,000 wildebeest in the immediate vicinity of Keekerok Lodge, and there may be over half a million involved in the migration altogether. For some mysterious reason, the numbers of other species making the migration is quite small, and though small herds of zebra, hartebeest and topi are to be seen here and there, the great movement is essentially of wildebeest.
At all events, early or late, many species of few, it's a wonderful sight, not to be missed by any lover of East Africa's beautiful plains game. However often on has witnessed this migration, it can never fail to impress -- and to remind one that net all the world's greatest spectacles are man-made.