Every year, the plains of East Africa provide the stage for one of the natural world's most impressive spectacles. Great herds of wildebeest, zebra, and other antelope gather in hundreds of thousands, to travel together across Tanzania and Kenya in search of good grazing, safe places to breed, and give birth. The timing of this Great Migration is dictated by the rains, but some of the best places to witness it in action include the Maasai Mara National Reserve and the Serengeti National Park.
Seeing the Great Migration in person is an awe-inspiring sight, as the plains transform as far as the eye can see into a living sea. Although this amazing event is often referred to as the Wildebeest Migration, in this case, the hirsute antelope were far outnumbered by braying, neighing zebra. Counting them is impossible, as the migration is an incredible concentration of wildlife.
During one trip, a lioness came within touching distance of a 4X4, and the sea of zebra parted in panic. Fortunately, the lioness was overwhelmed by the sheer number of them, and the presence of several other safari cars, and soon gave up. Peace was restored, and the zebra re-assumed their previously casual air, some supporting their heavy heads on each others' backs. In between the mass of stripy bodies, you could see the wildebeest grazing happily.
Ultimate Travel Companions
One local guide Sarumbo (an expert speaking from many years of first-hand experience) explained, that the two species travel together not because they're necessarily best mates, but because each has a set of adaptations that perfectly complement those of the other. Wildebeest, for example, graze predominantly on short grass, their mouths shaped to allow them to grip the juicy shoots. Zebra, on the other hand, have long front teeth designed to shear long grass. In this way, zebra act as lawnmowers preparing the ground for the wildebeest, and the two are never in competition for food.
According to Sarumbo, wildebeest also travel alongside zebra to make the most of the latter species' superior intelligence. Zebra, it seems, have better memories and can recall last year's migration routes, remembering hazardous places and areas of safety in equal detail. This is especially useful when the herds have to cross the mighty Mara and Grumeti Rivers. Whereas wildebeest jump blindly and hope for the best, the zebra is better at detecting crocodiles and therefore evading predation.
On the other hand, wildebeest are natural water diviners. Their physiology requires them to drink at least every other day, and this need is the basis for an incredibly well-developed sense of smell that allows them to detect water even when the savannah seems dry. The Serengeti can be very arid, even considering how recently the rains had fallen, it was easy to see why this talent might be invaluable to the wildebeests' zebra friends.
Ultimately, the two species are also brought together by shared needs and circumstances. Both live in great numbers on East Africa's vast plains, where dramatic wet and dry seasons cause a bounty of grass at sometimes, and a dearth of good grazing at others. To survive, both the zebra and the wildebeest must migrate to find food. It is beneficial to travel together, not only for the reasons listed above but because sheer numbers are their greatest defense against the migration's many predators.