It’s February in East Africa and something magical and disquieting is taking place before our eyes.
1.3 million wildebeest have gathered in the shadow of Ol Donyo Lengai (Mountain of God) to give birth to their young. They arrived here in December and by late January/early February, the females started giving birth to the first calves.
Within the next two or three weeks, 300,000 more new-born will fill these plains. They will remain here until the end of April. The adults graze happily on some of the richest grasses in the world, while their young suckle on their mothers’ milk, rich in potassium, calcium and sodium, the perfect food to develop strong bones and agility.
Photography by Simon Belcher
As we watch, many youngsters, just minutes old, struggle to stand on their feet, but within few minutes they are as steady as their parents and can run as fast.
We are in awe of what we see and seem to forget that this idyllic vision will morph into a struggle for survival when the super heard will divide up into smaller groups as the weather dries and the animals get ready to start their long and treacherous 3,000 km journey following the rains in search of greener pastures and water. The lucky survivors will return here at the end of their 7-month long odyssey having battled disease, starvation, thirst, fatigue and raging fires while 4 in 5 young will perish along the way.
For the first two months of their life however 90% will survive any danger protected by their sheer numbers, but as time passes nearly one third will also perish in the jaws of awaiting carnivores.
The adults know what lies ahead, but their compulsion to continue to migrate incessantly till their luck runs out sees the oldest, fittest and smartest follow the circuitous route more than 20 times in their lifetime.
“The only beginning is the moment of birth”
An Ancient Ritual
As we reflect on the sheer scale of this phenomenon that has been repeating itself year on year since time immemorial, we see female zebra taking their turn at giving birth on the edge of the wildebeest super herd. This reminds us that the wildebeest will not be alone on their way across Kenya and Tanzania in what is loosely called the Serengeti ecosystem.
They will share their fate across plains and rivers with other herbivores – zebra, gazelles and elephants while predators lurking in the distance will feast on the weakest, oldest and more inexperienced of them all.
In reality – there is neither a start nor a finish to the wildebeest’s endless search for food and water, as they circle the Serengeti and the Mara national parks, ‘the only beginning is the moment of birth’.
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