Watching Wildebeest in the Massai Mara

We've arrived in the Massai Mara, the best known game reserve in Kenya. Contiguous with the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, one of the greatest shows on earth is taking place-namely, the annual "Wildebeest Migration." Having seen this phenomenon in the Lion King movie, I thought I had an inkling of what to expect. I'll have to say, however, that seeing this spectacle in person is something I won't be forgetting anytime soon.

While the Mara resembles an outdoor zoo without bars, teeming with wild life, the sheer numbers of wildebeests really dominate this extravaganza. These creatures are of the genus Connochaetes, or antelope. There are 2 species that are native to Africa. The black wildebeests reside in open grassland habitats in the south. The species we're seeing today, the blue wildebeests, reside in more northern latitudes and has changed very little over the past million years based on fossil records.

Every year, approximately 2 million of these animals migrate from the Masai Mara to the Serengeti in search of lush new grass. This allows them to avail themselves of the wet season on the plains of the southeast, while taking advantage of the dry season in the woodlands of the northwest.

The blue wildebeests are the most abundant big game species in East Africa. At the conclusion of the rainy season, breeding takes place. New calves soon become active and are able to keep up with the herd as the migration begins.

An ongoing pilgrimage, the wildebeests travel 800 km on a journey that has no real beginning or end. Always on the lookout for water to drink daily, their movement is innately directed towards storms on their expedition.

The wildebeests are not alone on this passage. Approximately 800,000 zebras and gazelles round out the expedition, in essence, forming one super herd. These mammals appear to have a symbiotic relationship in which the zebras feed on long, tough grass stems. The short grass that remains is ideally suited to the broad muzzle of the wildebeests as they leave the formation for grazing.

Magical as it is, this journey is considered one of the "Seven New Wonders of the World." Today we're going to find out why. We approach the Mara River and Mui Gai, our guide, parks our Land Rover a fair distance off to the side. Thousands of wildebeests and zebras are congregating on the river's bank. All of a sudden, the first wildebeest plunges into the river to make his crossing. Within seconds, he is taken down by a crocodile, blood spurting in every direction. Quite by instinct, with the crocodile now occupied by his meal, the herd of wildebeests and zebras launch themselves into the river to make their crossing on their way to Tanzania. We sit in the Land Rover, put our camera's down, and take in the show. This is clearly "The World Cup of Wildlife."

The next day, we are up at the crack of dawn, cameras in tow, searching the Mara for its abundant wildlife. Our goal is to see and photograph all of the "Big Five" that include lions, leopards, African elephants, cape buffalo and black rhinoceros. The sun has just arisen on the horizon, and lo and behold, we're within 100 yards of a female lion who is in the process of finishing her morning wildebeest meal. What a scene!

Mui Gai has seen all of this his entire life. For us Americans, however, this display of wildlife in its natural habitat is, perhaps, the most moving natural phenomenon we've experienced to date. We've seen four of the "Big Five" on our safari so far. Only the elusive leopard remains. I keep my fingers crossed as we continue our adventure in East Africa.