The mass migration of wildebeest across the East African savannah is routinely described as the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’. But how much do we know about the animal that plays the leading role? Mike Unwin fills us in on the what, why and wherefore of the wildebeest
May I ask what you were expecting?” enquires Torquay hotelier Basil Fawlty, when unhappy guest Mrs Richards requests a room with a view. “Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the Serengeti?”
This memorable episode from BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers seems to confirm the popular perception of wildebeest: that they make more of an impact upon us as a view than as individual animals. And when wildlife documentaries do offer us a closer look, it is generally of wildebeest as prey. We may be familiar with the flailing legs and bleats of terror as lion or crocodile do their grisly thing, but the camera seldom lingers long on the poor victim.
So what exactly is a wildebeest? Well, for a start, there are two species. The famous one, from Fawlty Towers to Big Cat Diary, is the blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus). But there is also the much rarer black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou), which is confined to central South Africa. Both are also known by the name ‘gnu’, a term thought to be derived from the original Khoisan language of southern Africa, in which the ‘g’ is silent.
Wildebeest are antelope, though safari first-timers sometimes mistake them for buffalo — which, given the dark coat, heavy forequarters and short, cow-like horns, is understandable. Specifically, they belong to the Alcelaphinae subfamily of antelope, alongside hartebeest, topi and blesbok. All are medium to large grazers, characterised by their long faces, sloping profiles and short, twisted horns. Wildebeest are shaggier than their cousins, however, sporting distinguished beards and manes, and long flywhisk tails.
The blue wildebeest is the larger of the two. Males weigh up to 250kg: substantial, but much lighter than a buffalo. ‘Blue’ may be pushing it, although the brown to charcoal coat does acquire a silver-grey sheen with age.
A few dark, vertical stripes on the flanks explain the alternative name of ‘brindled gnu’. Five subspecies occur, each subtly different in markings.
This species lives in loose herds of up to 30 animals, frequenting open plains surrounded by woodland. The celebrated mass migrations occur only in certain areas — notably the Serengeti, but also in Botswana’s Kalahari and western Zambia’s Liuwa Plain — and are a response to seasonal rainfall patterns. On these occasions, thousands may travel together in search of water and fresh grazing, often alongside other grazers such as zebra. An energy-efficient gait enables wildebeest to cover distance with ease. Disaster may ensue when their route is blocked, however: some 50,000 perished along the veterinary cordon
fences of Botswana during the mid-1980s drought.
The single rufous-fawn calf is born in early summer and can run with the herd within minutes of birth, helping it evade the lion, hyena and many other predators for whom wildebeest is top of the menu. While many youngsters are taken, the mass synchronised birthing — with thousands born simultaneously during one brief two- to three-week window — ensures that predators are overwhelmed and their overall impact on numbers is small.
Blue wildebeest have declined considerably over the past century and today you are unlikely to see them outside protected areas. In addition to the Serengeti, most large East African parks with appropriate habitat hold good numbers. Southern Africa’s largest gatherings are in the Kalahari and western Zambia, with sizeable separate populations in such parks as Kruger, Hwange, Moremi and Etosha. There are a few notable geographical anomalies, however: this species does not occur in the steep-sided Zambezi Valley, for example, and neither has it ever been sighted in Torquay.
The other gnu
The black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou), or white-tailed gnu, is endemic to South Africa, with small populations in neighbouring Swaziland and Lesotho. It is a striking chocolate-brown animal, quite distinct from its cousin, with a stiff mane on the neck and shoulders, tufts of hair on the face and chest, back-curved horns like racing-bike handlebars and a luxurious creamy plume of tail. It is also smaller, with a male weighing up to 180kg. Once common in central South Africa, moving seasonally between the high grasslands and the arid Karoo lowlands, it was almost exterminated at the turn of the 20th century. Careful conservation has since brought about a recovery and today you can see reintroduced populations in various reserves across the Karoo, Free State and Drakensberg. The range and habitat of the black wildebeest do not overlap naturally with those of the blue: where the two have been brought together artificially, hybridisation can be a problem.
An endless cycle
East Africa’s ‘great migration’ involves some 1.7 million blue wildebeest, plus several hundred thousand zebra, gazelle and other grazers. It is the greatest movement of large mammals on Earth and attracts arguably the biggest gathering of large carnivores. In reality, however, there is no single migration journey. They are continuously circulating 40,000sq km of the greater Serengeti Ecosystem in a never-ending search for food and water.
The movement follows a broad clockwise pattern, dependent on seasonal rainfall. January and February find the herds on the southern short-grass plains, where the cows drop their young (up to 400,000 calves) in one synchronised two- to three-week birthing window. Around late March, as these plains begin to dry out, they head for the western woodlands — guided towards new growth by distant thunderstorms. Here the annual rut takes place. The masses then follow the Western Corridor north, crossing several rivers, including the Grumeti and Mara. Though casualties are high, from drowning, crocodiles and other hazards, these represent just a fraction of the wildebeest born each year.
By August, they have crossed into the Masai Mara, the northernmost limit of their cycle, and are fattening up in the lush, green grasslands. Then by late October, when the short rains are once again falling on the plains in the south, they start heading south again. As they pass down through the eastern woodlands, the cows are carrying the new season’s young. Once they reach the short-grass plains, they spread out and give birth. And so the cycle continues.
The blue wildebeest’s diet comprises almost entirely grass. The same is true of the plains zebra (Equus quagga), with which it so often closely associates. Competition is avoided by their grazing techniques. Zebra prefer the longer grasses, using tougher digestive systems and shearing front teeth to process this coarser diet. Wildebeest prefer the shorter grasses, where their broader muzzle allows them to maximise their grazing efficiency. The two species may feed on different parts of the same grass: the zebra move in first, cropping the longer stalks; the wildebeest follow, munching the lower parts. Wildebeest also benefit from the zebra’s greater height and vigilance, which helps them spot danger. Wildebeest, meanwhile, have an uncanny nose for water, which aids their fellow travellers.
Where to watch wildebeest:
• Serengeti/Masai Mara (Tanzania/Kenya): Some 1.7 million blue wildebeest roam the Serengeti Ecosystem in an endless clockwise cycle.
• Tarangire National Park (Tanzania): This northern Tanzania park also witnesses a significant wildebeest migration, although numbers are not what they once were.
• Liuwa Plain (Zambia): The Barotse Floodplain of western Zambia sees perhaps the largest wildebeest migration outside the Serengeti, with recent protection helping restore numbers towards former levels.
• Kalahari (Botswana/South Africa): Cattle fences have made the huge Kalahari migrations a thing of the past, but good numbers of wildebeest still gather with the late rains (January to March) in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
• Etosha National Park (Namibia): Wildebeest jostle for position among the zebra, oryx, springbok and others that crowd dry season waterholes.
• Karoo National Park (South Africa): One of several smaller reserves in the Karoo and Free State regions where the rare black wildebeest has been successfully reintroduced to its former range.