By Melissa Moubarak
The annual migration of herbivores from the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania to the Masai Mara in Kenya is a wildlife phenomenon projecting timeless notions of survival, evolution and our origins since the dawn of time. Melissa Moubarak travels to Kenya and discovers her connection to the cradle of life.
The sound strikes you first. It rumbles in the distance like approaching thunder. Only then do you see the cloud in the distance, storming closer and closer until you can make out the outlines of figures stampeding westward. The wildebeest are in full migration pattern. After crossing the Seregenti plains in Tanzania, they arrive to the Masai Mara ecosystem in Kenya where greener pastures await them during the September dry season. That is, if they can survive the Mara river crossing.
About 2 million herbivores carry out this annual migration, regarded by many as the ‘World Cup of Wildlife’. Gazelles, Zebras, and Elands feature in supporting roles, but the main act is the Wildebeest. Its bearded, wrinkled face speaks of wisdom and old age, but its body is strong and fast. Evolution has designed the wildebeest to be constantly on the move, one step ahead of predators. A newborn is up and running within 5 minutes and can already outrun a lioness.
Huddled in our little camouflaged van, we sit tight, on the edge of our seat. This could be the moment of truth. Thousands of wildebeest have made it to the edge of the river and now they wait, ponder and analyze. The crossing is a necessity, but the water is infested with predators. Namely the hungry crocodiles, for which the migration is akin to a Christmas feast. The wildebeest epitomize the herd mentality par excellence. They can stand on the edge of the water for days without making the cross. But all it takes is one. Call it reckless, foolhardy or a daredevil trailblazer.
As soon as one wildebeest jumps into the water, all herds break loose. The chaos is unnerving, even from the relative safety of our vantage point, the action is violent. There is an incomparable frenzy of hooves in frothing waters. Calves drown in the strong currents of the river whinnying and bleating out in despair. A crocodile surfaces with a snap and takes down an entire zebra. The herbivore panics, kicking and flailing about in an effort to get away. One makes a lucky escape, another is not so fortunate. The spectacle is terrifying, exciting, fascinating. It awakens primal instincts you didn’t know were inside of you. It is the law of the jungle being exacted in front of your very eyes. You know each scene will be imprinted in your mind forever.
Abasi, our guide, is a member of the Kenya Professional Safari Guides Association. He is deeply passionate about his heritage, proud to share it with all those interested to visit. But he is also fiercely protective of it. He tells us that while tourists are an important source of income for Masai tribes around the Mara, lax regulations and corruption is wreaking havoc on this sensitive ecosystem. Camps and resorts have started encroaching on the Mara reserve in an effort to bring tourists ‘closer’ to the action and into the ‘real’ experience. But the result is a disruption to the animals’ way of life. Cheetah and Lions have practically become accustomed to seeing humans. We spotted a lion lounging in the afternoon sun and were terrified as our van drove past. But the big cat could not be less flustered. He gave us a roar and with a yawn the size of my head, resumed his nap.
The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is considered the cradle of life. Some of the earliest fossils were found here, nestled under the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro. As you step out into the wild, you can instinctively feel the timeless connection with the origins of man. But it has also become the theatre of modern conflict between an ever more urbanized man and his primordial animal counterparts. A tug of war over land and resources between man and animal is playing out in Africa today. Just because we are at the top of the food chain, doesn’t mean we have the rights to invade their territory. It is our responsibility to maintain the balance in the circle of life.