The Serengeti ecosystem is home to one of the most magnificent feats of the animal world. Every year, for thousands of years, wildebeest herds have traversed the plains in search of grazing pastures. And this migration pattern is one of the only left of its kind.
In a stretch spreading approximately 1,750 miles (around the distance from Portland, Maine to Key West, Florida), these gentle giants have traveled annually just as their ancestors did. But it's becoming increasingly more difficult. According to Charlie Hamilton James, who devoted two years of his life to wildebeest tracking, the yearly migration is up against influencing factors like droughts and lack of resources. "They're looking for grass. Not much to eat here," he pointed out to a National Geographic reporter who asked why they weren't following their usual path.
But the determination and adaptability of this African mammal are two of the reasons that they've managed to sustain their numbers relatively well, despite constant roadblocks. Troubling weather patterns and uneasy terrain are a part of life for these wandering creatures, and they often find themselves recalculating their route in order to secure ample food. In addition, there has been a rise of human-made obstacles, such as fencing for cattle crops, plus rivaling flocks of goats and sheep.
The annual migration isn't an easy trek by any means, and Charlie confirms that he's seen thousands of wildebeests lose their lives to attacks from predators, drowning in unruly rivers, and even being trampled to death by their own herd. To an outsider, it may seem as though these simple animals walk to their own demise every year. But as Ekai Ekalale, a Kenyan guide, stated, "no animals are stupid. Some are smarter than others." However, the species quizzical choices have perplexed neighboring communities for generations. Ekai even shared a local folktale that suggested that wildebeest had the "brain of a flea."
And yet, despite everything stacked against them, the wildebeest continues to embark on the largest mammal migration on the continent. They are a true emblem of resilience in an age of constant change.