The Serengeti: How to Have an Epic Wildlife Experience [Tips]
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Imagine yourself standing in the savannah, surrounded by breathtaking nature and fascinating sounds.
The wind blows strong, throwing dust into your eyes, making it hard for you to see what’s right in front of you.
As it turns out, a pack of lions has just decided it’s time to look for lunch! They move in complete synchrony as they chase their prey – a herd of wildebeest – across the vast plains.
Success! The lions caught their prey and start to devour their lunch. All the while, against the same backdrop of the savannah, groups of gazelles and impalas graze, while the zebras quench their thirst at a waterhole where the crocodiles are looking for their next meal.
If this all sounds too exciting to be true. Think again. This is just another day in the Serengeti, a quintessential safari destination in Africa!
Going on a safari in Serengeti surely is a life-changing experience. But what exactly makes it so special? And what should one do to experience the best of what the Serengeti has to offer?
Fret not, in this article we’re detailing information on the best ways to experience the spectacular Serengeti as well as the wildlife species you are likely to spot during your safari.
But first, what makes the Serengeti so special?
The Serengeti is a vast plain that is made up of over 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of savannah. The Masai word for it is ‘endless plains’. The sheer size of the Serengeti makes it a unique and important ecosystem in Africa.
Serengeti National Park, which makes up part of the Serengeti ecosystem, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as one of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders.
Each year the Serengeti becomes hosts to the largest mammal migration in the world, where over two million wildebeests and hundreds of other animals traverse the area in search of food and water. This spectacular annual journey is often referred to as “The Great Migration”.
Curious travelers and nature enthusiasts alike flock to the Serengeti time and time again, often on a safari to witness this incredible movement of wildlife.
>> Planning to visit Tanzania’s amazing game reserve but aren’t sure where to start? Read our detailed guide to visiting Serengeti National Park.
Where is the Serengeti located?
The Serengeti ecosystem is not located in just one country in Africa. It spreads across Tanzania and Kenya.
In Tanzania, the Serengeti comprises the Serengeti National Park and several smaller reserves, while in Kenya, it spans over the Masai Mara.
>>Planning to experience Kenya’s spectacular game reserve? Then read our guide to visiting the Masai Mara National Reserve.
Smaller reserves in Tanzania that make up the ecosystem include the Maswa Game Reserve, the Grumeti and Ikorongo Game Reserves, and the Loliondo Game Controlled Area.
Though made up of different reserves and parks, there are no significant barriers or fences that will hamper migration, allowing for the ecosystem to stay intact and animals to move freely.
What is the best time to visit the Serengeti?
Weather conditions in the Serengeti are usually extreme with harsh winds and immense heat. The best time to visit the Serengeti is usually determined by the occurrence of rain, as it influences the onset of migration.
The wildebeest migration begins in December in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, south of Tanzania, where the animals begin their 1930 km (1,200 miles) journey.
In February and March, the wildebeest bear their young and move north towards the Maasai Mara in May in search of grass and water supply. For most of the animals, the journey is perilous as predators lurk in search of easy prey. To reach the Maasai Mara, the animals have to cross the Grumeti River where crocodiles lie patiently before attacking.
Once making the dramatic river crossing, the animals stay in the Mara from July to October and make their way back South when the rain returns, and the cycle begins again.
>>Do you want to experience the Serengeti in both countries? Then check out our itinerary combining safaris in Kenya & Tanzania!
How to best experience the Serengeti
Photo credit: Soin Africa Safaris
The highlights of most visits in the Serengeti are the game drives. This spectacular area is particularly known for the migration of the wildebeest, its numerous lion population, and good birding opportunities.
The Serengeti, however, is huge, so don’t expect to “see everything” in a mere visit.
Most visitors to the area opt for a migration safari for a chance to witness the heart-pumping yearly event.
The actual movement of the herds is dependent on the rainfall, so make sure to ask your safari operator about the best time to visit based on what you want to see.
Whether you opt for a budget safari in the Serengeti or prefer to splurge on a luxury experience, you’ll have the time of your life. The differences are mostly related to how you get to the accommodation – by car or plane - , whether you stay in a basic tent or high-end lodge -, as well as what amenities are available.
Aside from witnessing the Great Migration, both the Serengeti and Masai Mara, are home to the Big Five animals. Indeed, the lion population is thriving – after all, the “Big Cat Diary” was filmed in the Mara -, but you will also get a chance to spot the African elephant, the African leopard, and the Cape buffalo. That said, the endangered black rhinos are notoriously hard to spot.
Photo credit: Rosolo Safaris
Getting a bird’s eye view over the immense plains is a bucket-list experience many visitors wish to experience here. Choose a hot air balloon safari and let yourself be mesmerized by the endless expanse. You get to see the sunrise from the balloon and, after touching down, you’ll be treated to a glass of champagne and spectacular breakfast!
Another option is to choose a light-airplane ride over the Serengeti. The views aren’t as spectacular, but the experience is more budget-friendly and still offers a great way to get an aerial view.
For a more “down-to-earth” experience, you can opt for a walking safari in the Masai Mara. During a guided walk your senses are heightened, and, without the hum of the motor vehicles, you’ll be able to enjoy the calming sounds of nature.
You can even choose to explore the Masai Mara on horseback. Just imagine galloping past the zebras and giraffes!
Should you want to get a chance to see the animals active at night, you can join a night drive. Do note that night drives are forbidden in both the Serengeti National Park and the Masai Mara Game Reserve, but private conservancies located just outside of these areas permit such drives.
No matter what type of safari you choose to explore the Serengeti, the photography opportunities are endless. But a photography safari is a great way to get even more out of the experience.
Thankfully, there is no need to be a professional photographer to join such a safari. All you need is a keen eye and a willingness to learn. Your guide will help you decide the best time for photos and great locations for golden photo opportunities.
Wildlife in Serengeti
The most well-known specie that is part of the Great Migration is none other than the wildebeest. A whooping 1.5 million of them move from Tanzania to Kenya each year. However, they are not the only wildlife involved that you will have the opportunity to spot in the Serengeti.
Below is a list of the amazing animals that you will likely to see during your safari in the Serengeti.
Over 200,000 zebras accompany the wildebeests on their annual migration and usually arrive first at the Mara, where they can be found chomping down grass. The zebras, with their superb eyesight and hearing, great agility, and unique stripes, work together to fend off incoming predators during the migration, though some still fall victim to the attacks of mighty predators such as the lion and cheetah.
Did you know that the Serengeti migration isn’t the only migration that zebras participate in? Zebras have been recently discovered to journey over 1,000km / 621 miles through the Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana each year – a more arduous trek than the Great Migration due to the remoteness of the area.
The Predators (Lions, Hyenas, and Cheetahs)
Where there is prey, there will surely be predators. The promise of over 2 million wildebeests with over 500,000 calves and plenty other smaller mammals including impalas, elands and Thomson’s gazelles attracts many predators including the African lions, cheetahs, hyenas, and wild dogs.
Crossing the Grumeti River also puts the migratory animals at risk of being attacked by the Nile crocodiles inhabiting the area.
These tall and magnificent mammals roam the African plains with over 4,000 living within the Serengeti ecosystem.
Height matters for the giraffe and a giraffe’s leg alone is 6 feet (1.8 meters) - taller than most humans! Their height enables them to reach leaves on treetops including from the acacia trees, which thrive in the Serengeti.
To support their large stature, a giraffe’s heart weighs at least 25 pounds (11 kg). This is necessary to enable the heart to be strong enough to pump blood to the giraffe’s brain.
The quiet waterbucks are frequent inhabitants of the plains close to the Grumeti River in the Mara as they prefer to live near a stable source of water.
Unlike wildebeests and zebras, waterbucks are not migratory animals so, chances of spotting them even during the off-season are highly likely.
This sedentary animal is large and robust, with the male being at least 25% larger than its female counterpart. While the waterbuck is a known prey to lions and hyenas, older waterbucks aren’t desirable choices as their meat has an unpleasant odor caused by the waterproofing secretions of their sweat glands.
The African Wild Dog, also known as painted dog, is an endangered species in Africa. In the 90s, populations of wild dogs in the Serengeti disappeared, causing experts to believe that the species was extinct.
Fortunately, they reappeared in 2000 and were found east of Serengeti National Park in Loliondo. To conserve the wild dogs' population, the Serengeti Painted Wolves Project worked on protecting these packs and moved them in phases back into Serengeti National Park.
Inspired by the wildlife drama in the Serengeti? Experience it for yourself on a Kenya-Tanzania multi-country safari!