The Mara Migration

Published on the 28th of July, 2022

There is nothing quite like it: The Great Migration, the largest uninterrupted migration to take place on our planet and one of the natural wonders of the world. Every year, millions of ungulates undertake this 1,200-mile trek towards greener pastures, propelled forth by their innate drive to survive.

I was fortunate enough to witness the migration unfold in the Mara earlier this month. And now, I would like to share the experience with you, accompanied by my sons’ stunning photographs. The Mara is a pivotal ecosystem in East Africa, and the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is proud to play a part in its conservation. As we look forward to World Ranger Day on 31st July, I am also delighted to share an interview with one of our own rangers, a key player in the Tsavo landscape.

– Angela Sheldrick

The Mara Migration

It begins with an undulating column of bodies that stretches as far as the eye can see. One wildebeest is followed by a million more. The Great Migration has arrived in the Mara.

More than two million animals make this pilgrimage each year, following the rains in a great arc that will take them through Tanzania and into Kenya. They are joined by hundreds of thousands of zebras and antelope, all seeking out grazing land and water. It is a perilous trek, fraught with danger at every turn. Lions, leopards, cheetahs, and hyenas lurk in the tall grasses, while crocodiles lie in wait at water crossings. Still the cavalcade surges onwards, steered by the smell of fresh rain.

The procession crosses the gentle Sand River into the Maasai Mara. The Mara River crossing is where their journey reaches its climax. The wildebeest and their fellow travellers brave the treacherous waters, leaping off steep banks into the unknown. It is a frenzied race to the other side, battling predatory crocodiles and deep waters. Those who survive spend the next several months feasting on the plains of the Mara, before circling south back to the Serengeti to give birth. And thus their eternal journey begins anew.

For humans, the Migration is a spectacle that sits with you for a lifetime — but for these creatures, it is simply another step in their daily quest for survival. In reality, the Great Migration is not a single event, but one continual loop that has gone on for millennia.

While it is celebrated for the role it plays in this grand journey, the Mara is much more than the finale of the Great Migration. It is one of the most important ecosystems in Kenya, a place that rightly earns its place among East Africa’s most renowned wild spaces. Home to hundreds of species, including exceptional populations of elephants, leopards, lions, and cheetahs, the Mara is a cradle of life.

And yet, all that hangs in the balance. Like so many landscapes across Africa, the Mara is caught in the crosshairs of human expansion. While the Maasai Mara National Reserve, Mara Triangle, and many surrounding Maasai conservancies and group ranches remain protected, development and cultivation continue to chip away at the greater Mara ecosystem.

This inevitably drives an uptick in poaching, snaring, and most notably, human-wildlife conflict, as animals unwittingly venture outside protected boundaries and come into contact with communities. No creature is as susceptible to this as the elephant. Driven by their ancestral instincts to wander great distances in search of food, they find themselves in places where they are no longer welcome.

Recognising the growing threats facing the Mara, we established our SWT/KWS Mara Mobile Veterinary Unit back in 2007. Following in the footsteps of our first Tsavo-based team, it has become a veterinary force in its own right, saving hundreds of wild lives over the years. Several of the Kenya Wildlife Service’s most illustrious veterinarians have served at its helm. First was Dr Dominic Mijele, who ran the unit for more than six years. He was followed by Dr Campaign Limo, who worked in the Mara until earlier this year, when he took leadership of the Tsavo Vet Unit. Now, Dr Ephantus Ndambiri heads the team.

Reflecting the challenges facing the ecosystem, most of Mara Unit’s patients are victims of human-wildlife conflict or snares. Earlier this month, a two-for-one operation further drove these challenges home. Over the course of a single afternoon, we treated two vastly different creatures in the Mara, each harmed by the human hand. First was a bull elephant who had been speared in the head, likely as a result of human-wildlife conflict. While the attack left him blinded in one eye, he will make an otherwise full recovery.

No sooner had the team sent the elephant off into the bush than they had to turn to their next patient, a female giraffe with a large snare around her neck. Fortunately, the snare was fairly fresh, as it had not yet cinched into the skin. We are all-too-familiar with the fatal outcome of a snare left untended for too long, so it felt like an enormous win to reach this female in time.

Stories like these unfold every single day. Through the years, too many memorable treatments stand out to possibly list them all: There was Siena, the lioness of the famous Marsh Pride, whose entire side was gored by a buffalo in 2014. The team pulled off a spectacular feat in patching her up, saving the lives of her three cubs in the process. (Sadly, Siena’s story came to an untimely end just four years later, after several members of the Marsh Pride were poisoned.)

Last year at this time, a massive crocodile was found lying forlornly on the banks of the Mara River, a massive spear protruding from his side. This presented a very challenging treatment for the Mara Unit. Given his size and location, capturing the crocodile was not an option. Instead, they devised an ingenious plan to dislodge the spear. Incredibly, the crocodile remained on the riverbank amidst all the commotion, as he understood that it was all unfolding for his benefit. Rather than swim away the moment the spear was removed, the newly freed crocodile took a moment to acknowledge his rescuers before disappearing into the current.

Our top goal is to save wild lives and, where possible, keep wild families together. Not long ago, the Mara Unit conducted a marathon treatment of three snared calves in a single day, successfully returning each one to their mother’s side. A few months prior, they treated a nursing mother who had an arrow lodged in her head. Her baby remained by her side throughout the treatment. Of course, bonds of friendship are just as important as family ties; I will always remember the day the Mara Unit treated two bulls, best friends who had been speared.

Where it is not possible to keep wild families together, we step in to save the orphans left behind. A good portion of our orphan herd hails from the Mara, including Enkesha, who was rescued with a wire snare nearly severing her trunk; Lemeki, our little miracle plucked the raging flood waters of the Mara River; Ziwadi, a fragile girl who experienced untold trauma; Roi, whose mother was killed by poachers; and many, many more. While fate changed the course of their lives, they will always carry a piece of the Mara with them.

Effective conservation is a patchwork of projects and partnerships, working in tandem. We are proud to work with local landowners and fellow field players to tackle the formidable threats facing the ecosystem. Our Aerial Unit regularly responds to field incidents, from veterinary emergencies to orphan rescues.

In 2018, we teamed up with Mara Elephant Project to establish an Anti-Poaching Team in the Mau Forest. A jewel in the greater Mara ecosystem, the Mau Forest is home to a local population of 650 elephants. The headwaters of the Mara River start beneath its leafy canopy, making it arguably the source of life in the landscape. The Mau Anti-Poaching Team made such an immediate impact that a second team was soon added, creating an even greater force against poachers, loggers, and other perpetrators. Now four years on, these rangers continue to exemplify how boots on the ground can transform a beleaguered landscape.

It is a sad irony that, while humans continue to lay siege to the world around them, nature moves onward, just as it always has. Every year, the circle of life unfolds on the plains and hundreds of creatures die in the Great Migration — but their lives aren’t lost in vain. They sustain lion prides with cubs to feed, hungry packs of hyenas, and crocodiles who spend the rest of the year essentially fasting.

In fact, the Great Migration’s river crossing victims even leave a legacy on a molecular level. As carcasses and bones decompose in the water, they provide the food that supports the Mara River’s fish and insect populations, while the phosphorus from the bones supports algae. Carcasses on the plains are fast devoured by predators, then later scavengers and birds, until the bones disintegrate back into the nutrient-rich soils of the Maasai Mara.

Again and again, I am reminded of how perfectly our natural world was created to sustain itself. Humans are but a piece of this great puzzle, and I often fear that we have forgotten our place. To witness the Great Migration is to see nature at its most perfect. It is a spectacular, humbling sight — one that galvanises us to do more, and do better, for our wild counterparts. We are the only threat to this extraordinary journey, and so it falls upon us to ensure it continues for millennia to come.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up below.
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