The plains of the southern Serengeti become a giant maternity ward in February, as wildebeest calves are born in their thousands. Around 8,000 calves come into the world each day – making a total of about 300,000 over the calving season.
Wildebeest – also called gnu or wildebai – band together in herds tens of thousands strong because there’s safety in numbers. The bigger the group, the less risk an individual faces of being picked out by a predator such as a lion, hyena or cheetah.
The herd forms a barrier around female wildebeest while they give birth, and immediately afterwards, when the newborns are finding their feet. Calves learn to walk within minutes of being born, and within days can keep up with the rest of the herd. There are an estimated 1.5 million wildebeest in the Serengeti, which extends from northern Tanzania to southwest Kenya. For many, life is an endless journey, moving around 3,000km each year in a more or less clockwise direction following the rains, because where that falls, the grazing is lush and there’s water to drink.
If you want to spot wildebeest, or you’re a lion on the hunt for a meal, the predictability of their relentless migration is great news. But, as a member of the agile antelope family, the wildebeest are far from being easy prey and predators must work hard for a kill. Grazing alongside the wildebeest are zebras and gazelles – both react quickly to the threat of attack, and provide an early warning system for the herd, which can stampede for safety, and reach top running speeds of as much as 80km/h.