There's another great migration in Botswana

Cape Town-based Bushtracks’ guest blogger David Bristow describes Africa’s lesser-known great migration:  tens of thousands of zebra and more moving in search of water in northern Botswana.

The Makgadikgadi Zebra Migration

To set the scene – Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (pronounced \mä-ˌkä-dē-ˈkä-dē\) covers about one third of the 12,000 square kilometer saltpans which together form a vast expanse of pan and fringing grassland in the middle of the arid Kalahari Basin. In ancient times they were part of a great lake, the largest ever seen in Africa. This is the stage of Africa’s second largest yet little known zebra migration.

There is no longer any standing water within the Kalahari but the pans and surrounding grasslands hold innumerable pools through the summer rainy season, allowing wildlife to move freely through the area. However, as winter approaches and those pools dry up, wildlife is increasingly dependent on the Boteti River, an overflow of the Okavango Delta that drains southeast from that aquatic wonderland.


Zebras drinking water together Near Nxai Pan Migration Camp in Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana

A Less Predictable Migration

Starting around June a herd totaling around 20,000 zebras, as well as lesser numbers of wildebeest, eland, springbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, giraffe and elephants among them, begin the westward journey to the river. Through the dry winter months the river offers the only chance of drinking water in an area about the size of Portugal. This movement of wildlife is the second largest big game trek in Africa, after the spectacle of the Serengeti’s migration.

Several decades ago, before cattle stations and fences diced up the region, wildlife numbers were maybe five times current estimates. There is one distinction though: whereas in the Serengeti ecosystem the zebras and wildebeest move in clockwise tsunami that is as predictable as the tides, in the Makgadikgadi the movement of animals is much less predictable and more scattered.

Compounding this is the fact that the capricious Boteti does not flow equally every year. Some years it does not flow at all. In 1989 it dried up completely and did not flow again for more than a decade. Those were desperate times when cattle were driven into the national park where they trampled the waterholes and their minders drove the wildlife away.


View of zebras in Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve Botswana - Courtesy of Jacks Camp

Where Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

In 2004 a 2.5-meter high, 200-kilometer long electrified fence was erected to separate the cattle villages from the wildlife, not only the zebras but more pertinently from the lions that prey on both zebras and cattle if they get half a chance. Cattle are the pride, joy and personal wealth of every Motswana and the conflict between them and lions is an ancient and animated one.

During the dry years two safari lodges, Meno a Kwena (“teeth of the crocodile”) and Leroo la Tau (“lion’s paws”) became the saviors of the migration. They sunk holes and pumped water to form pools in the otherwise dry riverbed in front of the lodges. Zebras and other wildlife would trek around 40 kilometers every few days between the water and the nearest grazing at the far reaches of the pans.


Game viewing hide in Leroo La Tau Makgadikgadi Pans Game Reserve in Botswana

Best Time to See the Migration is June To October

Researchers from the Makgadikgadi Zebra Migration Project have figured each year the zebras travel around 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles) in a seasonal gyre to access water and the grazing that are separated by vast tracts of lifeless salt flats. As the lines of zebras and other game walk the desolate lines they kick up plumes of fine dust. Hot breezes that incubate on the griddle ground rise up and hoist the salt-laden dust skywards, like smoke signals that herald their movements.

The best time to see the animals congregating is between June and October, the dry months. But the best time to see “the pans” is at full moon. Here in the tropics the harvest moon floats up with the intensity of a newborn star, rendered huge by being the only reference point on the edge of what feels like a planet much different from our familiar Earth.

The saltpans glimmer in the ethereal light as you sit on a high bank, sundowner drink in hand to wash away the day’s dusty escapades, while zebras and their host of attendant actors slake their raging thirsts in the life-giving waters below the lodge. It is simply and purely enchanting.

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