Zebra Migration Botswana: everything you need to know.
Everything you need to know about one of the best kept secrets on the safari circuit.
04 Apr 2021
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Whilst Botswana is a world-renowned safari destination, the wildebeest and zebra migration here is one of Africa’s best-kept secrets, even myself self as a major contributor to the Botswana guidebook and having guided in Botswana for a number of years knew little about this migration until spending time living in the Makgadikgadi where I got to experience it first-hand. Often when Africa and migration are mentioned in the same sentence people jump straight to the Great Migration between the Masai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, and although not on the same scale, this migration in Botswana is spectacular in different ways.
What it is and why is happens
It wasn’t until recent studies that we are able to really see the distances and routes these incredible animals take. There are actually two different movements of zebra in Botswana, the first of which is between the Chobe River and Nxai Pan, called the Nxai Pan Zebra Migration.
During the summer season the animals are making the most of the constant water source and grasses around the Chobe, then as the surrounding land begins to dry out towards the end of November and the rains begin to fall in Nxai Pan the Zebra begin their 250km journey south in search of the nutrient rich grasses.
The second migration is also heading towards the nutrient rich grasses that can be found surrounding the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, although in this case the zebra, are accompanied by wildebeest are heading East from the Boteti River flowing south of the Okavango Delta. Interestingly, only 55% of the zebras actually migrate to the Makgadikgadi, with about 45% staying in theOkavango Deltaarea for the whole year. The scientist don’t yet know why some stay and the others migrate.
Zebra have been making this migration for thousands of years, however this ceased due to the foot and mouth fences that were erected in the 1950’s and 60s. Stretching across Botswana they hugely effected the crucial movement of wildlife and in the zebras case, completely stopped the migration from the Okavango Delta to the Makgadikgadi. Since the 2004 when the fences were removed the migration has no restarted its annual movement between the Boteti River and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.
Best time to go:
The Makgadikgadi Migration
The zebra migration between the Boteti River and the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans can be seen at any time of the year.
From December through to March once the rains have fallen, the migration can be seen in the Makgadikgadi. During this time there is a shallow layer of water over the salts pans that attract a large numbers of migrating birds, as well as high numbers of zebra. The zebra will be feeding on the tall, lush nutrient rich grasses that surround the pans. Suggested camps for seeing the migration at this time would be Jacks Camp, San Camp or Camp Kalahari.
The rest of the year the zebra can be found along the Boteti River, this is a fantastic place to not only see zebra but a wide variety of game, especially large numbers of elephants coming down to drink. A great lodge to see this is Meno A Kwena. It is also important to remember that although the majority of zebra move to the Makgadikgadi, there are still small number which stay around the banks of the Boteti River year round, however, this can often depends on water levels and rain.
The Nxai Pan Migration
With regards to the zebra migration between Chobe and Nxai Pan, this has very similar movement times. The zebra will spend the summer months from July through to December up along the banks of the Chobe River. Once the rains fall in November/December time the zebra will begin their long journey south towards Nxai Pan National Park for the nutritious grazing.
With both migrations there is no ‘right time to go’ as the zebra are always there, but for the most dramatic viewing I would suggest visiting the Makgadikgadi National Park and Nxai Pan National Park during the summer months between December and March to get the full impact on the open plains. Avoid March through to June as there is a good chance the animals may be mid migration and more difficult to see.
What to expect
When visiting the Makgadikgadi to see the Zebra you can expect activities you would usually find at many other camps such as walking with the san bushmen, taking quadbikes out onto the salt pans and spending time with completely wild but habituated families of meerkats, which are just some of the top things you can do in Botswana.
If you want to see the migration in full swing, then I recommend travelling in January/February time. Keep in mind that during this time there is a good chance of afternoon showers, however these bring the Makgadikgadi to life. The salt pans themselves will not be accessible due to the water on top making them impassable, however the outskirts will be full of life and large numbers of zebra can be seen. As well as the migrating zebra, flamingos are also present at this time and it is common to see lion, leopards and cheetahs bounding across the salt pans as they chase their prey.
The migration is made up of over 30,000 zebra
Zebra will travel up to 300km to reach the nutrient rich grasses
The migration stopped in the 60’s when veterinary fences were erected to prevent the spread of foot and mouth
The fences were taken down in 2004 sparking the return of the migration.
This is Africa second largest mammal migration after the great migration of the Serengeti and Masai Mara
Large predators such as lion and hyena will follow the migration as it moves south
The Makgadikgadi Salt pans are the largest salt pans in the world.
The zebra migration of Botswana is the longest mammal migration in Africa.
A favourite trip of mine to see the zebra migration would be our Luxury Tented Botswana Safari. This 9-night safari includes some of the top camps in Botswana.
Your first 3 nights will be at Duba Explorers in the Northern parts of the Okavango Delta. This camp is famous for its high predator density, as well as the concession being home to large numbers of lion and buffalo whose interactions have been documented many times.
You will then fly south to Gomoti Plains Camp where you will spend 3 nights doing a mixture of game drives, guided walks and taking mokoro trips along the waterways. Gomoti Plains is also known for its big cats and rhino sightings so your best chances of ticking these of will be here.
Your final camp is down in the Makgadikgadi National Park and was also my home for 2 years whilst I was working as a guide there. This is undoubtedly one of the most well known camps in Africa and once you have arrived you will understand why. Having recently undergone a full refurbishment it is the epitome of luxury in one of the most interesting areas in Africa. The desert adapted game here includes Kalahari black maned lion, aardwolf and he illusive brown hyena, here you have a very good chance of seeing all three. It’s difficult to pick one highlight from a stay here, with the opportunity to spend time with the san bushmen, head out on the to salt pans, spent time with the meerkats or explore the grasslands on day and night game drives.
Jacks Camp is also in the heart of the Zebra migration between December and March with views across the pans and surrounding grasslands you can sit there and read or relax on your decking whilst watching the migration slowly move past.
I would suggest taking the usual safari essentials such as camera, mosquito repellent, sturdy boots for walking and clothing with neutral colours, but most of all a good pair of binoculars to scan across the opens expanses are very useful.
Depending if you are seeing the migration on the Boteti River, Chobe River, of the Makgadikgadi/Nxai Pans National Parks I would suggest bringing layers of warm clothing, as temperatures can drop below freezing especially during between June and August and if you are travelling during the wetter months, then a raincoat is advisable.
Botswana’s zebra migration is truly one of Africa’s last wilderness, hidden gem and a remarkable spectacle. It may not be the largest migration, but it is the most intriguing and truly beautiful, especially when set against the water reflective salt pans of the Makgadikgadi.
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