Forget the mass wildebeest movements and the huge migrations found on the Serengeti Plains that have been popular with African safari-goers for decades. The continent has a new, much more intriguing and much less well-known, migration. And it’s in Botswana.
Botswana’s zebra migration is an almost unknown, wild spectacle that occurs annually in this southern African country. It’s the longest single migration of animals that has ever been recorded, and it’s an incredible sight to see first hand, as thousands of zebra kick up plumes of dust as they move from one grazing area to another.
This guide will explain the best places in Botswana to see this natural phenomenon, as well as the best times of year to visit to enjoy the best experience possible. This is our complete guide to Botswana’s zebra migration.
BOTSWANA’S ZEBRA MIGRATION
The mass zebra migration of Botswana occurs twice a year, as herds of zebra move first from north to south, then back from south to north. They move with the seasons and the rainfall, always in search of fresh grazing land. The zebra will cover huge tracts of land, walking over 300 miles during the course of the migrations. Up to 30,000 animals will be on the move at any one time. While it’s not Africa’s largest migration, it is the largest in southern Africa.
It’s a truly unique spectacle, but a spectacle that has only recently been ‘discovered’. Botswana was once the site of some of Africa’s largest migrations, larger even than the famous Serengeti migrations. But due to poor land management and farming policies, these migrations were largely halted, as population numbers dwindled and fences broke up traditional routes.
In the mid-2000s, researchers noticed that Botswana’s zebra were making peculiar movements though. They began to realise that the herds occupied certain areas of land at certain times of the year, and that they were covering incredible distances across the vast Kalahari Desert to do so. The zebra were migrating again, and one of the longest animal migrations in the world had gone by largely unnoticed, potentially for years. Now, if you visit the right areas of Botswana at the right time of year, you can experience this natural spectacle, in all its glory.
THE SEASONS OF BOTSWANA
The zebra migrate to find different grazing areas as the seasons change. Botswana experiences distinct wet and dry seasons. Much of the interior of the country is made up of the dry, barren, semi-arid Kalahari Desert where life can only be supported during the stormy wet season. The north of Botswana comprises the more fertile deltas of the Okavango and Chobe rivers, where watering holes and rivers are still full of water throughout the dry season.
The dry season in Botswana runs from April to October, while the wet season occurs from November to March.
THE ROUTE OF BOTSWANA’S ZEBRA MIGRATION
The zebra will spend the long dry season in the wetlands in the north of Botswana, enjoying the plentiful water of the rivers. As the dry season comes to an end, the zebra will begin to move from the north to the south, following routes that have been taken by these animals for thousands of years.
They cross the plains of the Kalahari Desert, now wracked by thunderstorms, to find more grazing further south. They enter the vast Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, a place that in the dry season is devoid of life and water but that is now bursting with vegetation. It’s here that they spend the rest of the rainy season, before turning back to reach the northern deltas by the start of the next dry season.
From May to November, the zebra will be in the north of Botswana. As the rain begins to fall at the end of November and the start of December, the zebra begin their long migration towards the interior of the Kalahari Desert. They will be on the move until January, when they reach the salt pans of Makgadikgadi. That’s where they will stay until they repeat the long return journey again at the end of March, to make it back to the wet north in time for the dry season that begins again in April and May. You can find out more about the best time to visit Botswana here.
THE BEST TIME AND PLACE TO EXPERIENCE BOTSWANA’S ZEBRA MIGRATION
Botswana’s zebra migration can technically be experienced across the country. However, much of the route passes through remote, largely inhospitable land that’s difficult to travel through. Conveniently though, the migrations start and end in two of Botswana’s most spectacular national parks: Chobe National Park in the north, and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park deep in the interior to the south.
The majority of visitors to Botswana will go on safari during the dry season, generally from May to November, when there is little migration taking place. During this period, you can see the herds of zebra in Chobe National Park and in the Okavango Delta where there is plentiful water. But you won’t see the mass migration taking place.
The best time to see this natural spectacle of mass migration is actually during the off-season, when it rains, and when most tourists tend to stay away from Botswana. Things might get more than a little wet and muddy, but it’s an incredible opportunity to see the zebra herds moving across the land by the hundreds.
At the end of the rainy season, in Chobe National Park and along the Okavango Delta, you may be lucky enough to see the zebra migration and all the predators that chase them south too. However, this wet region can become easily flooded and the tall grass and dense vegetation can obscure the beautiful sight of these striped beasts galloping across the land. Travelling in the region during this time of year can even be dangerous and at times even impossible due to the ground conditions.
Rather than attempting to see the migration in the north, it’s better to head south and to do so at a time when most other tourists will be leaving Botswana completely. The best place to watch this magnificent migration is within Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, and the best time to watch it is December to January and March to April when the zebra are arriving or leaving.
MAKGADIKGADI SALT PANS NATIONAL PARK
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is a huge area of large salt pans that are found within the semi-arid Kalahari Desert. These salt pans are the remnants of an enormous lake that emptied and dried thousands of years ago.
The Makgadikgadi Pans lie roughly 150 miles south of the grazing lands around Chobe and the Okavango Delta, and this is as far as the zebra will migrate each season in search of fertile grounds and abundant vegetation.
For much of the year, the salt pans are a dry, harsh and arid place. It’s a place that during the dry season will be visited by tourists looking to experience this harsh environment at its most extreme, when it is devoid of water and empty of life, and as much a desert as the surrounding Kalahari. This region was for decades surrounded by fences that halted the migrations, but in the early 2000s, these fences were removed. It was only after this that the zebra could resume their migrations, an incredible feat, considering none would have ever made a similar journey within their lifetime. And it was when that migration began again, that researchers began to record this as the longest mass movement of African animals.
When the rains begin in the Makgadikgadi Pans, the usually salty, barren and lifeless land begins to be revitalised. The edge of the pans fill with water and become muddy and sludgy. By the time the zebra arrive in December, the salt pans are prime grazing land. And with the zebra, come all manner of predators and birds to temporarily populate this desert region with a vibrant array of life.
WATCHING THE ZEBRA MIGRATION AT MAKGADIKGADI SALT PANS NATIONAL PARK
Visiting Makgadikgadi Pans during the rainy season is the best opportunity to see the zebra migration. The empty plains offer wide, open views of the surrounding landscape, making tracking and spotting the herds easier than in the dense river deltas to the north. You might even have the opportunity to witness the grisly sight of herds of zebra being stalked by the large predators that chase them. It’s common to see lion, leopards and cheetahs bounding across the salt pans at this time of year in chase of their prey.
It’s an extraordinary time of year to visit, and it’s likely that while on safari here you will encounter the vast herds of zebra streaming across the land in the Makgadikgadi Pans. This time of year though, travel can be unpredictable, so be prepared for wet and muddy weather that can turn for the worst very quickly. For this reason, it’s best to travel with a guide or on an organised tour, to ensure that you have access to the best local knowledge of the area, for both safety and to increase your chance of seeing the most wildlife.
HOW TO TRAVEL TO MAKGADIKGADI PANS NATIONAL PARK
Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is best accessed from the small town of Gweta, which lies around 40 kilometres east of the park entrance. There are lodgings available in the village here and it’s a good base to organise 4WD tours across the salt pans, as the road here will remain open even during the worst rains. Gweta can be accessed from Francistown, which in turn is connected to Botswana’s capital, Gaborone.
A more intense and exciting experience is to spend a few nights’ camping out in the various luxury safari camps that are found on the edge of the park. There are several of these luxurious sites, offering tented accommodation in beautiful settings. Many have their own airstrips, allowing guests to arrive and depart even if the roads in are flooded or impassable. Spending the night under the stars in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park before heading off on a game drive in the early morning to spot the huge herds of zebra migrating is a unique experience that few other tourists to Botswana ever have the opportunity to see.
WHAT TO BRING AND WHAT TO EXPECT
The best time to see Botswana’s zebra migration is during the wet season. That means that it’s more than likely that you will experience a torrential downpour, and you’re guaranteed to get wet and muddy. Ensure you pack a lightweight waterproof coat because although it will be rainy, it will be hot and humid too. Don’t forget your camera and, if you have them, bring a pair of binoculars. But make sure to keep your equipment safe in a dry bag when you aren’t using it.
Take a few warm clothes and try to keep them dry, because, despite the hot weather, an early morning drenching could still leave you feeling cold when you set out on safari.
The weather can make for an unpredictable travel experience, and as you are setting out to experience wildlife in its rawest form, be prepared to make last-minute changes to itineraries, to find roads closed and to wake up at the crack of dawn to have the best viewing opportunities. You can find out more about packing for safari here.
Botswana’s zebra migration truly is one of Africa’s last, unknown spectacles. It might not be the largest migration on the continent, but it is the longest and it is certainly the most intriguing and fascinating. The chance to see thousands of zebra moving across the land is something that few other travellers ever get the opportunity to see. The zebra migration is an exceptional sight to experience in the beautiful, raw landscapes of Botswana.
Do you want to experience the incredible, wild sight of Botswana’s Zebra Migration? Then contact our safari experts to start planning your Botswana safari today.
Botswana, the ultimate safari destination. The parks in Botswana are all spectacular, which each area offering something different. This versatile destination has something to offer even the most seasoned of safari-goers.
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