Great zebra migrations in Botswana

East Africa’s Great Migration is perhaps the most famous large zebra migrations in the world, and for good reason, but few people realize that Africa is home to several smaller zebra migrations that are equally spectacular in their own way. Two such migrations are in Botswana, one of which is the longest mammal migration in Africa.

These zebra migrations offer astounding wildlife sightings but, more importantly, they are testament to not only the resilience of nature in the face of human interference but to the genetically programmed instinct to migrate.

The Chobe-Nxai Pan zebra migration: longest mammal zebra migration in Africa

While there has been plenty of evidence as to the seasonal movement of various animals in Botswana, it was only in 2012 that researchers confirmed by using tracking collars that the zebras were completing an long return journey of over 1,000km each year. Up until then, the zebras’ route through parts of Botswana, via the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, had kept their movements largely unnoticed.

The herds spend the dry months around the Chobe River flood plains, June until early November, and in early December over 20,000 zebras begin their journey southwards, triggered by rain in the Nxai Pan. Most travel for 2-3 weeks in an almost straight line to Nxai Pan National Park, whilst some often stop at Seloko Plain before joining the larger herd a few weeks later.

These herds spread out across the Nxai Pan National Park and remain there from December to February before making their return trip. This return route to the Chobe River and north into Namibia takes about three months from March to May, with some zebra travelling 800km before being forced to seek out more permanent water systems again like the Chobe River.

Photo by Botswana Tourism - Zebra Migrations
Photo by Botswana Tourism Zebra Migrations

Okavango-Makgadikgadi migration

Smaller than the Chobe-Nxai Pan migration, this 500 km trek sees around 15,000 zebras between Moremi and the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

The herds take advantage of the Okavango Delta floodwaters during the dry season, up until November-December. The migration thereafter is triggered by rains in Makgadikgadi area. The journey takes a few weeks and then the herds settle for a while in the Makgadikgadi area feeding on the nutritious grass from December to February. Around March, the zebras begin to mass on the western edge of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park getting ready for the return journey past Maun and into the south-eastern areas of the Okavango Delta.

An estimated 55% of the zebras leave on this migration, with the remaining 45% content to stay behind in the Moremi Okavango Delta area.

When to see Botswana’s zebra migrations?

The best time to view zebras in the Makgadikgadi Pans is during the rainy season of December to March each year, with March being when you can see the huge number of zebras gathering for the return route to their dry season feeding grounds.

The zebra migrations are most dramatic during the low tourism season, at which time one can enjoy lower accommodation rates and fewer safari vehicles with the downside being that the rainy season makes the roads difficult and occasionally impossible.

How did it start

In the 1960s, Botswana made an agreement with the European Union to provide cattle for beef, but while this deal may have been a good income source, it came with stringent conditions. One of these was that Botswana needed to put in place controls to avoid the spread of foot-and-mouth disease between wild animals and the cattle resulting in a series of veterinary fences being put up to separate areas of land and close the pre-existing migratory routes to stop movement. When later on these fences were moved, researchers and conservationists found that portion of the zebra herds started to follow two previous routes through the Chobe-Nxai Pan and Okavango-Makgadikgadi.

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