Famous for the Great Wildebeest Migration, the Serengeti National Park is the jewel in Tanzania’s crown. With around 1.5 million wildebeest and thousands of other grazing animals following the rains on the endless Serengeti plains, and being chased by thousands of lions, cheetahs, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas, an action-packed safari is guaranteed.
In this article:
- What makes Serengeti special
- Wildlife and Birds (including Wildebeest migration)
- Weather and best time to visit
- Activities in the Serengeti: balloon safaris, walking safaris, cultural tours and more
- How to get to the Serengeti
- Interesting facts
What Makes Serengeti National Park So Special
The Serengeti National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Africa’s Seven Natural Wonders. It is one of the most popular safari destinations in the world, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Three Areas of Serengeti Plains
The 15,000 square kilometre Serengeti National Park is unfenced and forms part of the 30,000 square kilometres Greater Serengeti Ecosystem, also including the fascinating Ngorongoro Crater. It is in the northwest of Tanzania, bordered to the north by the Kenyan border, where it continues with the Maasai Mara National Reserve.
The park has three distinct regions.
The endless, almost treeless grassland of the south. This is where the wildebeest breed, as they stay in the plains from December to May. Granite mounds, or koppies, are very common in the region and great observation posts for predators, and a refuge for hyrax and pythons.
Black clay soil covers the swampy savannah of this region. The Grumeti River is home to enormous Nile crocodiles, colobus monkeys and martial eagles. The migration passes through from May to July.
The landscape is dominated by open woodlands and hills, from Seronera in the South to the Mara River into Kenya. Apart from the migratory wildebeest and zebra, the bushy savannah is the best place to find elephants, giraffes and dik-dik.
There are five rivers in the Serengeti National Park that feed the landscape and provide sustenance to its inhabitants.
The Grumeti River, Mara River, Mbalageti River and Orangi River flow westward to Lake Victoria, while the Oldupai River flows eastward into the Olbalbal Swamps.
The Grumeti River is a major river crossing for the Great Migration. Between May and August, thousands of wildebeest and other animals cross the crocodile-infested waters. For every one wildebeest captured by the crocodiles, 50 drown.
Wildlife: Animals and Birds
One of the largest populations of lions in Africa – 3,000, as well as 1,000 leopards and 500 cheetahs, call Serengeti their home. There are also more than 8000 spotted hyenas as well as side-striped, black-backed and golden jackals. Wild dogs are however scarce.
Apart from the millions of wildebeest and zebra that make up most of the Great Migration, grazers like Grant’s and Thomson’s gazelle, topi, waterbuck, eland, African elephant, Cape buffalo and warthog also occur in the Serengeti National Park. The park can sustain them all because each species, even those that are closely related, has a different diet. For example, wildebeests prefer to consume shorter grasses, while plains zebras prefer taller ones.
Wilderbeest Migration Overview
The Serengeti National Park is famed for its annual wildebeest migration when some 8 million hooves cross the open plains. More than 1,500,000 wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle join this trek driven by the need for fresh grazing. Predators follow the migration and sightings of big cats hunting is always particularly exciting for even the most experienced traveller. Spotted hyena, golden and black-backed jackal are never far off either.
With more than 500 species of birds, the Serengeti is a birdwatching paradise. These include the Masai ostrich, secretary bird, kori bustard, grey-breasted spurfowl, blacksmith lapwing, African collared dove, Southern ground hornbill, crowned crane, knob-billed duck, spotted thick-knee, white stork and lesser flamingo.
Additionally, there are also 34 raptor species and six species of vulture.
Weather and Climate
The Serengeti National Park falls into the classic weather pattern of East Africa – the long rains between March and May and the short rains in November and December. The hottest and most humid period stretches between November and February (25–31°C/77-88F) while the coolest period occurs between May and August (15–20°C/59-68F).
The dry season between June and October is usually the best time to go on a safari in the Serengeti National Park. This is when the weather is moderate with average daytime temperatures in the mid to high 20 degrees Celsius.
During the dry season, the vegetation also thins out, making it easier to spot wildlife. The big game also tends to flock to available water sources, so sightings of herds and prides gathered around waterholes is fairly common.
The short rains in November and December in the Serengeti National Park will bring respite from the hot and humid conditions.
The long rains between March and May are accompanied by heavy downpours that can ruin safari outings.
Best Time to Visit Serengeti National Park
The best time to visit the Serengeti National Park is between June and October when the Great Migration is at its height. It is the dry season and overall provides the best opportunity for spotting wildlife such as black rhino, plains game, predators, elephants, and more.
This is also the time to witness incredible predator kills on the banks of the Mara and Grumeti Rivers. Ferocious crocodile populations lunge at wildebeest and other plains game on the riverbanks, putting on quite a show for onlookers. July is reportedly the best month for predator kill sightings.
Another good time to visit the Serengeti is between January and February, and during the spring months from March to May (low season). Outside of the high safari season, the accommodation tends to be cheaper, but some of the mobile camps might not be in operation. A trip should be planned around the movement of the great migration.
Planning Your Safari in the Serengeti
A safari to the Serengeti National Park typically includes accommodation, all meals, activities, private walks, transfers and local drinks. Because there aren’t any shops and practically no civilisation, everything is included in the rate.
Some camps and hotels are more expensive than others, and some are completely remote which hikes the price up by quite a bit. A good budget to work with is $500 to $1000 per person sharing per night.
For a two week safari, it’s advisable to set aside about $11 000 for a mid to luxury Serengeti camp. However, an optimal time on safari is seven nights. Because the terrain is so vast and there’s so much to see, a minimum of four full days on safari is best. Any less than this isn’t recommended.
If you go on an organised safari with a tour operator you will mostly sleep in mobile camps. Here facilities are more limited. The tents usually have simple beds with lining and duvets, camping toilets and showers depending on the Safari Operator.
Choose Different Activities
There are countless options when it comes to exploring the Serengeti National Park and experiencing all that this natural gem has to offer.
- A balloon safari over the Serengeti for an aerial view of landscapes and wildlife comes highly recommended.
- Learn about the history of the Serengeti National Park at Olduvai Gorge, otherwise known as the Cradle of Humankind.
- The best way to explore the varied terrain is to go on a Serengeti game drive. Guided game drives led by professional field guides cover a lot of ground, and normally take place in the early morning and late evening when predators are most active.
- Guided Serengeti walking safaris are normally conducted by qualified guides, and offer an immersive experience in the Serengeti.
Learn How to get to the Serengeti National Park
Most visitors to the Serengeti National Park fly into Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro International Airport and then take a flight from Arusha (less than 50 kilometres away) to several airstrips inside the park. A word of caution – limit luggage to 15 kilograms per person, and rather use soft bags than hard-sided suitcases.
It is also possible to fly into Julius Nyerere International Airport, just outside of Dar es Salaam, and then fly on to Kilimanjaro International Airport (JRO).
One can also travel to the Serengeti via road from Arusha and enter the park through the Naabi Hill Gate. The distance is 325 km and the drive takes around eight hours.
Interesting Facts About the Serengeti National Park
- The word Serengeti is derived from the words seringit and Maa in the Maasai dialect, which means Endless plains.
- Over 200,000 species of plains game, elephant and rhino are killed annually by poachers. The Maasai people are the guardians of the Serengeti ecosystem, and these communities are involved in protecting species to prevent a decline in numbers. One such initiative is the Mara Elephant Project.
- In the mid 1990s, a visious virus called canine distemper killed off 35% of the Serengeti National Park’s lion population, but the numbers increased and recovered in the following five years.
- Elephants weren’t always in the national park, but did occur on the periphery. The elephants migrated into the park when the farming lands grew, and more people moved in for agriculture. Currently, there are an estimated 1,360 elephants in the park, and over 8,000 elephants in the Serengeti ecosystem.