Burchell's zebras crossing a freshwater marsh in the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

The world's most mesmerising animal migrations and where to see them

Feb 21, 2024
Reading time: 8 minutes

Many of the world's great animal migrations are feats of astounding endurance and incredible, even baffling, instinct. But which are the most spectacular for us to witness? Here's our pick of the most eye-popping migrations to add to your travel plans!

1. Fruit bats in Zambia

The world's most populous mammal migration by just a few MILLION is that of straw-coloured fruit bats in Zambia.

The world's biggest mammal migration numerically is the annual migration of African straw-coloured fruit bats to Zambia.

Mass flight of fruit bats in Zambia

 

Every year around October roughly eight million fruit bats fly south from the forests of equatorial Africa to converge in Zambia's Kasanka National Park. They come to hang out (pun intended) till December, spending their time eating the pods of the mahogany, musuku, mufinsa and milkwood tees in the park's swamp forest.

The fruit bats' locations at other times of the year aren't fully known. So October to December is the only time when their numbers swell to reach the staggering display put on at Kasanka.

Straw-coloured Fruit Bats hanging from a tree branch

The bats have a wingspan of up to a metre wide!

Nature-lovers who venture to Zambia for this incredible phenomenon can look forward to seeing the sky darkened by the passing of countless numbers of the little creatures, as well as trees everywhere dripping with upside-down little torsos, wings neatly folded away. It's hard to say which of the two sights is more arresting!

2. Wildebeests in Tanzania and Kenya

Far better known than the Zambian fruit bat migration is the East Africa migration of wildebeests, zebras and other antelopes in a phenomenon known variously as the Great Migration, Great Wildlife Migration or Great Wildebeest Migration.

Zebras and wildebeests of Great Migration in Maasai Mara, river crossing, safari Zebras and wildebeests of Great Migration in Maasai Mara, river crossing, safari

 

The truly spectacular Great Migration is a transnational, cyclic movement of roughly 1.5 million hoofed animals between the Serengeti plains of northern Tanzania and the Maasai Mara grasslands of southern Kenya. It's an eye-popping animal extravaganza that must be seen to be believed, even though it's impossible to see all of the animals at once, even from the air!

At the heart of the Great Migration are the wildebeests, ungainly antelopes whose lives revolve around the search for green pastures to graze. Accompanying them are zebras and gazelles, as well as lurking predators like lions and leopards.

Ours. Big herd of wildebeest is about Mara River. Great Migration. Kenya

The herds are at their densest when embarking on dangerous river crossings!

Unlike many other animal migrations, the Great Migration doesn't only coalesce or exist seasonally, meaning it can be seen throughout the year, provided you go to where the animals are at the time.

To see the Great Migration between November and June, head to Tanzania. To see it between July and October, head to Kenya.

You might like to learn more in 7 truly stupendous facts about the Great Migration. Or if you're ready to book your Great Migration safari, check out our Great Migration safari for Kenya or Visit the Serengeti for Tanzania.

3. Monarch butterflies in Mexico

Monarch butterflies, with their easily recognisable black-white-and-orange patterning, exist around the globe. But those in the Americas are most notable for their annual migration, which sees them fly thousands of kilometres between their breeding grounds in Canada and the USA and their wintering grounds in Mexico.

Monarch butterflies in flight against a deep blue sky

 

It's believed that possibly a billion monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico every year!

What's especially fascinating about the monarch butterfly migration is the fact that it's completed over a few different generations.

A monarch butterfly only lives for about six to eight months. So no single specimen can complete a full migration cycle. Each new generation just somehow knows what part of the journey it has to cover! And scientists say that some butterflies are able to return to the exact same tree as their ancestors. ๐Ÿคฏ

Monarch butterflies of Mexico. animal migration

All of that orange on the trees: monarch butterflies!

Head to the forests of mountainous central Mexico between January and March if you're keen see the branches of their fir trees absolutely blanketed in countless dots of orange, white and black!

4. Caribous in Alaska

The scientific name for caribous (or reindeers, if you like) is rangifer tarandus, which means something akin to 'wandering deer of the North'. How perfectly descriptive.

A pair of caribou facing the camera in beautiful autumn foliage in Denali National Park, Alaska

A pair of caribou in autumn in Denali National Park

Roughly 200,000 caribous migrate across northern Alaska twice a year, in spring and then autumn.

The easiest migration to witness given the better travelling conditions is the springtime one, which takes place between March and late June. The spring migration also sees larger herds than the autumn one, and of course it's in large part the sizes of the herds that create such must-see spectacles!

In fact, sometimes a herd can reach up to 10,000 individuals. Wow.

June is arguably the best month for witnessing Alaska's spring caribou migration as the landscape is green and the herds must swim across icy rivers.

A herd of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) runs though across the tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska. (1)

 

The spring caribou migration involves the herds moving north through the thawing alpine tundra of northeast Alaska. To see the migrating herds, head to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and trundle along the Denali and Dalton Highways.

5. Zebras in Botswana

One of the lesser-known great mammal migrations is the Nxai Pan zebra migration, even though it's believed to be the longest mammal migration in Africa!

Burchell's zebras running in green Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana

Burchell's zebras running in Nxai Pan

Every year roughly 20,000 Burchell's zebras leave the floodplains of Chobe River in the far north of Botswana and journey south to Nxai Pan National Park, attracted by the seasonal rains that fall there. Nxai Pan isn't known to many foreigners, but it's a salt pan that forms part of the better-known Makgadikgadi Pan, one of the world's largest salt pans.

Burchell's zebras running in green Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana

 

The zebras spend about three months (usually December to February) in Nxai Pan before heading north again and completing their approximately 1,000 km roundtrip journey.

For anyone drawn to stark and otherworldly landscapes, Botswana's epic zebra migration is a must!

Head to Nxai Pan National Park in December for the best chance of seeing this incredible animal migration. This is because once the zebras arrive in the park, the long line formed during the migration disperses as the animals spread out within the park.

6. Elephants in the Okavango Delta

Those familiar with the extreme landscapes of Botswana won't be surprised to learn that another of Africa's longest and greatest animal migrations occurs there.

We're talking here of Botswana's epic elephant migration, which sees about 20,000 bush elephants migrate from the shores of the Chobe River about 300 km southwest to the seasonally flooded Okavango Delta. Here, the elephant herds create sublime wildlife scenes as they drink, splash and socialise in shallow waters overseen by deep-blue skies.

Elephants in river water Okavango Delta, Botswana, elephant migration safari

 

Botswana is the elephant capital of the world, with these magnificent creatures retracing ancient paths in season in the search for good watering grounds.

A particularly special aspect of witnessing this migration is that you normally hop in a canoe or boat to wend your way along labyrinthine water channels to find and appreciate the elephants. Interestingly, the heavy footfalls of the herds actually help to carve out new water channels for the delta's floodwaters.

Aerial view of elephants in flooded Okavango Delta, Botswana safari

 

If you're keen to see the elephant migration, you want to visit during the dry season, which roughly runs from May to October. Check in with your tour operator for a more precise recommendation of when to visit that particular year to see the migratory elephants.

7. Flamingoes at Lake Natron

When you visit northern Tanzania's Lake Natron in breeding season, you're rewarded with an incredible scene: a great pink swathe of about 2.5 million lesser flamingoes!

Flamingoes on Lake Natron in Tanzania

Lake Natron awash with flamingoes

The lake's incredible view of flamingoes also comes with an exceptional backdrop: the Great Rift Valley escarpment wall and the towering volcano Mt Ol Doinyo Lengai.

That this lake is the flamingoes' primary breeding ground is made more fantastic when you learn that most species cannot survive contact with its highly caustic waters.

Roughly three quarters of all lesser flamingoes are born at Lake Natron!

To witness this pink marvel, visit Lake Natron between August and November, as this is when the birds lay and hatch their eggs.

Lesser flamingoes in flight at Lake Natron in Tanzania

 

If you're a birder, you might also enjoy reading Are you a birder? Then these 9 East African destinations are must-visits! And if you're keen to visit the flamingoes of Lake Natron, take a look at our Tanzania safari and hiking itinerary, which includes two nights at this magical destination.

8. Black-necked cranes in Bhutan

For all you birders, a very special animal migration to witness is the annual appearance of roughly 500 black-necked cranes in Bhutan.

These rare birds usually arrive in Bhutan in late October, having travelled all the way from northern Tibet and Mongolia to find warmer wintering grounds.

Two black-necked cranes on Tibetan plateau

 

The cranes head to roosting grounds spread across the country, namely in the districts of Bumthang, Wangdue Phodrang and Bumdeling, offering visitors options of where to see them.

Black-necked cranes are the worldโ€™s only alpine crane species, and they're highly revered in Bhutan.

A flock of black-necked cranes resting in a field near a small home in Phobjikha, Bhutan

A flock of black-necked cranes in a field in Phobjikha Valley

If you're keen to visit Bhutan, October and November are the best months for many reasons, including great weather and the many cultural festivals held at this time of the year. Notably, the very important Black-necked Crane Festival always takes place on 12 November. This meeting between nature and culture is part of what makes the Black-necked Crane Festival so special for visitors!

Did you know that we can take you to the Land of the Thunder Dragon? Check out our exciting Bhutan itineraries and please feel free to drop us a line โ€“ we're here to chat.