Wildebeest baffle me.
Well, I think they baffle themselves a lot of the time as well, as they aren’t particularly renowned for their intelligence. Often referred to as the clowns of the African savanna, their gambolling antics and amusing territorial calls, allied with quite a gormless expression mean it is a reputation that many people feel is well deserved.

Seeing the crossings in East Africa, in which entire herds of sometimes thousands of wildebeest forge across crocodile-infested rivers, is something you won’t forget in a hurry, far more so if you witness it live. The sheer frantic energy of a crossing actually leaves one physically drained in the aftermath, so on edge were you as the drama was unfolding.

Wildbeest Crossing Jt

High drama. And as a wildebeest, surely you’d only want to cross once?

Yet what the documentaries and incredible photos don’t show you is the utterly imbecilic tendency of wildebeest to repeat a crossing in the opposite direction completely unnecessarily! I once watched a herd of probably 3000 storm across the Mara River in Tanzania, but for some reason, about 100 of them remained behind, obviously too timid to take to the water after their brethren. The rest of the herd had disappeared over the hill on the far side of the river. To our disbelief, the distressed grunting of the stranded few soon had the other 2900 swim back across the river, crocodiles, rapids and all, simply to rejoin the few. And then once they were all together again, back they went for the third time!

Wildbeest Crossing Jt 4

The wildebeest in the river on the left are the last of the herd. The splashes on the right are the wildebeest coming BACK over the river, responding to the grunts of a few who were left behind.

I love the possibility of a “never-leave-a-man-behind” mindset in wildebeest, although whether that’s actually the case or not I can’t say for sure, but when there are literally one and a half million of the creatures all migrating together across the Serengeti, I would imagine it would be ok for a couple of hundred to be left behind. Forgive me for sounding so callous. And maybe what we saw that day was the exception rather than the rule, but it did occur to me that those wildebeest weren’t exactly making good life choices. Adding two more river crossings than are absolutely necessary is rather career-limiting in my view!

Whilst the wildebeest of East Africa are cutting great swathes through the grasslands on their annual migration, their southern counterparts at Londolozi are also seemingly lacking in grey matter.

These wildebeest had spotted the Nkoveni female leopard in the distance. A small female leopard probably wouldn’t be much of a threat for an adult wildebeest, but the young calves were another matter.

Weighing well over 200kg, with big males sometimes approaching 300kg, a fully grown wildebeest can still run at 80km/h. With lethally sharp horns on their heads, and, apart from the solitary territorial bulls, generally to be found in groups, it strikes me that should the wildebeest of the world sort their act out, they wouldn’t have to worry about lions as much as they do.
I watched a clip filmed in the Kruger National Park recently, in which a wildebeest was brought down by two lionesses. Lying on his side, it looked like his number was up as the lions were about to start feeding, but through a sudden surge of adrenalin or whatever else might have galvanised him into action, up he jumped suddenly, and as one of the lions leaped for his neck, he managed to hook her by the skin in her groin, and for half a minute she was trapped; upended by the wildebeest’s horn, hanging upside down and unable to pull free. After some shaking of his head by the bull, she eventually dropped off, the second lioness backed away, and the courageous wildebeest charged through them, scattering the lions as he made his break for freedom, which he achieved!

Tsalala Lioness Kill Wildebeest Jt

A young wildebeest that wasn’t so lucky; ambushed in a thicket by the Tsalala pride.

Obviously when it’s a desperate fight for survival, an animal needs to give it all it’s got, but in my mind, if wildebeest just realised how formidable they could actually be, they might get a little bit more respect out there!

Have a look at this clip from a few years ago, in which a female wildebeest fought for over an hour to escape the clutches of a crocodile that was trying to pull her down:

Although the wildebeest eventually died of her injuries, the sheer strength and desperation she showed was incredible, and proves that the species isn’t entirely helpless.

We’ve seen a female wildebeest smash a cheetah off her calf that it had just brought down, and we’ve regularly seen a herd of the beasts line up in a wall to defend their calves from a pack of wild dogs.

Wild Dogs prey on wildebeest in other parts of Africa, but at Londolozi where there is a surplus of smaller and easier prey species, they tend to avoid them; when they do interact with a herd, it often seems as though the dogs are doing it more as a game.

Stealthy leopards regularly catch wildebeest calves in the birthing season, so I guess it’s just lions that I’m rooting for these wildebeest to unionize against. Someone needs to tell them. They don’t have to live in fear anymore. Or at least not as much fear. Just a basic understanding of the physics behind a good upward thrust with sharp horns, and the momentum behind a 250kg charge ought to do it, as well as maybe an appreciation of strategic group defence.

This all makes great sense in my mind.
But I’ll hazard a guess that the next time the Ntsevu pride roll onto Winnis’ Clearing, packing a good 800kg of combined lioness between them, the best we’ll see from the wildebeest there is a puff of dust on the horizon as they run for their lives.

Come to think of it, that’s probably the wisest choice.

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

View James's profile

6 Comments

on Why Don’t These Wildebeest Get Organised?

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Marinda Drake

I have watched a documentary recently where the scene was nearly identicle as you described it James. Thousands of wildebeest were crossing the river and as soon as they landed the other side they turned around and went back across the river. It seemed very strange.

Ian Hall

Nicely written

Lucie Easley

Very good ideas, James. If only you spoke Wildebeest to get those guys organized. As I’m sure most people know the saying, after God created all the animals, he had left over parts and put together the Wildebeest…..minus some common sense! However, since they number in the millions, I guess they are doing something right. Enjoyed your post.

Callum Evans

I have always been baffled as to how apparently stupid wildebeest can be, especially with lions! they could definitely take a lioness on, but a single lioness can tackle a full-grown wildebeest with apparent ease! I’ve seen footage of one tossing a cheetah over its head in the Kalahari, so they can definitely look after themselves! But with lions it’s definitely smarter to get out of there!

Denise Vouri

My hope is to see the great migration one day, just to experience the raw energy and excitement.

Malavika Gupta

Another well written article, James. I’m sure you know that to avoid interfering with the migration, there’s only a tiny cement monument marking the border between Kenya and Tanzania. Did wildebeest used to migrate in Southern Africa too? And did national borders put an end to their migratory behavior?

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