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The wildebeest, also called the brindled gnu (Connochaetes taurinus, Nyumbu) is an awkward looking creature about the size of small cow, weighing 450 pounds (204 kg), but whose ungainly look belies a remarkable toughness. Colored, grayish-brown, it has a prominent, wispy-white beard, high shoulders and a sloped back which gives it a curious gait. Its head, endowed with an over-long snout and over-small horns seems far too big for the skinny torso and spindly legs. They're common savanna animals in East and Central Africa, and renowned for the vast migrating herds—the most large animals on the move in the world.

They buck up and down, arching their backs, spin and maybe fall, or rush around for the apparent fun of it. Behind the comedy though, might lie a tragedy. Endlessly pirouetting and leaping the animal could be in death throes caused by a botfly which crawled into its brain. Hundreds of wildebeest might go mad at the same time and rush over a ravine to die in a suicidal plunge. If they survive parasites and predators adults live ten to fifteen years.

By far the commonest of African antelope (some might say the ugliest too!), wildebeest occur in vast herds in the Serengeti and Mara over a hundred thousand strong. They readily associate with zebras. Herds are followed by lions, jackals and hyenas ready to snatch a chance meal. These predators serve a purpose by culling the herd of the old, weak, ill and young of the herd. Wildebeest reproduce quickly; the cow calves after an eight month gestation.

Among the most impressive of nature's spectacles, the famous wildebeest mass migrations begin in the long rainy season when some mysterious instinct starts the herds moving north towards Lake Victoria from the Serengeti-Mara. They would probably prefer to stay south where is little cover for predators because the grass is shorter. But the grass is soon mown to stubble, the land dries up and the creatures are forced to move to find the 'long rains'.

There is a less dramatic and leisurely migration when the 'short rains' come in October. Bulls are eager to escape predators well-hidden in dense vegetation. Hordes reform and begin the return trek, for some reason more dispersed and in narrower lines than the northward migration.

Despite its weird physique the wildebeest thrives and is the most successful African antelope. The Leakeys found fossils dated to two million years ago. Wildebeest inhabit grasslands, savannas and open woodlands and are widely distributed. Found over much of East Africa, the best parks in Kenya to see wildebeest are Nairobi, Mara and Amboseli. Wildebeest appear to be an invulnerable species but the opposite is true. The huge numbers can suddenly crash because of drought or rinderpest and the survivors will be squeezed out by human expansion. It is said the plains of the Mara will be sown with barley to provide beer to Kenya's growing population. Perhaps the importance of the area for tourist income will preserve the Serengeti-Mara, which is still today one of nature's wonders.


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