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The Great Migration: An Epic Journey

The Great Migration
The Great Migration 12:12

Editor's Note: This story originally aired October 4, 2009.

If you could go just one place, anywhere on the planet, to see the most spectacular wildlife, you'd want to head east to catch a sight that comes around every year, but only for a short time.

It's called the "great migration," an endless march of life, and death and rebirth for millions of animals. When you see it, you might agree this is one of the greatest shows on Earth. We thought you should see it now, because there's no guarantee that it'll be around forever.

There was a time when epic migrations were common, when millions of buffalo in North America were on the move, for example. But today, to see what that must have been like, you have to travel to East Africa.

Photos: The Great Migration
Link: Mara Triangle

There, in late summer, more than a million wildebeest cross the volcanic plain of the Maasai Mara in Kenya, pushing through one of the most awe-inspiring wildlife habitats on Earth. Nearly everything Africa has to offer can all be found in one place - zebras, giraffes, elephants, lions, crocodiles and more.

The dry season is moving the herds, concentrating them where there is still grass and water. It's a march of 350 miles, up from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and back again.

American scientist Robin Reid was hooked the very first time she saw it as a student.

She's on the faculty at Colorado State University and has spent decades studying the animals and the Maasai people who share the land with the Mara migration.

"We don't have migrations anymore this large. So, this is the only one that stands by itself that is this large," Reid explained to 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley. "Now, if you're talking about butterflies or you're talking about birds, you're talking about, you know, smaller animals, absolutely. You easily get up into these kinds of numbers. But as far as big animals that are walking long distance, this is the one."

According to Reid, it's the largest great migration of this size on Earth.

"Wildebeest" is Dutch and Afrikaans for "wild beast," which may refer more to its appearance than any ferocity. It's a relative of the antelope but it's unlike anything you've ever seen.

"They call lions regal, and elephants majestic. I wonder what you'd call a wildebeest?" Pelley asked.

"I think they look insane," Reid replied, laughing. "Their horns are kind of, you know, this way and that. And then they have these big shoulders. And why in the heck is that? And they're a funny color. You know, they're not pretty. And they've got a long tail. You know, they're put together in pieces."

"Well, somebody once said it looks like an animal that's made out of spare parts," Pelley remarked.

"And that's very apt," Reid agreed.

Along with the wildebeest, there are hundreds of thousands of zebra, nearly half a million gazelles, all of them crossing the territory of predators including lion, hyena, and cheetah. Nearby, the 60 Minutes spotted one cheetah with her three newborn cubs.

And the biggest predators of them all are crocodiles that patrol the Mara River, which cuts right through the migration route.

The river crossing is easily the most dramatic point in the entire year-long migration. There comes a time that the wildebeest and their calves have to cross the Mara River. You can't believe how big these crocodiles are - one of them is at least 15 feet long.

But the wildebeest have to cross in order to feed, and the crocodiles know that.

A wildebeest may go through 10 migrations in its lifetime. And to see them hesitate at the bank, it's as though many of them knew what was coming.

Pelley and the 60 Minutes team watched as first, two wildebeest scrambled across, making it across to the other riverbank.

Then the next group took the plunge, this time right into the waiting crocs. A large crocodile struck at lightning speed and had the wildebeest's horns between its jaws. And within moments, a total of five crocodiles were ferociously attacking the wildebeest all at once.

Now it was a struggle to find enough water to pull the wildebeest down to drown. In the few days that it takes the herds to cross the river, the crocs will bring down enough food to last for months.

Once the wildebeest see where the crocs are, the herd runs upstream and surges across by the hundreds. No one can say how long this migration has thrived, but on the Mara River we began to see evidence that its future is not a sure thing.

Usually the wildebeest swim across, but now the river is very low.

"Could what has happened to other migrations in the world happen here?" Pelley asked Robin Reid.

"Of course. Of course. Absolutely," Reid replied. "The thing I'm most worried about for the future is the Mara River and the amount of water in it. It's just the, you know, kinda the main artery of the ecosystem and it's very important."

This vital artery that Reid is talking about is best seen from the air. The Mara River rises in a place called the Mau Forest and it meanders about 250 miles or so down to Lake Victoria. The Maasai tell us that there is less water in the river now than at any time they can remember.

Asked what impact it would have if the Mara River went away, Reid said, "We're not absolutely sure. But in the dry season it's the only thing that flows. And so if that water went away then the wildebeest population would collapse."

"What do you mean by collapse?" Pelley asked.

"You know, I don't actually know if there would be very many left, actually. Not just the wildebeest, it would be many of the other species that require water," Reid explains.

According to Reid, hundreds of thousands of animals would be lost. "In fact, the estimates are, and you know, this is a guess, is that if the river were to dry up completely, okay, in the very first week after it dried up we'd lose about 400,000 animals that would die."

"And, you know, maybe that's an overestimate. But, even if it's in a month, that's a lot," she added.

Pelley wanted to find out why the Mara River seems to be drying up. So he and the 60 Minutes team headed north to its source, the Mau Forest. The first thing you notice from the air are wheat fields where the trees used to be. And beyond the expanding farms, we headed toward smoke on the horizon.

On the ground, about five miles from the Mara River, Pelley and the team visited a clearing in the forest that wasn't a wheat field yet, but soon would become one. What happens before the forest becomes a wheat field is that char coalers move to the area and cut down the trees to make one of the principal fuels for cooking.

The Mau Forest is falling to a growing population that is trying to make a living off the land. For centuries, the Mau has been a sponge holding and releasing waters into the river. To scientists, the equation is simple: if there's no Mau Forest, there's no Mara River. And that means no migration.

Saving the Mau Forest has become a crisis in Kenya, pitting the government against its own people. The government has forcibly evicted as many as 50,000 settlers from the Mau.

We saw it in the village of Nkaroni, which was settled in the forest more than 30 years ago. The Kenyan government, back in the 1990's even gave some of the villagers title to the land.

"It says nature of title, absolute," Pelley remarked, looking at one of the title deeds. "You take it to mean absolute."

The villagers around him applauded in agreement.

But a new government has turned on them. Now it says to save the forest, villages like this have to go. In 2005, the government sent security forces to burn homes, schools and churches. But still the people refuse to leave.

"We will stay we will not go anywhere if they kill us they kill us," retired village chief John Sena told Pelley.

"You would die right here?" Pelley asked.

"Yes," Sena replied.

The villagers in the forest don't see why their families should be uprooted for a wildlife refuge they've never seen.

But 60 Minutes found a different story down river in the Mara itself, where the growing population of Maasai has been willing to compromise.

"The population is a wild problem it's growing and it's growing everywhere," said Dickson Kaelo, who works for a non-profit foundation that is paying the Maasai to turn over management of their land to a wildlife conservancy.

"Many of the families before the conservancy started were very poor and quite a number of them now are able to survive and diversify away from just keeping cattle," Kaelo explained.

The Maasai had been expanding their farms and grazing cattle near the migration routes. Now the conservancy manages their land for wildlife, tourists pay to see the wildlife, and the Maasai get a cut of the profits. Families we talked to say they bring in an extra $200 a month, enough to send the kids to school.

Kaelo has brought nearly 300 square miles under management and that's growing. "I think the children of our children of our children would like to experience the migration. It doesn't matter whether they are living in China or in the Far East or in America, they would like to know that the migration is still continuing," he said.

As the wildebeest moved out of the Maasai Mara, we could see the beginnings of next year's spectacle. The elephants were raising their calves, and that cheetah we encountered earlier was feeding her cubs on a waterbuck she'd killed.

Cheetah cubs chirp like birds. And if they survive, they will still be with their mother when the wildebeest come round again.
This perpetual cycle is still a robust force of nature. But with the Mara River running low and man crowding the route, no one can be certain how many turns are left for this, the last spectacle of its kind.

Produced by Henry Schuster and Rebecca Peterson

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