13th Annual Smithsonian.com Photo Contest
Taking the Leap: The Great Wildebeest Migration of 2015
What does a sustainable travel project look like to me? I was documenting a sustainable travel project with my team (The Wild Source tour operator & Lalashe Guide Co-Op), who are one of the few companies that empower Maasai and Ndorobo freelance guides and help them succeed in their own businesses. These guides know the area quite well, and have each been guiding for over 24 years. Our motto is to patiently observe wildlife so that one can see the unique behaviors that make the natural world so fascinating.
I was in Kenya not only to witness the migration, but more importantly, to discover and document how the Great Migration affects the local, indigenous Ndorobo and Maasai populations. Our team consisted of two local guides, Paul Kirui, a Ndorobo, and one of Kenya’s most respected guides, Ping’ua, a Maasai (both are rated as Conde Nast’s list of Africa’s 25 Top Safari Guides), Bill Given, a big cat expert from Denver who is working on a radical taste-aversion solution for big cats to coexist with the Maasai and other cattle owners, and myself.
There is an interesting backstory to these images. We tracked the wildebeests for about 6 hours that day, following them back and forth along the river. All the other vehicles seemed to be set up along one or two of the other “main” crossings. Our guides, however, followed their instinct in anticipating wildlife behavior (it's in their blood) and brought us to a center point where they had seen zebra and herds of topi cross before. We took a gamble, and waited there for quite some time.
Then I recall our guide Paul saying “He’s going to go now!”, and sure enough, the very first of thousands of wildebeests took to the crocodile-infested waters (#2 wildebeest was literally in the mouth of the first croc to appear, but somehow managed to get away). It was an amazing sight to behold, as thousands of wildebeests collectively crossed the dangerous waters, taking that first leap of faith, with the energy of their group behind them, pushing them forward. It’s quite unusual to witness a crossing head-on. Every single wildebeest that made the crossing that day passed by us directly. I won’t lie - I broke down in tears at the sheer emotion of it all. I’ve never witnessed anything quite like that before.
© Kristen Gill.
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||Nov. 30, 2015, 11:47 p.m.