World's Great Animal Migrations
When Sarah Rayner hiked into Mexico's El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary earlier this year, she thought she knew what to expect. The Baton Rouge biology teacher was making a long-awaited trip to see the millions of monarch butterflies that migrate there each winter. But nothing had prepared her for the moment when she entered a sun-dappled oyamel grove and was suddenly surrounded by butterflies—in the sky, on every tree, even alighting on her head and shoulders.
Spotting even a single wild creature in its natural habitat is memorable. So it's that much more inspirational to see multitudes—whether in herds, flocks, or colonies—all gathered together and moving forward for a common purpose. Sure, it takes some planning to get the timing right, but experiencing an animal migration is often the highlight of a trip, if not its sole purpose.
Animal migrations happen all over the world, usually for a creature's survival. Whale sharks off Mexico's Caribbean coast follow the climatic patterns that sustain their supply of food and water. Others, including green sea turtles in Costa Rica, travel vast distances each year to return to ancestral breeding or birthing grounds. These creatures migrate en masse not only because of their communal instincts, but because it provides safety from predators.
Increasingly, however, migrating animals are facing greater threats than beasts of prey. According to David Wilcove, a professor of evolutionary biology at Princeton University and author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World's Great Animal Migrations, climate change, man-made obstacles like roads and dams, and exploitation of natural resources are putting the species involved in these animal migrations at serious risk.
"Great migrations are best viewed as irreplaceable treasures," Wilcove writes, "increasingly scarce reminders of a time when humans did not dominate the earth."
Coordinating conservation efforts with the demands of economic development on our crowded planet can be a Herculean task. Yet there are glimmers of hope, among them, the decision in June 2011 by the Tanzanian government to cancel plans for a major road through the northern Serengeti that would have cut off a critical portion of the wildebeest and zebra migration.
Perhaps the best chance these animals have at maintaining their way of life is for us to appreciate and experience firsthand their extraordinary journeys. Start here with a sneak peek and sample itineraries of some of the world's great animal migrations.
Elephant Migration, Mali
Although Mali's African elephant population is relatively small (hundreds rather than thousands), the country's parched climate means its elephants must continually walk—in long queues, single file—search of new drinking water. It's striking to see scores of huge lumbering beasts marching trunk-to-tail across the Saharan landscapes south of Timbuktu (which are not preserves or parklands, but wild desert), or cooling themselves in the welcome waters of Lake Débo.
When to Go: Between February and May.
How to Get There: Explore Mali organizes custom multiday trips to see the elephants, with either camping or local-hotel stays in between. Because the elephants in Mali aren't accustomed to humans the way those in safari parks are, guides make sure to stay at a respectful, and safe, distance (from $402 per person).
Caribou Migration, Alaska
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—particularly the northeastern corner of Alaska where the Kongakut River cleaves the Eastern Brooks Range—is an annual destination for masses of traveling caribou. About 115,000 animals gather here each summer to give birth to and raise their calves before heading south for the winter; during the summer months, the 24-hour sunlight illuminates the lowing, fuzzy-antlered herds, the wolves and grizzlies that follow them, and the ruggedly beautiful mountain peaks covered with new-blooming wildflowers.
When to Go: June and July.
How to Go: Arctic Wild runs seven-day backpacking-and-camping treks for small groups along a 35-mile stretch of the Kongakut River valley. Travelers typically find themselves hiking right alongside clusters of caribou with their new calves ($3,500 per person).
Green Sea Turtle Migration, Costa Rica
Thousands of endangered green sea turtles enact an extraordinary annual migration ritual—by returning to the same remote stretch of Costa Rica's northeastern coast where they were born in order to lay eggs of their own. On the beaches of Tortuguero National Park, dozens of turtles haul themselves ashore each night to laboriously dig nests in the sand and deposit their precious eggs, before slipping exhausted back into the sea.
When to Go: June and July.
How to Get There: GAP Adventures runs multiday eco-trips and voluntourism programs in Tortuguero; both include guided hikes and boat tours in the park, educational talks about turtle conservation, and night patrols to see the turtles digging nests (from $399 per person).
Wildebeest and Zebra Migration, Kenya and Tanzania
The Rift Valley game preserves of Kenya and Tanzania (especially Amboseli, Serengeti, and Masai Mara) fill with the dust clouds and thunderous noise kicked up by vast herds of wildebeest and zebra. Some 1.5 million animals traverse the veldt here in the late summer on their way north to follow the rains—and the fresh grass and drinking water they provide.
When to Go: August to September.
How to Go: Micato's 15-day Grand Safari is a splurge that provides front-row seats to the spectacle—from game-drive jeeps, hot-air balloons, and luxury tented camps (from $21,210 per person). For a more affordable option, andBeyond arranges Masai Mara and Serengeti safaris based on per-person, per-night occupancy (from $995 during the migration season).
Monarch Butterfly Migration, Mexico
Every winter, more than 300 million vivid tiger-striped butterflies flock to the mountainous regions of Anguangeo and Valle de Bravo, in Michoacán, to escape the winter cold further north. Some areas, which have been designated as national butterfly sanctuaries, attract such a dense population of monarchs that the oyamel branches where they congregate in great, moving clusters have been known to collapse beneath them.
When to Go: January and February.
How to Go: Natural Habitat Adventures leads six-day, small-group treks that visit several butterfly sanctuaries, both on foot and horseback (from $2,995 per person).
Red Crab Migration, Christmas Island
In the Indian Ocean some 1,600 miles off the northwestern coast of Australia, this rainforest-choked island (most of which is Australian national parkland) is overrun each Southern Hemisphere spring by more than 50 million scuttling red land crabs. Breeding season suddenly causes swarms of the palm-size, crimson-colored crabs, which live in burrows in the island's forested areas, to head for the coast. On their way, they cross roads and dodge any obstacles (including human ones) that get in their way.
When to Go: October and November.
How to Get There: While there are no guided tours offered of the migration, Christmas Island's park staff help direct visitors to the island's best viewing spots, and entry to the park is free.
Whale Shark Migration, Mexico
Wide-mouthed, spotted, and between 25 and 40 feet long, whale sharks are some of the ocean's most fearsome-looking creatures. In fact, though, these floating behemoths are completely harmless plankton-feeders, which are perfectly amenable to having human company swim right alongside them. Such intimate rendezvous are possible in the waters off tiny Isla Holbox, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, and where hundreds of whale sharks converge to feed every summer.
When to Go: May to September.
How to Go: Holbox Tours & Travel runs day boating trips from Isla Holbox, which include several whale-shark swims, all snorkeling gear, and food and drinks (from $120 per person). Transfers from nearby Cancún and Riviera Maya can also be easily arranged.
Flamingo Migration, Kenya
Great pink clouds of flapping, honking greater and lesser flamingos move year-round among the alkaline lakes of eastern Africa's Rift Valley. The lakes supply flamingos with their primary food source, green algae (which, interestingly, gives the birds their coral-pink color). One of the major stops on their culinary tour is central Kenya's Lake Nakuru. During the wet spring season, the shimmering shallow waters of the lake are completely obscured by thousands of bobbing, slender-necked, stilt-legged birds.
When to Go: April to June.
How to Get There: Many safari outfitters visit the lake as part of longer game-park itineraries, but those pressed for time can take day trips from Nairobi with Serengeti Travel (from $120 per person).
Fruit Bat Migration, Zambia
One of the world's largest—but least-known—animal migrations occurs every autumn in central Zambia's Kasanka National Park. Every evening, some eight million straw-colored fruit bats fill the skies over the park, and then descend into the trees to feast on masuku fruit. While the bats are large, and so numerous that they block the light of the setting sun, their flights are dramatically, spookily silent.
When to Go: October to December.
How to Get There: Once a year Audley Travel organizes a special weeklong tour to see the bats up close. The seven-day itinerary includes accommodation in lodges in and around Kasanka, several bat-viewing drives, all food, and transfers from Zambia's capital city, Lusaka (from $4,393 per person).
Sandhill Crane Migration, Nebraska
Nebraska's Platte River, which bisects the state from east to west, is a major flyway for all sorts of migrating birds—but none sojourn here in more dazzling numbers than the stately, red-browed sandhill crane. During just over a month in the spring, some 500,000 of these birds converge to roost and feed along the Platte, darkening the sky with their six-foot wingspans and filling the air with a riot of calls.
When to Go: March and early April.
How to Get There: During the migration, guides at the 1,900-acre Rowe Sanctuary lead small-group field trips to blinds (camouflaged viewing huts) from which the cranes can be viewed unobtrusively. The two-hour viewing trips are held twice each day, one in the early morning and one in the evening ($25 per person).
Bar-Headed Goose Migration, India to Tibet
Ordinary looking except for the distinctive black stripes that give them their name, bar-headed geese actually have the avian equivalent of superpowers: they are the world's highest-altitude migrating species. Flocks make staggering flights above the 20,000-foot-plus peaks of the Himalayas from their winter feeding grounds in India to their summer nesting grounds in Tibet. They have even allegedly been spotted over Everest. While it's nearly impossible to catch these migrations in action (they typically happen in a single day, and weather conditions can make visibility very poor), the remarkable geese are easily seen in winter along central India's Chambal River.
When to Go: February.
How to Get There: Birdquest's 12-day Tigers & Birds of Bandhavgarh tour brings small groups into the National Chambal Sanctuary, as well as to Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh where tigers roam (from $4,130 per person).
Emperor Penguin Migration, Antarctica
As portrayed so fetchingly in the documentary film March of the Penguins, some 200,000 pairs of elegant-looking (but ungainly-footed) emperor penguins make a punishingly long, arduous trek from the Antarctic coast to inland laying grounds each year. The journey culminates in the hatching of thousands of chicks at the beginning of the Southern Hemisphere summer.
When to Go: November and December.
How to Go: Quark Expeditions offers a once-in-a-lifetime, break-the-bank 31-day cruise, Antarctica's Far East, that brings travelers to a remote emperor penguin rookery on the sea ice of Amanda Bay. Cruise-goers also visit myriad historic landmarks, islands, and seal and bird colonies while aboard the icebreaker ship Khlebnikov (from $38,490 per person). For those not wedded to seeing emperors, Lindblad Expeditions runs 14-day Antarctic icebreaker cruises that visit colonies of gentoo penguins instead (from $10,580 per person).