In a December 2021 National Geographic article, Peter Gwin portrays the wildebeest as the “Unlikely King of the Serengeti.” That title suggests that the animal and its role are too complex for us to comprehend. In the case of the wildebeest, both their physical design and their incredible mass migrations of more than 1.3 million animals have drawn the attention of scientists.
The wildebeest is an animal that seems to have been fashioned from the parts of other animals. They have a head like a warthog, a neck that looks like an American buffalo, stripes like a zebra, and the tail of a giraffe. Wildebeest are members of the antelope family, but they have small horns, shaggy beards, big humps, and small legs. Their three-week birthing period in January allows them to produce 500,000 calves at the rate of about 24,000 per day. Despite their clumsy appearance, a wildebeest can run 50 miles (80 km) per hour and annually migrate 1,750 miles (2,816 km). They are the largest animals to engage in such a long migratory journey.
In their migration, wildebeest cross rivers in massive numbers. Tourists come to watch these crossings where crocodiles feed on many of the animals. The king of the Serengeti is also a food source for lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards. New studies of the wildebeest and the Serengeti show the complex design of these animals and their environment.
Wildebeest migration follows the rain. As they travel through Kenya and Tanzania, wildebeest can sense where it is raining, and they follow the precipitation. By eating the new grass that the rain produces, wildebeest prevent the grass from growing tall enough for wildfires to develop. The lack of fires allows forests to grow, thus allowing more insects for birds to eat and more leaves to feed the herbivores. That sustains the elephant, giraffe, zebra populations.
It’s easy to see why the king of the Serengeti is not the lion but the wildebeest. It is a keystone species that, by its design, feeds many life forms and, by mass migrations, allows a stable ecology in the Serengeti. This is an example of God’s design of an animal that is only now being understood and appreciated. Everywhere we look, we see that a wonder-working hand has gone before.
— John N. Clayton © 2021
References: The National Geographic issue for December of 2021 is one of the most interesting issues that popular magazine has produced. It is connected to a Disney program that will be streamed starting on December 8. The program titled “Welcome to Earth” will be hosted by actor Will Smith and feature many different animals and plants, including the wildebeest.