Wildebeest thrive in areas that are neither too wet nor too dry, with their range extending from the equator to the tip of South Africa. The blue wildebeest, known as the brindled gnu, ranges from Kenya to northern South Africa. They prefer the dense bushlands, open grasslands and woodland floodplains of the southern savanna.
Wildebeests are strictly grazers, preferring sweet, stocky grasses. This grass often grows in areas that have seen recent fire, as tall, coarse brush is burnt, permitting room for new vegetation to grow. Wildebeest will also follow herds of other grazers that eat dry, longer grasses. In addition to grasses, these creatures also eat succulent plants and browse on karoo bushes. They begin grazing soon after sunrise, rest briefly at midday, and continue feeding until sunset. Wildebeest need water almost daily.
Wildebeest are sociable, territorial animals. Females and their young form small herds, their territories frequently overlapping. After about a year, males will leave their herd and enter into a bachelor herd. At 4 or 5 years old, males will become highly territorial and depart from the bachelor herd. Cow and calf herds typically remain constant; however, when there are many groups clustered close together in an area, cows will often leave their group for another.
Neighboring bulls will challenge one another when encountering each other at the edges of their territories. They follow a series of ritualized actions: bucking, snorting, pawing at the ground, fighting, and grunting in a deep croaking manner like a frog. The wildebeests will face one another on their knees, foreheads to the ground, ready for combat. The bulls move forward to strike each other, knocking heads and horns, but rarely will become injured. Some scientists speculate that these confrontations spark a rise in hormone levels, as non-territorial bulls in bachelor groups are very serene.
Wildebeest are constantly moving throughout day and night, in search of water and preferred grasses. They tend to migrate in lengthy, single-file columns, traversing long distances at an easy rocking gallop, though they are swift when provoked. Animals such as Thomson’s gazelle, zebra, and even predators will follow the traveling wildebeest. The number of times a herd moves and the number of females in a herd depends on a number of environmental factors, such as quantity of rainfall or quality of dry season pasture.
Each year, wildebeest in the Serengeti-Mara travel in a migratory circle of 500 to 1,000 miles. After calves are born in January and February, the migration begins in the southeastern Serengeti. Traversing across the short-grass plains, wildebeest approach Lake Victoria in the west. They head toward open woodland, then curve north en route for the Mara. Lastly, they take a turn to the south toward home. They are single-minded in their pursuit, swimming across bodies of water in such massive numbers that many die, become injured, or are lost (particularly calves).
Wildebeest are highly desirable prey for spotted hyena and lion. Although wildebeest are unable to adequately camouflage themselves, they are afforded some protection by gathering in large herds.