Conversations with Joanne Scofield: Human impact on wildebeest populations and “Running with the Beest”.

The Great Migration in East Africa is a spectacle that can be seen from space. More than one million wildebeest, alongside zebra, gazelle and elands, journey in a quest to find fresh grass. Nature: Running with the Beest follows two Maasai guides, Derrick Nabaala and Evalyn Sintoya, who have spent the last 10 years tracking the wildebeest as they migrate through Kenya’s Mara ecosystem. However, climate change, tourism and modern-day conflicts are threatening the delicate balance between the environment and wildlife. The Great Migration is part of the Maasai’s cultural heritage, and Nabaala and Sintoya share new ideas for co-existence in a changing world.   Nature: Running with the Beest, premiers Wednesday, October 19 at 8 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), and the PBS Video app.

Joanne Scofield, writer and director of Running with the Beest, set aside some time to discuss the film and the Mara North Conservancy.

Thousands of wildebeest migrating north through the grassy plains of the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Credit: Adam Bannister / © Atlantic Productions Ltd

At first glance, the Wildebeest seems to be an odd pick to make a film about, at least when considering the usual type of animal featured in documentaries. What prompted you to make Running with the Beest?

The wildebeest are paramount to all life in East Africa. While infamously labelled a “stupid” animal, in fact in their thousands they are what makes the savannah go around! They keep the grasses and plains fertilised and cropped, and are a main food source to all the carnivores and vultures who live in East Africa. Families of hyenas, lions, leopard and cheetah have their young in synchrony with the migration’s arrival. Without these quirky beests, life there would not be at all as we know it!

Running with the Beest was filmed in Mara North Conservancy. What was it like shooting there and working with the Masai Mara?

We filmed this in the Masai Mara Triangle, the main reserve, and also in the neighbouring conservancies around the edges of the reserve, Mara North and Naibosho. The two places operate very different models of conservation. The latter are community owned and co-operatively run, whilst the main reserve is owned by the local council, but all are Masai owned. They are very proud people and this is part of their heritage, which is why we wanted Evalyn and Derrick to give their view.

Wildebeest plunging into the Mara River during the Great Migration. Maasai Mara, Kenya. Credit: Adam Bannister / © Atlantic Productions Ltd

Can you discuss the annual migration of the wildebeest. Why is it significant and what makes it special?

The migration is a circular route from the grasslands of the Serengeti to the plains of the Masai Mara and back again  – a journey just under 2000 miles of over the course of one year. They follow the rains to find green pastures of fresh grass to eat, and it never stops… 200,000 zebra join them as well as other gazelle for safety in numbers, as this journey is dangerous. Rivers full of hungry crocodiles and plains filled with big cats and carnivores await their arrival. It is a spectacle of nature… millions of animals moving together creating a dramatic theatre of life-and-death events as they pass through.

Your film drives home how interconnected life is for animals in Mara North Conservancy. What role do they play in the park’s ecosystem and the food chain?

All animals on this circle from Tanzania to Kenya are interconnected. The carnivores, lions, cheetah, hyenas and leopard depend on the migration’s arrival for food and breeding – many animals time giving birth with the arrival of the migration. 

The vultures depend on the carcasses left over for their survival and bringing up chicks… some vultures fly hundreds of miles a day to follow the migration. Crocodiles wait for months and months depending on the migration for their main food source, catching wildebeest and zebra as they cross the Mara river. Everything connects to everything…if one species is unbalanced, it would all start to fall apart. Every link is vital to keep all life going.

DID YOU KNOW? Wildebeests are antelopes of the genus Connochaetes and native to Eastern and Southern Africa. They belong to the family Bovidae, which includes true antelopes, cattle, goats, sheep, and other even-toed horned ungulates. There are two species of wildebeest: the black wildebeest or white-tailed gnu (C. gnou), and the blue wildebeest or brindled gnu (C. taurinus). 

Fossil records suggest these two species diverged about one million years ago, resulting in a northern and a southern species. The blue wildebeest remained in its original range and changed very little from the ancestral species, while the black wildebeest changed more as adaptation to its open grassland habitat in the south. The most obvious ways of telling the two species apart are the differences in their coloring and in the way their horns are oriented.

Can you discuss the ways humans are both harming and helping wildebeests in the wild?

Humans are everywhere, and have a good and bad impact on the wildebeest. The migration is one of nature’s greatest events and as such brings tourists from all over the world to see it. 

This is great for revenue, keeping the parks in business and protecting species there. However, there is only limited control of vehicles around the river and as a result, over-tourism is affecting the migrations crossing points, where drivers and tourists push to get the best view and impact the wildebeest’s natural behaviour. This leads to animals having to lurch down dangerous banks where they would not choose to go, and many become hurt in the process and more die than should.

Generally, human population is ever on the increase, especially here, which affects the migration’s routes. Masai families are growing and parcels of land are being carved up and fenced off to protect grazing rights. These fences block migration routes, which are vital for the wildebeest to reach their breeding grounds. Also many become trapped in the fences and die, which is a terrible sight to see.

Herds of wildebeest at dawn crossing the Mara River. Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. Credit: Clement Kiragu / © Atlantic Productions Ltd

What surprised you the most about wildebeests while making this film? Why?

What surprised me was when I learned that the female wildebeest are pregnant for almost the entire yearlong journey! They give birth to calves in the Serengeti in late February… who follow them and suckle throughout the journey. Just a couple of months later, the males mate with the females and they become pregnant again! They keep moving on the migration’s circular route whilst pregnant and suckling their newborn calves… Now that’s impressive given the energy they need to sustain all that! It’s no wonder they eat constantly to keep up the energy to make their journey.

What would you like viewers to take away from the film after they have watched Running with the Beest?

I hope people come away with a greater understanding of the sensitive balance of life, not only the big sexy predators, but also the vultures and tiny lapwings who also depend on the wildebeest. Also an awareness of our human effect on wild spaces and animals. We all have an impact and we have to be sensitive to that if we are to keep this precious nature safe. 

IMAGE CREDIT: Atlantic Productions Ltd.

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  1. Wild beasts are not clever naturally. they enter into the river despite seeing crocodile present.People have done nothing wrong .

  2. Wild beests are not clever naturally,they enter into a river despite seeing crocodiles in the river.People have done nothing wrong.

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