Insights into the Serengeti ecosystem

Wildebeest migration
An interview with Dr Richard Despard Estes.


American ethologist Richard Despard Estes is a world authority on the wildebeest (gnu) and their epic migration through the Serengeti national park in Tanzania (including the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, the gateway to the Serengeti), an extension of the Masai Mara ecosystem in neighbouring Kenya.

Estes, now age 91, received his doctorate in vertebrate zoology from Cornell University following undergraduate studies at Harvard, and began his pioneering field study of this prolific antelope in October 1962 when he became the first foreigner to live on the floor of Ngorongoro Crater in over a generation.

In his 1958 land rover pickup, often in the company of his Austrian-born wife Runi, whom he met and married in Tanzania and who later assisted his research by translating German literature dealing with animal behaviur, Estes traversed the open plains, montane grasslands and lush forests making discoveries over the course of half a century of not only of the wildebeest but insights into the interconnectedness of other wild species of fauna and flora in the Serengeti ecosystem including in the soil itself.

What first attracted you to the wildebeest given the fact that you have also studied other African antelope's?

Wildebeest were the most numerous and, I suspected, the most ecologically important of the antelopes. 

What has been your greatest discovery studying the wildebeest and its migration on the Serengeti?

The territorial behaviour of the males, which I first observed in Ngorongoro Crater. Why, I wondered, would these individuals, members of a species whose habit of gathering in dense concentrations proved they were highly sociable, isolate themselves like this? Could they be defending territories?

Oddly enough, the first behavioural observation I made as i gazed into the void of Ngorongoro Crater became the subject of my doctoral dissertation-the territorial behaviour of wildebeest.  

How do wildebeests drive the ecology and evolution of the Serengeti - the largest eoc-system in the world?

The migrating wildebeests create and maintain the Serengeti ecosystem. They churn the soil with their hooves and nourish it with their urine and dung.  

Males bashing bushes with their horns in territorial displays help keep the savanna from growing into forest. Even a component in the wildebeests' saliva has been found to stimulate grass to grow.  And because the animals move on after grazing, (unlike cattle) the grasses grow back, stronger than ever. 

We already know what the predators and scavengers get out of the serengeti migration-lunch, but what do the hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles and other antelopes get out of it?

I counted twenty-eight other species of mammals that can thrive in Serengeti because of the wildebeest migration. But new studies suggest that number may be too low.

Additional species that benefit range from aquatic micro-organisms and fish (nourished by the carcasses of gnus who die crossing rivers) to giraffes (whose babies suffer less from predation when the wildebeest migration sweeps through their territories. wildebeest are even more important to the ecosystem than I could have imagined when i began my work in 1962. 

At age ten, in the midst of the American museum of natural history in MYC, you made up your mind to go to Africa.

I was fascinated with the diversity of animals there and wanted to learn more about them. I did not know then that I could make a career studying african animals. 

What kind of family did you have and were they supportive about your passion for African wildlife and to live there?

My father was a lawyer; my mother a homemaker; I had an older brother. There was no support from my parents because my mother died when i was 11. My father died when i was 14. 

Who were some of your well-known contemporaries at Harvard, where you studied sociology and social anthropology?

George Plimpton and Henry Kissinger were fellow 1950 grads of Harvard. More important to me, en route to my work in Burma, I would meet Nobel Laureates Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz, who along with Carl von Frisch were the founders of ethology-the study of animal behaviour.

They were not associated with Harvard but I had the opportunity to spend a summer at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioural Physiology in Bavaria and studied with Lorenz, and met other influential biologists including Ernst Mayr and von Frisch.

In 1958, you travelled to Burma [Myanmar] to conduct a wildlife survey. What was that experience like. 

The field experience was very helpful, though the animals were quite different. However, the great diversity of animals there fascinated me.

Do you recall any adventures in Burma?

One day I was sitting at a waterhole and sensed that a tiger was circling me. I still have the teapot from a different person's neighbouring camp that was upended by a tiger who jumped over a log, picked up a person in its mouth, and ran into the forest with him. 

have you ever gotten caught up in some political chaos or natural disaster during your field studies in Africa or Asia?

Thankfully, no. In 78-81 we ran into food shortages in Tanzania because of the war with Uganda, but the country itself was calm.

Your two African wildlife books: The Behavior Guide to African Mammals and The Safari Companion are classics. Are they still as popular as they once were? 

The two books are currently being used to train safari guides throughout Africa. As of 2018, the Behaviour Guide has sold 30,000+ copies, and the Safari Companion sold 52,200+ copies.

How did the idea of the rare species conservatory foundation come about and what have been some of its accomplishments ?

Paul Reillo founded it. He has been protecting rare species of all sorts, especially birds, I was a founding board member. Our daughter Anna and son Lyndon are associates, too. It's dedicated to preserving global biodiversity.  

Why was there a decline in Kenya's bongo population to the point where you had to help repatriate American-bred bongos to Kenya? What time period was this?

The Bongo antelope was another victim of habitat destruction and poaching. The bongo SSP was founded in 1999.

The rare species conservatory is essential for reporting what is happening in the field among all antelopes during a period when many species were facing endangerment and which I chaired and co-chaired for almost three decades, contributed bongo to the Jacksonville zoo-one of the 47 zoos that supplied bongo for repatriation to the Mount Kenya Game Ranch in 2004. 

What are some of the greatest threats to the Serengeti ecosystem and how are humans involved?

Foreign plants are taking hold where native grasses once flourished. Poachers snare 100,000 wildebeest a year in Serengeti alone. Herders' animals compete with native animals for graze; climate change skews rainfall; tourists' vehicles compact soil and carve ruts into grasses, and every year, as Africa's population is projected to double in the next 20 years, more houses, roads, fences, and farms crowd the land the animals need to survive.   

What are some of the environmental and social blowbacks that humans will feel if we lose the wildebeest migration to the rising bushmeat trade, capitalist market forces and socio-economic development?  

As for the human social consequences, when an entire ecosystem collapses, humans - who grew up in this ecosystem - will profoundly feel the loss.

I could also cite the considerable money lost to the Kenyan and Tanzanian tourist industry (extremely important to both countries' economies) but as Sy Montgomery writes in her recent book: “If we lose (the migration), we deserve no second change. We forfeit forever the spectacle and renewal of the world's most magnificent migration."      

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades with his work appearing in numerous publications including New ScientistBBC Wildlife MagazineNew African and Africa Geographic.

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