The Magnificent Migration Reviews

The Magnificent Migration: On Safari with Africa’s Last Great Herds
by Sy Montgomery
HMH Books for Young Readers (June 11, 2019), 9780544761131

Booklist Best of 2019.

Montgomery journeys into the heart of the wildebeest migration with a wildlife biologist who has been studying these African mammals for more than 50 years. Eleven chapters and a reflective epilogue chronicle a two-week visit to Tanzania’s northern plains with a small group led by Richard Estes, “the guru of gnu.” Montgomery, who has described many remarkable scientific field trips for the Scientists in the Field series, aims this report at older readers who can take in and act on her underlying message: “Throughout the Serengeti, our kind threatens the very survival of the migration we’ve come so far to witness.” Tension heightens as the wildebeest hordes elude them for days. Finally, a dramatic car breakdown in the wilderness is followed by “immersion” in an ocean of migrating gnus—a climax that would be unbelievable in fiction. Setting this particular safari in a larger context, and heightening the suspense, are interspersed short segments about Serengeti wildlife, poachers’ snares, the role of fire, “other magnificent migrants,” and more. The overall design is inviting and appropriate to the subject. There are maps, plentiful photos of African animals, and pictures and minibiographies of Montgomery’s all-white safari companions, both American and Tanzanian. Montgomery touches on the white-directed nature of much scientific research in Africa as well as pressures from colonialism and climate change but keeps her focus tightly on the wildebeest. A splendid wildlife adventure skillfully conveyed.

It’s possible that wildebeest won’t initially grab readers’ attentions, but it’s worth encouraging them to take a chance on these African ungulates, because Montgomery quickly proves that they’re as exciting as they come. While similar to her other volumes in the Scientists in the Field series, this has a far more personal tone, as Montgomery narrates her experiences with wildebeest expert Dr. Richard Estes and their safari team as they track the massive, year-round migration of these animals. Montgomery impressively conveys the large-scale importance of wildebeest’s Serengeti circuit by focusing on the details observed (and smelled) on her journey. It’s a trip punctuated by vampiric flies, car trouble, laughter, tragedy, and wonder—all while in pursuit of a somehow elusive, million-strong herd. Wildebeest, also called gnus, are a keystone species whose pursuit of Africa’s rains keeps its grassland ecosystem healthy, but human expansion and poaching are taking a toll on this, to use Montgomery’s term, symphonic migration. She makes connections to other awesome animal migrants (loggerhead sea turtles, zooplankton, monarch butterflies, etc.) and zooms in on other animals her team encounters on their travels, providing a larger context for the wildebeest’s migration and a clear depiction of nature’s interconnectedness. Montgomery’s and Dr. Estes’ passion for these astonishing animals makes this illuminating, information-rich account an adventure that may just inspire a gnu generation of ecological heroes.

Nature writer and Sibert medalist Sy Montgomery  joins friend and wildlife biologist Dr. Richard Despard Estes on a stunning safari through the Serengeti to track the last great African wildebeest migration. “The extravagance of their number stupefies,” Montgomery’s text states, “one and a quarter million wildebeests, in separate herds of tens of thousands, all on the move at once, accompanied by hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles. It is the largest mass movement of animals on land.” For two weeks, Montgomery, Estes (“the guru of gnu”) and the other members of their expedition follow the signs of these animals that “drive the ecology and evolution of the largest savanna ecosystem in the world.”

As the crew experiences a series of near misses seeing the migration, they encounter myriad other life forms affected by the existence of the wildebeest: predators such as lions and crocodiles; fellow travelers including the zebra and the gazelle; the giraffe, whose population depends on the wildebeest. “The presence of so many wildebeests gives the local lions something to eat other than baby giraffes…. The more wildebeests there are, the more giraffe calves survive.” Estes, who has been studying wildebeests for “more than half a century” and is considered the world’s top expert, educates his companions on the gnu and its environment as they travel through the savanna.

Engrossing and exciting, the search for the wildebeest should fascinate and enlighten young animal lovers. Montgomery’s supplemental content on other migrations and tangential information, as well as photographs from two members of the safari, superbly enhance the awe-inspiring narrative of their search for the gnu. Montgomery may inspire some to visit the Serengeti personally, but for those who can’t, The Magnificent Migration is the next best thing.
—Shelf Awareness, STARRED REVIEW

Montgomery takes readers on safari, joining a group led by eminent scientist Dr. Richard Despard Estes to follow wildebeest migrations through Tanzania and Kenya. It’s spring—mating season—and although its main goal is to see the vast herds of wildebeest, the group also encounters lions, elephants, hippos, and a host of antelope species. Montgomery’s explanations of the science of migration and the complex relationships among life and land in the Serengeti ecosystem are told through a practically minute-by-minute narrative of her adventures. Readers may feel as if they are in the hot and dusty Land Cruiser alongside our narrator as she asks questions of and makes observations about animals, the landscape, and even her traveling companions and their interesting histories. The impacts of humans on the fragile ecosystem and animal populations—positively through conservation and education and negatively through poaching and climate change—are noted throughout. The Woods’ photographs, set off by the sharp book design, skillfully capture the sweeping landscapes, the diverse species of the region, and the people who live nearby and who study the animals. Hand-drawn maps illustrate the vast areas through which wildebeests travel on their migration cycle. Labels and captions appear as pages torn from notebooks, or images taped into a diary. Back matter includes a selected bibliography, an index, and “Get Involved!” advice for how to support the conservation of wild animal populations in Serengeti National Park.
—Horn Book

The Magnificent Migration written for older children by the peerless wildlife writer Sy Montgomery, focuses on Africa’s wildebeest herds and the animals (including many thousands of gazelles and zebras) accompanying them on their year-round, 800-mile circuit through the Serengeti. Montgomery travels with Richard Estes, the world’s foremost authority on these super-social bearded antelopes, and explains how wildebeests lead such a large, eventful procession. Citing the destruction of Great Plains wildlife in 19th-century America, Montgomery also makes clear how important it is that 21st-century people work to protect, rather than diminish, the Serengeti.
—The Washington Post

Sy Montgomery’s most recent book, The Magnificent Migration is an enjoyable, leisurely read that effortlessly transports the reader into the midst of perhaps the largest mammal migration in the world.
—Ecologist: The Journal for the Post-Industrial Age