Considered the greatest natural wonder of the world, Africa’s Serengeti National Park is ground zero for massive wildlife migrations through Tanzania and Kenya. Each year, millions of wildebeest, zebra, elephants, rhinos, gazelles and predators like cheetahs and lions teem across the landscape as far as the eye can see. They move in search of rain, instinctively following paths established over thousands of years of evolution.
But last May, the Tanzanian government announced plans to build a 300-mile highway through the northern part of the park. Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete believes the $480 million project would improve transportation and boost economic activity by linking two of its key towns — Arusha, near Kilimanjaro and Musoma on Lake Victoria.
Unfortunately, the road could have devastating consequences for migrating wildlife, and the African economies who depend on the key tourist attraction. Kenya is opposed to the Serengeti road project, worried how it would affect the annual wildebeest migration. More than 100,000 tourists visit the country’s Maasai Mara National Reserve during the migration months between July and October, and any interruption is likely to hurt Kenya’s economy.
“Wildebeest have a problem crossing roads which have heavy human and vehicle traffic, there is nothing elsewhere in the Serengeti with this high capacity for traffic,” said Mr Gideon Gathaara, a Kenyan Ministry of Wildlife official.
Scientists say that a road like this could lead to the collapse of the Serengeti ecosystem, as well as tourism in the region. Though the proposed road would be gravel, the presence of increased traffic would disrupt wildlife to the point of their avoidance of the area and would lead to roadkill, especially at night. And it’s not only zebra and wildebeest at risk – vehicles pose a huge threat to carnivores like wild dogs, even big animals like rhinos. A fence would be even more damaging to wildlife, entangling some animals and isolating others. Baby elephants that are unable to step over the same fences that grown elephants can are often abandoned, the rest of the herd pushed on in search of water. Eventually, the road would most likely be paved anyway.
Several conservation experts have publicly condemned the plan, as has the United Nations World Heritage Committee. Internationally known wildlife biologist Richard Estes said the price of a road through the Serengeti is too high. “There’s not only the hazards of animals being killed by vehicles, which is serious, but more dangerous is the unplanned development that will follow — the building of towns and strip development — which is increasing human influence and access. The poaching is already serious and this will make it a whole lot easier.”
Construction of the highway is slated to begin in 2012. That’s not a lot of time to convince officials to change their plans. Can we save the Serengeti – or will this great migration be relegated to the pages of history?