Making Migration Impossible?

Africa's Great Migration, courtesy of John Tolva

Up to two million wildebeest and half a million zebra migrate across the Serengeti each year.

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?

5 Responses to “Making Migration Impossible?”

  1. Vicki High

    Could they incorporate underpasses in the highway plans? Gullies that the wildebeest and other migrating animals could use while the vehicles travel on the road could save lives. Just an idea.

  2. victoria tri

    These animals have been doing this for 1,000 of yrs. Why destroy something so beautiful for the convenience of a road? Part of the allure of Africa is it untouched grasslands….tourist come to Africa just for those reasons. They are willing to bring in top dollar for that beauty of the land and the animals.

  3. Trisha

    Hi Vicki – Unfortunately, there is no way to mitigate the impacts of this highway. Migration is hectic, frenzied and always different. There would be no amount of crossings that would allow safe passage of this many animals, moving this quickly and sporadically. Also, the herds may be so disturbed by the presence of a highway, they may not come near it, thus stunting the migration. Finally and most tragically, even if we could safely pass animals under the road, the road itself will be a drive-through for poachers. Even now, with no road, poachers are illegally killing thousands of animals. With a highway, they would be virtually unstoppable. Rare species like rhino, elephant and lions would be slaughtered. But stay tuned and don’t give up hope!


  4. Trisha

    Hi Victoria – You are right. Tourism brings millions of dollars to Tanzania and this highway would indeed destroy what the tourists are coming to see. The Great Migration is considered the greatest natural wonder of the world. Can you imagine throwing that away? That’s why thousands of travel agents have signed a petition to stop the highway and have pledged to take their clients elsewhere if Tanzania goes through with the highway. Check it out here:



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