Categorized | Imperiled Wildlife

Great migrations threatened by Tanzanian highway

Photo of zebras for the National Geographic series called Great MigrationsNational Geographic has once again captured our imagination with Great Migrations, a seven-part series that takes viewers along on the arduous journeys millions of animals undertake to ensure the survival of their species. Viewers are mesmerized with images shot from the air to underwater and enraptured with the powerful stories of our planet’s species and the great migrations they embark upon to find food, shelter and mates.

A major part of the huge wildlife migrations through Tanzania and Kenya occurs within the Serengeti National Park, and is considered the greatest natural wonder of the world.  Millions of wildebeest, zebras, elephants, rhinos, gazelles, and predators like cheetahs and lions teem across the landscape as far as the eye can see; instinctively following paths established over thousands of years of evolution.

This May, the Tanzanian government announced plans to build a 300 mile east-west highway through the northern part of the park, slated for construction in 2012.  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.  However, Kenya is opposed to the Serengeti road project, saying it would affect the annual wildebeest migration, a key tourist attraction.  More than 100,000 tourists visit the Maasai Mara 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 are saying that a road like this could lead to the collapse of the Serengeti ecosystem, as well as a collapse of 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, would lead to roadkill especially at night, would be even more damaging to wildlife by being fenced, and would most likely result in paving the road in the future.  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.”

Wildlife conservationists and advocates are anxiously awaiting the results of Tanzania’s feasibility study, due out in January 2011. Can we save the Serengeti or will this great migration be relegated to the pages of history?

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Trisha White is the director of the Habitat and Highways Program, which seeks to reduce the impact of roads and highways on wildlife and encourage state and local authorities to incorporate wildlife conservation into transportation and community planning.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.