Serengeti highway ‘will bring migration of wildebeest to dead end’

The Times of London
Nairobi, Kenya

Wildebeest crossing a river in the Serengeti(Burrard-Lucas/Barcroft Media)
Wildebeest crossing a river in the Serengeti
(Burrard-Lucas/Barcroft Media)

The world’s biggest migration, in which almost two million animals stampede through the grass plains of the Serengeti in search of fresh grazing, is threatened by proposals to build a highway across their path.

Tanzania plans to build a 33-mile (53km) two-lane commercial highway through a narrow stretch of the Serengeti National Park, a World Heritage Site famed for its pristine environment and spectacular annual migration.

The Tanzanian Government argues that the road, which is to run for 300 miles from Arusha at the foot of Mount Meru to Musoma on Lake Victoria, is needed to link fast-growing communities and economies on either side of the Serengeti.

However, conservationists fear that the plan will have a catastrophic impact on the migration. Richard Leakey, the renowned Kenyan conservationist, told The Times: “This could, effectively, terminate the migration. This wildlife spectacle is a world heritage; Tanzania just happens to be the custodian.”

President Kikwete, who is up for re-election this month, insists that the new road will go ahead, delivering on an election promise of basic infrastructure for rural Tanzanians.

“All precautions have been taken to make sure that the wildlife is not affected,” he told a campaign rally last month. “What I can assure the activists is that the Serengeti shall not die.”

Graphic: route of the proposed highway
Graphic: route of the proposed highway

Mr Kikwete’s concession — the road will be made of gravel through the Serengeti — has done little to allay conservationists’ fears. Dr Leakey said that even a two-lane dirt road put a wedge in the door. “In 30 years a gravel road will have been replaced by a four or six-lane highway. That will be the end of the migration,” he said.

Every year, from July to October, more than a million wildebeest and hundreds of thousands of zebras run the gauntlet of lions, hyenas, and crocodiles in the Mara River on their long journey from pasture to pasture across the expanse of the Serengeti and north into the Masai Mara of Kenya.

Wildebeest are at the heart of the Serengeti ecosystem. Their meat feeds predators, their dung fertilises soil, their thundering hoofs trample grass, dampening bush fires, and their mouths mow the sward, encouraging fresh growth. Scientists predict that wildebeest numbers could fall to 300,000 if access to the Mara River and northern pastures is blocked, with a knock-on effect for the entire ecosystem. “The road will cause an environmental disaster,” biologists wrote in the journal Nature last month.

Unesco, responsible for awarding the Serengeti World Heritage Site status in 1981, has expressed its “utmost concern” and urged Tanzania to reconsider. Conservation groups, including the Zoological Society of London, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, have been unanimous in their condemnation.

The African Wildlife Foundation is one of a number of groups pushing for an alternative southern route that would skirt around the bottom of the 5,700 square mile (14,760 sq km) reserve. However, this would more than double the length of the road. Construction is expected to begin in 2012.