ARUSHA, Tanzania — It's a tough time to be a wildebeest.
Africa’s greatest wildlife migration — the annual trek of 2 million wildebeest across the Serengeti plain — is threatened by new plans to build a major highway across the park.
The Tanzanian government announced on May 17 its intentions to build a major east-west highway in the north of the country that would cross Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti is home to the world’s last great wildlife migration during which millions of antelope and other animals trek across the African savannah.
A campaign to stop construction of the road has been launched by wildlife experts in Tanzania and around the world.
“The road bisects an area with the highest concentration of large mammals in the world, making it evident that fencing would be needed to avoid damage to vehicles and loss of human lives caused by accidents with wildlife. Such fencing would truly mean the end of the migration,” stated the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a major conservation organization operating in Tanzania.
The proposed road would cost an estimated $480 million to build and would make it easier to reach Tanzania’s densely populated western regions of Mara and Mwanza from Arusha in Tanzania’s Northern Highlands. Currently, truckers and travelers must take seasonal gravel roads that run through the southern Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation area, or drive an extra 240 miles on the one paved road that goes to the region.
“Our countrymen in the west deserve and have a right to get access to development just as their fellow countrymen do all over the country,” said Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete recently. He said the highway is a necessary boost to the neglected region.
In addition to crossing the Serengeti, the proposed highway would pass through the Loliondo Game Reserve, an expanse of protected land to the east of the Serengeti that rivals its more famous neighbor in size and beauty. Loliondo is managed for hunting and sightseeing, activities that occasionally clash with the 50,000 Masai herders who graze cattle, sheep and goats throughout the rugged land.
The planned highway plan is very popular among the Masai who want more tourism and need better infrastructure.
“It takes two hours to get from my village in Loliondo to the nearest hospital, which is 45 kilometers [28 miles]. That is a long drive to take a patient. The road has to be built,” said Yannick Ndoiyno, director of the Olosokwan Economic Foundation, an organization that fosters economic development in the region. He added that the current rutted and gravel roads made life in Loliondo difficult.
Ndoiyno worries that although the road will bring economic development, it will be outsiders and not the local Masai who realize the benefits: “Unless the people here grab the opportunities like, for example, providing roadside services, there won’t be any value for us at all,” he said.
It seems the needs of local people are diametrically opposed to keeping the Serengeti park open for the annual migration. But there is a compromise solution.
Some environmentalists and scientists acknowledge that the Loliondo, Mara and Mwanzaa regions need better infrastructure. They suggest a plan that routes a paved road south of the Serengeti Park, through a much more densely populated region.
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.”
Estes said there used to be a several great game migrations throughout Africa, and all have been effectively destroyed by economic development and roads.
“You have this world heritage site, it’s irreplaceable, it’s the last one there is. Why mess with it?” he said.
The plans for the road seem to have a lot to do with Tanzania’s general election in October. Opposition leaders claim that Kikwete’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), is touting the highway in order to ensure extra votes at a vulnerable time.
Godbless Lema, an opposition candidate for parliament, said the ruling party is weak in the western regions that would be serviced by the planned highway.
“The president will get the west anything they want for the sake of votes,” Lema said. He expressed the worry that if the Serengeti is harmed, Tanzania will lose a priceless asset to the tourism industry. “While there’s an alternative to the road, there’s no alternative to the Serengeti,” Lema said.
Many of the predictions about the destruction of the wildebeest migration are based on the scenario of a high-speed asphalt highway through the Serengeti park. Early reports indicated that the Serengeti section of the highway would be paved, but Kikwete recently assured critics that the 30-mile section would be gravel with a low speed limit.
But critics say the road would still threaten the wildlife because it would not be controlled by the Serengeti National Parks authority. “If that road is de-gazetted from the Serengeti, there would be no limitation on traffic at night and fencing could happen without the national park having a say in it,” said Dennis Rentsch, a community liaison for the Frankfurt Zoological Society.
Wildlife conservationists are anxiously awaiting the results of a feasibility study due out in January. For now, there is a great deal of uncertainty about exactly how the road will be built, fueling some of the more dire scenarios.
“Those criticizing the road construction know nothing about what we’ve planned,” said Shamsa Mwangunga, minister for natural resources and tourism, to Tanzania’s The Citizen. This is true enough, since the government has refused to make its plans public until the feasibility study is complete.
However, even Dennis Rentsch — whose organization, the Frankfurt Zoologial Society, opposes the highway — cautions against foreigners being overly critical of Tanzania's policies.
"I personally have a bit more faith in the Tanzanian government than some of the international community," Rentsch said. "Often, in my experience, when the government really sits down and looks at an issue from both sides, they reach an outcome that is really in the best interest."
Jesse Dukes traveled to Tanzania with a grant from the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund.