The name of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park comes from a Maasai word meaning “the place where the land moves on forever.”
Earlier this year the Tanzanian government announced plans to allow a road to be built through the Serengeti National Park. I have read that this discussion has gone on for years, but now it would seem that this may become a reality. The plans call for a major road to be built through the northern part of the wilderness park which would include a designated wilderness park and a major part of the migration route.
In a tremendous article written by Olivia Jusdon dated June 10, 2010 , she points out that this seems so strange because the Tanzanian Government has always been such a proponent of conserving the Serengeti. Based on a lack of information coming from the government, Olivia, like many good journalist lacking information, assumed that this road was being considered to connect more people, to allow ease in transporting necessary food and such to far reaching communities, for the good of the people. More importantly, she points out that there is an alternative — a road to the south of the park that would connect five times more people, and cost less to build. It would also be easier, since the landscape there is flatter; and it would not affect the animal migrations. And the northern road has been vigorously rejected on environmental grounds before.
It is now quite clear that the road was not being proposed to connect people, it is proposed because there is a precious mineral found near Lake Victoria in Kenya, and this mineral is in great demand in the production of cell phones and some computers. The easiest way to transport this mineral from Lake Victoria to the coast, in order to ship it to China, is to cut a path through the Serengeti, thus ending the great migration.
Each year, posibly for longer than time has been counted, more than a million wildebeest, along with hundreds of thousands of zebras and gazelles, move through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem of Tanzania and Kenya, following the rains. In the course of a year, an individual wildebeest may cover as much as 1,300 miles, which is further than the distance between New York and New Orleans. It is the last great migration on Earth.
Roads are catastrophic for wildlife. Among the problems: roads allow the easy spread of invasive plant species, as car tires often carry their seeds. Roads also allow the rapid spread of animal diseases and building and other human activities. It is has been suggested if this road is built, that it will lead to increased poaching due to the ease of driving in on a civilized road, claiming much sough after ivory from the elephants and simply driving out with ease.
The migration has been going on for thousands of years. The lands to the north of the proposed road remain wet when the lands to the south have become dry. If the migration flow is disrupted and the animals are unable to reach the water, tens of thousands of animals would die of hunger and thirst. Fenced areas would mean that many animals would become tangled in the fence. Building the road with animal tunnels or overpasses, as has been done in Canada and other countries however, it would be expensive and impractical; given the distance of the road. Moreover, it probably would not work, as wildebeest and other animals are sensitive to disturbance. They already avoid areas frequented by poachers, and are alarmed by cars.
If the migration stopped, the Serengeti would cease to be the Serengeti, for the wildebeest define the ecosystem and drive its dynamics. The migration is the reason the wildebeest are so numerous: it allows them to transcend the limitations imposed by local supplies of food, water and predators. And in their travels, the animals spread nutrients throughout the system. They fertilize plants with their urine and dung, and trample the soil. By doing so, they help to maintain a diverse array of plants, insects and birds, and are themselves food for large numbers of lions and hyenas.
Wildebeest also help to maintain large numbers of humans. Tourism accounts for 8 percent of gross domestic product in Tanzania, and more than 600,000 jobs. If the migration stopped, tourism would likely decline. After all, there would be much less to see.
Fast forwarding from June to December 2010:
An African conservation group plans to ask a regional court to freeze a project to build a road through Tanzania’s iconic Serengeti park. It said it would seek an injunction from the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) “to restrain the United Republic of Tanzania from constructing a super highway through the Serengeti Game Reserve.” The Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) argues that the road, which would slice right through the northern Tanzania park, is unlawful since it violates provisions of the East African Community.
The growing call for reevaluation of the roads plan — the latest coming in the form of a letter from 27 scientists published last week in the journal Nature. aims to counteract growing political pressure in favor of the project in the final weeks before Tanzania’s national elections next month, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper reported.
“The proposed road could lead to the collapse of the largest remaining migratory system on Earth — a system that drives Tanzania’s tourism trade and supports thousands of people,” The Guardian quoted the letter’s authors as saying. “Such a collapse would be exceedingly regrettable for a country that has consistently been a world leader in conservation.”