Africa / Biodiversity / East Africa / Environment / NRM / Tanzania / Wildlife / WLE

‘Great Migration’ or ‘Great Poverty’: Can wildlife and humans both thrive in the Greater Serengeti ecosystem?

Savanna grasslands of East Africa

Savanna grasslands of East Africa (photo credit: ILRI/Elsworth).

The New York Times reports on the new road the Tanzanian government is planning on building through the northern Serengeti. Is this road, which could disrupt one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth, an economic imperative and an ecological disaster? An environmental imperative and an economic disaster? Are there ways to care for both people and wildlife in northern Tanzania?

‘Every spring, out here on this endless sheet of yellow grass, two million wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other grazers march north in search of greener pastures, with lions and hyenas stalking them and vultures circling above.

‘It is called the Great Migration, and it is widely considered one of the most spectacular assemblies of animal life on the planet.

‘But how much longer it will stay that way is another matter. Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, plans to build a national highway straight through the Serengeti park, bisecting the migration route and possibly sending a thick stream of overloaded trucks and speeding buses through the traveling herds.

‘Scientists and conservation groups paint a grim picture of what could happen next: rare animals like rhinos getting knocked down as roadkill; fences going up; invasive seeds sticking to car tires and being spread throughout the park; the migration getting blocked and the entire ecosystem becoming irreversibly damaged.

‘“The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the wonders of the planet,” said Anne Pusey, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. “It must be preserved.”

‘But it is election time in Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, and Mr. Kikwete is embroiled in what political analysts say is the feistiest presidential race this country has seen. Few things symbolize progress better than a road; this road in particular, which will connect marginalized areas of northern Tanzania, has been one of Mr. Kikwete’s campaign promises.

“The decision’s been made,” said Salvator Rweyemamu, the president’s spokesman. “If this government comes back into power — and we will — the road will be built.”

‘He said Tanzania had done more to protect wildlife than most countries, and he added, with clear frustration at outsiders, that “you guys always talk about animals, but we need to think about people.”

‘Hundreds of thousands of people here depend on tourism for a living. And the Serengeti is like a giant A.T.M. for Tanzania, attracting more than 100,000 visitors each year, producing millions of dollars in park fees and helping drive Tanzania’s billion-dollar safari business, an economic pillar. “If anything bad happens to the Serengeti,” said Charles Ngereza, a Tanzanian tour operator, “we’re finished.”

‘Most Tanzanians scrape by on the equivalent of a few dollars a day, so economic development is a pressing issue in the election, scheduled for Sunday. But corruption is a growing — and related — concern. . . .

‘Engare Sero lies along the proposed 300-mile highway route, already marked by red paint on rocks. The only roads out here right now are spine-crunching gravel tracks. People here not only want the highway, said chief Loshipa Sadira, “but we’ve been praying for it for years.”

‘He rattled off the reasons: cheaper goods; getting to the hospital faster; being better connected to towns; and having a higher chance of someday getting electricity and cellphone service.

‘It is hard to argue with him. Mr. Loshipa and his family eke out a living herding cows in what is essentially a desert. There are fertile grasslands nearby. But they are mostly reserved for the animals. This policy goes back to colonial times, when Maasai were summarily evicted from their lands for the sake of conservation. It has left many Maasai destitute, with young men now converging in the towns to hustle tanzanite, a semiprecious local stone, or to seek poor-paying jobs as night guards.

‘None of the leading conservation groups pressing Mr. Kikwete to reconsider say they are trying to block the national highway altogether; they just oppose it running through the Serengeti, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. Grass-roots groups are mobilizing around the world, circulating petitions and setting up Web sites, like savetheserengeti.org.’

Read the whole article at the New York Times: Serengeti road plan lines with prospect and fears, 30 October 2010.

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