As the Serengeti gears itself for the yearly wildebeest and zebra migrations, many nature lovers’ hearts are stirred by this natural phenomenon. It is a magnificent wildlife event - not only for the human mind, but also in terms of the wildlife populations it sustains. The proposal to build a highway cutting through the Serengeti wilderness is therefore a huge concern. Shortly after the Tanzanian Government announced their plans to develop the Serengeti Highway, local and international environmentalists, ecologists, zoologists and botanists raised concern.
The expected impacts of the Serengeti Highway
The main impacts identified included:
- Habitat fragmentation – resulting in a disconnection between wildlife populations.
- Wildlife route fragmentation – eliminating free movement of the Serengeti’s wildlife and potentially restraining wildlife from accessing water and food sources.
- Wildlife mortalities – with between 400 and 3,000 vehicles and trucks expected to make use of the highway per day, wildlife and game crossing the road is expected to cause collisions.
- Lowered security – with the Serengeti potentially accessible to anyone and almost any vehicle, the impact of increased wildlife poaching and illegal hunting is almost certain. In a continent plagued with illegal horn trade, this is a concern that cannot be avoided easily.
- Ecological disturbance – the Serengeti wilderness is a highly protected environment. A highway cutting through the wilderness will cause impacts such as environmental contamination, ecological disturbance including erosion, pollution, hydrological changes and the introduction of exotic and invasive species that could easily get the better of the local species.
With these main and direct impacts identified, it is possible to delve deeper into the cumulative impact of the proposed Serengeti Highway. With habitat fragmentation, wildlife route disruption and potential disconnection from water and food sources as well as road mortalities and increased illegal hunting and poaching, it is expected that the wildlife populations of the Serengeti will take a turn for the worst. Although the Serengeti is home to healthy wildlife populations, including 750,000 zebras and 1.2 million wildebeest and countless other game, no population will be able to withstand such an onslaught over the long term. What is of particular concern is the fact that the commercial highway crossing is proposed for the wilderness zone of the Serengeti National Park. Here, the endangered African Rhino and almost extinct African “Painted” Wild Dog are finding themselves in a fairly secure environment. But all of this will change and cumulative threats will become a reality if the Serengeti Highway development continues.
Serengeti Highway and tourism
From another angle, many fear that the commercial highway development will severely damage tourism in the Serengeti. With well over 400 trucks and many other vehicles expected to use the Serengeti Highway on a daily basis and future counts showing that up to 3,000 vehicles are expected to use the highway per day, many tourists will look to other options. Less tourists and visitors will mean reduced revenue and long term job losses can be expected. The Serengeti is characterized by its wild, peaceful and undisturbed plains. With a commercial highway cutting through the plains, life in the Serengeti will just not be the same anymore. The Serengeti also offers a glimpse into historic earth – it is said that the Serengeti plains represent the world that existed a million years ago. It is for these reasons that the Serengeti is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But Tanzania could risk losing this listing should the highway be built. The true and collective value of the Serengeti can almost be considered as beyond measurable. Conservation trust will be lost in Tanzania – their work and effort towards conservation of the African plains and wildlife will be deeply scarred.
The economic need for the Serengeti Highway
The economic need for an improved transport system cannot be ignored. Tanzania and surrounding countries have shown notably economic growth, and if this is to be sustained, improved infrastructure will be desperately needed. And as local towns continue to grow and demand services and infrastructure, the situation is clear: transport routes must be upgraded.
Feasible alternatives to the Serengeti Highway
Well-known Kenyan paleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey recently proposed an interesting alternative: constructing an elevated highway allowing continued free movement of wildlife beneath the highway. Although the cost will be higher, Leakey felt that the increased cost is a smaller obstacle – Leakey is more concerned with political will. But Leakey’s grand plan is not the only alternative suggested. A number of alternatives were raised, but none were formally adopted by the Tanzanian Government. A southern route bypassing the Serengeti was offered, and so was the development of a network of smaller roads outside of the Serengeti. The World Bank supported the southern bypass alternative, and so does the Tanzania National Park. A main convincing point for this alternative route is that up to two million individuals will be directly served by the road, and no wildlife or environmental impacts are expected for the Serengeti migration route. We are surely looking at feasible alternatives: making economic, social and environmental sense.
Fortunately, the Tanzanian Government’s plans for the proposed Serengeti Highway are current on hold. Yet we know it will surface again in the near future as the demand for an improved road network infrastructure escalates. What can be done to ensure the safekeeping of the Serengeti and the famous great migration route? Make your voice heard as a tourism or nature enthusiast, and be part of the vote against the Serengeti commercial highway!