“Roads are catastrophic for wildlife,” writes Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist and research fellow at Imperial College London, in the New York Times.
“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 lead to an increase in poaching, building and other human activities. But by far the biggest problem is that roads fragment habitats and disrupt animal movements. Many animals are reluctant to cross roads, even those with little traffic.”
Tanzania is planning to build a road that will do irrevocable damage to one of the world’s most celebrated ecosystems — the Serengeti. This plan is not just ill-conceived, but also baffling, considering the nation’s excellent record on conservation. Together with its northern neighbor Kenya, Tanzania has safeguarded over 80% of the Serengeti through protected parks and reserves.
The proposed road from Arusha to Musoma (the red line in the image), scheduled for construction in 2012, would traverse the Serengeti and bisect the Earth’s last Great Migration, an annual 500-kilometer (310-mile) migration of over 2.2 million herbivores (about 200,000 zebra, 500,000 Thompson’s gazelle and 1.5 million wildebeest). To get a sense of the scale of this spectacular endeavor, try to imagine the population of Houston running to New Orleans.
The Serengeti Migration, which takes place in October, is the longest and largest active overland migration on the planet. Unsurprisingly, it is also one of the ten natural travel wonders of the world.
According to Judson, the fence that will likely be used to protect the cars on the road from all the wildlife “would likely end the migration, cause the collapse of the wildebeest population — and destroy the Serengeti as we know it.”
The East African reports that, according to Arusha Regional Commissioner Isidori Shirima, “the government deemed the proposed 480km Arusha-Musoma tarmac road to be of great socioeconomic significance for Tanapa,” the Tanzania Parks Authority.
The Frankfurt Zoological Society has offered an alternative proposal: a different east-west road in the southern part of Tanzania that would avoid the Serengeti altogether. “This alternative road system has been surveyed by the government already and would serve five times as many people as the planned Northern road and fulfill the same needs for linking major regional centers,” argues the society.
Ranging over 30,000 square kilometers (12,000 square miles), the Serengeti is about the size of Belgium. It is an extremely biodiverse ecosystem that is home to about 70 large mammal species and 500 avifauna species. It is also the location of the “Cradle of Mankind” — the Olduvai Gorge, where some of the oldest hominid fossils have been found.
“It defines Africa in a unique way, perhaps, as some scientists argue, because it’s the landscape where we became human,” writes Duke University conservation ecologist Stuart L. Pimm in National Geographic. “If a planned road cuts it in half, it may be a landscape our children will watch only as history.”
Judson notes that Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, who has expressed a deep interest in nature, sometimes quotes his country’s first president, Julius Nyerere: “The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a resource of wonder and inspiration but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well-being. In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy this rich and precious heritage.”
The name “Serengeti” comes from the Massai word serengit, which means “endless plains.” If Tanzania’s plan goes through, Mr. Kikwete should consider renaming the Serengeti, because its plains will end where the road begins.
And he should probably stop quoting President Nyerere, too.