Among the natural wonders of the world, the name Serengeti is iconic. For those of us old enough to remember, it invokes visions of a Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom episode set in the midst of a savanna teeming with giraffes, elephants, and lions. The younger among us have grown up with newer nature programs set in those same wildlife-rich savannas. All of this is testament to a place that has come to represent one of the last great wildlife reserves in the world.
But will it endure? Serengeti is now the focal point of a battle between resource and infrastructure development and the protection of a global natural asset. Countries like China are hungry for natural resources and are spending huge amounts of money to extract and transport them.
The Serengeti ecosystem is almost 10,000 square miles in area, roughly the size of New Hampshire. It includes Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and adjacent reserves of Loliondo, Maswa, and Kenya’s famous Masai Mara. It is one of the few places left on Earth protecting such a large ecosystem.
Each year more than two million animals – wildebeest, zebras, and other herbivores – migrate from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to Masai Mara and back again in a search for water and fresh grasses. It is the largest land mammal migration on the planet.
In 30 years of traveling there, I had always assumed that as both a national park and a World Heritage site, the Serengeti would be protected from any destructive developments. I was wrong.
In May 2010, I learned from Maasai friends that the Tanzanian government plans a major commercial highway, slicing like a knife across the northern part of the park. Hundreds of trucks daily would speed from Lake Victoria west of the park to the Indian Ocean coast. In addition to cutting off the migration route, the highway would become an avenue for poachers.
Within days of my discovery, a handful of us started a Facebook page, Stop the Serengeti Highway. It now has more than 65,000 followers worldwide. Later that year, in the fall of 2010, Dave Blanton and I founded Serengeti Watch, with the purpose of building a communication network of researchers, conservationists, and concerned Tanzanian citizens to protect this ecosystem not only from the highway, but also from the many additional threats that have emerged.
Since that time, Serengeti Watch has provided support for diverse media, education, and grassroots projects that interconnect and reinforce each other. In 2013 we helped fund the African Network for Animal Welfare’s lawsuit, filed in the East African Court of Justice, to halt the Serengeti highway. The case received a favorable verdict in 2014, but the Tanzanian government filed an appeal and we continue to fund the plaintiff’s legal team.
We have also supported the Serengeti Teacher Education Program, which engages students and teachers from the Serengeti region in conservation education, including visits to national parks. In February, we hosted and funded the first conservation media seminar for journalism students and teachers. Held in Arusha, the seminar was taught by five media experts from the US, and received huge acclaim from participants. Serengeti Watch also helped launch a new Tanzanian NGO, the Serengeti Preservation Foundation, and has funded a full-time employee. Our goal is to support local conservation values, encourage open dialogue between generations, give a voice to young Tanzanian people, and develop educators who can carry on the tradition.
Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, famously wrote: “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 inheritance.” Revitalizing this ethic of conservation in Tanzania is critical. Once gone, Serengeti will be gone forever. Gone too will be a major source of income for Tanzania through tourism. And gone will be one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth.
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