The name “Serengeti” has become an icon of wild places. Derived from the Maasai language, it means “extended” or “endless,” and this vast African grassland does in fact inspire a feeling of limitlessness. Serengeti National Park in Tanzania encompasses 5,700 square miles. The total Serengeti ecosystem includes Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, and adjacent reserves such as Loliondo, Maswa, Ikorongo, and Grumeti. Add them all up and you have a protected area of almost 10,000 square miles – nearly three times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
The most famous feature of Serengeti is the Great Migration, the largest land mammal migration on Earth. Each year more than 2 million animals – wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and other herbivores – make a long journey from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to the Masai Mara in search of water and fresh grasses and then return in a yearly cycle that’s been going on for thousands of years. It is an amazing spectacle – grazers, predators, and all the other animal life woven into the fabric of this intricate ecosystem. For visitors, it is like seeing the world when it was young. The Serengeti is one of the very few reserves left on Earth that protects and contains such a complete ecosystem.
But the region faces many threats.
Since 2010, Serengeti Watch has been running a grassroots effort to halt plans for a highway that would slice across the northern part of the national park. If the highway is built, hundreds and possibly thousands of big commercial trucks would speed each day from towns on the shore of Lake Victoria (lying to the west) through the Serengeti ecosystem to Arusha on the east. The impact on the Great Migration would be enormous, researchers estimate. Worse, the highway would open the region to settlements on the fringes of the park and could become an avenue for poaching.
The proposed highway has become the greatest threat to Serengeti National Park in its history – a threat to both the animals their human neighbors. Tourism earns Tanzania about $1.8 billion a year and employs an estimated 1 million people directly and indirectly. Most of the tourists come to visit the Serengeti region.
Despite worldwide opposition to the plan, the Tanzanian government insists the highway will be built. As this edition of the Journal went to press, the president of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, has once again reiterated his intent to build the Serengeti highway after months of silence on the issue. His government touts the need for improved infrastructure to serve communities in the region. Without doubt, there is a need for improved infrastructure. Tanzania is a poor country, and though its economy has improved in recent years, infrastructure for transportation of goods and services is poor in most places. But how could such a poor country pay for an estimated $400 million road project?
In December 2010, an investigation by Richard Engle, chief foreign correspondent of NBC News, offered a possible answer: China. Engel reported that China was interested in the road in order to gain easier access to rare earth metals like coltan, an important ingredient in cell phones. This appears to be part of a broader Chinese push into Africa as the industrial powerhouse seeks to trade access to natural resources for development projects – projects that, not coincidentally, often pave the way for easier resource extraction.
The recent discovery of oil deposits in Uganda, for example, could also threaten the Serengeti. Just before Christmas, the Uganda and Tanzanian governments signed a memorandum of understanding with a Chinese construction firm to study the feasibility of developing a transportation corridor from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast, presumably across the Serengeti. This corridor would include a railroad, as well as highway. The combination would certainly be the death knell of the migration and of the Serengeti ecosystem as well.
There is yet another geopolitical element to the controversy: South Sudan. This newly independent country’s economy is reliant on an oil pipeline crossing Sudan to a Red Sea port. About 70 percent of this oil goes to China. But the government of Sudan is threatening to shut down the pipeline. Thus landlocked South Sudan may be forced to join with landlocked Uganda, its neighbor to the south, to get its oil to the Indian Ocean coast through Kenya or Tanzania, or both. Who would pay for such a complicated international pipeline? Oil-hungry China.
Serengeti Watch has proposed an alternate to the Serengeti highway route that would bypass the Serengeti ecosystem entirely. Moreover, this southern route would serve four times as many towns and villages. Though slightly longer than the proposed Serengeti highway, parts of this southern road already exist and are being upgraded for major transport right now. Both the World Bank and the German government have offered funding to aid this project. The Tanzanian government has been strangely silent about the offer.
Local and regional environmentalists are now joining the fight to protect and preserve this unique ecosystem. In December 2010, a Nairobi-based organization, African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW) filed a lawsuit in the East African Court of Justice to halt the Serengeti highway, citing detrimental trans-boundary impact on the Masai Mara Reserve (a major tourist destination in Kenya). The Tanzanian government attempted to have the case thrown out, but in March the East African Court of Justice – an intergovernmental court of the republics of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi – dismissed Tanzania’s objections and ruled that it did indeed have jurisdiction to determine such environmental disputes in the region. The case is headed for trial. A win in court could mean long-term protection for the Serengeti ecosystem.
Serengeti Watch has raised funds to give a substantial grant to ANAW to help in the legal costs. In addition, the project has given another large grant to a local environmental group in Tanzania to begin organizing grassroots support for protecting Serengeti.
Long-term, the aim of Serengeti Watch is to promote a strong conservation ethic in the region by funding projects in media, journalism, and education that would help young Tanzanians become opinion makers and culture builders. Through photography, writing, video, music, and other artistic expression, the project plans to support and encourage local people’s ability to communicate and understand the importance of conservation.
The only way to ensure the Serengeti remains protected forever is for the people who live there to become its most fervent stewards.
To learn about how you can get involved in the fight to stop the proposed Serengeti Highway, please visit: www.savetheserengeti.org.
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