Monday, December 8, 2014

Modern Beasts Migrating Tanzania's Serengeti

By: James Roller
Produced & Edited By: Andrew Davis 

         The Serengeti National Park is known worldwide. Yet, maintaining this environmental sanctuary is becoming an issue for those concerned. Tanzania's middle class wealth is expanding and that brings about the need for better infrastructure, as well as connecting smaller communities to the national highway network.
         One of the proposed highways would run across the northern part of the Serengeti National Park, connecting the port of Musoma to Arusha and giving proper highway access to the regional residents. The East African Court of Justice originally blocked the proposal, but that decision has been appealed by the Attorney General's office of Tanzania. This road proposal has become a highly political issue and simply whether or not it's referred to as a highway or a road is a debate among concerned parties.  


         Activists argue that wildebeest migration will affected by the road and affect the tourism industry. Indeed, the highway does cut across a migratory route for the wildebeest. Nigel Hunter of the East African Wildlife Society is one of those activists.
Wildebeest in the eastern part of the park. Photo ©
Maasai Magical Safaris
         "A major highway with increased quantity and speed of traffic will have to pass through over a million animals at certain times of the year," Nigel explained. "Collisions would be unavoidable with serious impact on human and wildlife mortality."
         However, safari operator Simon King thinks this issue is being blown out of proportion.
         "There is so much misinformation regarding this so called "highway" through the Serengeti. I have heard so many arguments put forward by so called conservation groups, mainly irrational and based on incorrect information," King said. "The road through the northern Serengeti already exists. It is possible for trucks and buses to transit through the Serengeti at this point already."
         King pointed out that paved highways, like this one that cut across wildlife areas, already exist in different parts of the country, and don't significantly affect the migration patterns in those areas. He says these roads are heavily policed and large fines are handed out for collisions with wildlife. One of these roads connects Arusha to Dodoma.
         "Often seen are herds of zebras and wildebeest, in their thousands massed on one side or the other waiting to cross over this tarmac thoroughfare. The presence of the road does not stop this migration," King said. "The 40-odd kilometer stretch of road in the northern Serengeti that has caused so much ire and angst amongst conservationists, would not see even 50% of the volumes of herds that cross the road on the short grass plains."
         King even went as far as to say that the highway could help the overall well being of the park. This highway could serve as a way of easing the traffic on highways outside the park.
         "The threat is not a road. The threat is to the preservation of the lands and habitats, swamps and rivers that form part of the Serengeti ecosystem, but lies outside its borders. This is the major threat to all wildlife areas in Tanzania, unfettered and unplanned development outside the national parks," King said.            "By opening this road in the north of the park it will have the advantage of reducing traffic through the much more ecologically sensitive areas of Ngorongoro and the short grass plains."
Those like Dennis Rentsch of the Frankfurt Zoological Society disagree and feel that it's important to remember the purpose of the park, protecting a wildlife area.
         "While its likely that this would include diverting traffic which is currently using other roads in and around the park, the concern is the increase traffic more generally directly through an important route of the migration of over 1.2 million wildebeest as well as hundreds of thousands of other species." Dennis Rentsch of the Frankfurt Zoological society. "This would be potentially devastating for the future of the wildlife migration and the ecological functioning of the Serengeti ecosystem in the long run."

Invasive Plants

         The concern of invasive plant species also worries activists. In theory, the increase of traffic across the park could bring invasive species of plants, like Chromolaena Odorata, a weed found in North America and even different cactus species, that have already been discovered there. John Bukombe of the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute says that this could pose problems, but is not a national issue.
         "The concerns of invasive plant species along the northern Serengeti road are currently not a national issue." John Bukombe said. "The government awareness is based on some research works in Serengeti national Park and in villages, which reported invasion of Opuntia vulgaris and Chromolaena odorata, a notorious weed worldwide. Some of the local village governments are aware of some critical invasions in some areas/villages that are along the road."
         Bukombe feels that the issue of plant invasions in Tanzania needs to become a national issue. The Serengeti National Park conducted surveys last year. Those surveys mentioned plant invasions as a "management issue."
         "The problem of plant invasions is still in earlier stages in Tanzania and this would be the right point of early intervention," John explained. "I therefore think that it is now high time for the Tanzania government to consider the issue of plant invasion one of the national potential threats to biodiversity and economy, just as some human or animal diseases are given priority."


         There has been another proposed route for the highway that would run south of the Serengeti National Park instead of across the northern portion. Some groups like Carbon Tanzania think this is a more logical option.
Wildebeest crossing a dirt path. Photo © Frankfurt
Zoological Society 
"From the perspective of, 'lets build a road linking the Northeast and Northwest of Tanzania and that's the shortest bit of the Serengeti,' that makes sense", Marc Baker of Carbon Tanzania. "The real question is why have a road there. (The Southern option) makes much more sense and would supply access to markets for many more people."
         Marc's point illustrates how this is not necessarily an environmental issue but a political issue. Those spoken with agree that whatever the solution, the plan needs to be better thought out.

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