In Serengeti, Highway Project Threatens Animal Migrations

By: Nick Engelfried 

September 30, 2010

More than any other place in Africa, Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park is famous for its vast herds of wildebeests and zebras, which each year embark on the largest land-based animal migration in the world.  For years, Serengeti National Park has served as a refuge for many of Africa’s large hoofed mammals and the predator species which depend on them for food.  Now conservationists are warning that the Serengeti ecosystem is threatened by a new development project that could disrupt animal migration patterns.

The national government of Tanzania is planning construction of a commercial highway that would cut through thirty-one miles of the Serengeti.  As currently proposed, the project transects animal migration routes and could prevent migratory animals like wildebeest from migrating across the Tanzania border, on their way to Kenya’s Mara River.  Scientists and conservationists worry that disrupting animal migration patterns could produce a domino effect of ecological problems, from depriving lions in Kenya of their normal food supply, to allowing grasses normally grazed down by wildebeest to proliferate.

Without herbivores to trim back grass on the plains and keep it from becoming overgrown, the risk of large fires could go up significantly.  Scientists warn this would not only endanger animals and human communities, but could also represent a new source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

In response to the highway proposal a group called Save the Serengeti launched an online petition to the government authorities and financial institutions backing the highway project.  It urges decision makers to find an alternate route for the highway that would have less impact on wildlife migrations.  “The government of Tanzania has a responsibility to work for the development and welfare of its people,” reads the petition. “But in doing so it should not have to sacrifice its most precious wilderness, its income from tourism, or its heritage of conservation.”

In addition to being prized by scientists as a research site and by wildlife enthusiasts as a refuge for threatened and endangered species, Serengeti National Park is also one of Tanzania’s most successful tourist draws.  Though most famous for its migrating herds of wildebeests and zebras, it is also home to elephants, rhinoceroses, lions, and many other large and charismatic animals.  The United Nations has designated the park as a World Heritage Site—a title reserved for select places around the world judged to be of unusually great cultural or biological significance.

By harnessing the Internet to create an international uproar, environmental groups hope to persuade the Tanzanian government to re-consider its highway route and protect wildlife from the ill effects of development.  “We call on governments, development organizations, and lending institutions to help Tanzania protect its priceless world treasure and ensure that the people of Tanzania benefit from its preservation,” says Save the Serengeti.

Photo credits: Marc Veraart, Guido Appenzeller

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