Serengeti Highway Threatens a Favorite Eco Friendly Destination

The Serengeti, which contains several pristine national parks and game reserves, is a well-known eco friendly destination, drawing travelers from around the world. Unfortunately, a recent proposal from the Tanzanian government to build a highway through the Serengeti would alter the safari experience for future visitors, and could severely harm the ecosystem.

On May 17, the Tanzanian government announced plans to build a $480-million highway, which would run through the Serengeti National Park. The road would make it easier to reach Mara and Mwanza, highly populated areas, from the less populated Arusha, in Tanzania's Northern Highlands. Currently, cars must take gravel roads (which can be closed, in accordance with seasonal rains), or they can drive the extra 240 miles on the one paved road. The Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete, said that the highway would improve the development of an area that is currently difficult to access.

The highway would also pass through Loliondo Game Reserve, another eco friendly destination which covers a large expanse of protected land. Some of the Masai who live in the area are in favor of the plan, as it currently takes two hours to drive from the village Loliondo to the nearest hospital. The Tanzanian government also maintains that the improved infrastructure would increase tourism and improve local economies.

However, environmentalists are enraged over the highway proposal. It would cut right through one of the key migration routes of thousand of zebras, wildebeests, and other animals. Many conservationists are certain that the sustainability of the eco friendly destination would decline substantially if the highway were to be built, due to road kill, poaching opportunities, and even an increased risk of transmitting diseases. Other parks, such as Etosha National Park in Namibia and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana, have shown the detrimental effects of building roads through wildlife areas. Roads can essentially cause the eco system to collapse.

However, Pascal Shelutete, spokesman for the Tanzanian National Parks Authority, claimed: “No big project of this scale would be contemplated without a thorough feasibility study, and it has shown that there will be no impact on the migration.” His statement contradicts recent commentary printed in Nature, the science journal, based on the consensus of 27 biodiversity experts regarding Serengeti highway. The route, they claim, would interrupt the annual migration of 1.3 million wildebeests, one of the last mass migrations of animals. If the wildebeests cannot access the Mara river, in Kenya, the population would fall to 300,000. And, with less wildebeests, the eco friendly destination would be at risk of grass fires. Serengeti, which comes from the Maasai word, Serengit, means "endless plains," and if those grass plains burn, the ecosystem would become a source of CO2.

While the economic development of this eco friendly destination is certainly important, many conservationists and wildlife advocates argue that the road could simply arc around the protected natural areas. The AWF and several tour companies are petitioning the Tanzanian government to stop development of the highway.  The "Stop the Serengeti Highway" facebook page has attracted the attention of the Tanzanian government, along with the Stop the Serengeti Highway Coalition, though plans to build the highway are still in order.

Photo Credit: Ryskas