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Tanzania: Highway threatens Serengeti migration

World's greatest wildlife spectacle jeopardized by plans to build road.

ARUSHA, Tanzania — It's a tough time to be a wildebeest.

Africa’s greatest wildlife migration — the annual trek of 2 million wildebeest across the Serengeti plain — is threatened by new plans to build a major highway across the park.

The Tanzanian government announced on May 17 its intentions to build a major east-west highway in the north of the country that would cross Serengeti National Park. The Serengeti is home to the world’s last great wildlife migration during which millions of antelope and other animals trek across the African savannah.

A campaign to stop construction of the road has been launched by wildlife experts in Tanzania and around the world.

“The road bisects an area with the highest concentration of large mammals in the world, making it evident that fencing would be needed to avoid damage to vehicles and loss of human lives caused by accidents with wildlife. Such fencing would truly mean the end of the migration,” stated the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a major conservation organization operating in Tanzania.

The proposed road would cost an estimated $480 million to build and would make it easier to reach Tanzania’s densely populated western regions of Mara and Mwanza from Arusha in Tanzania’s Northern Highlands. Currently, truckers and travelers must take seasonal gravel roads that run through the southern Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Conservation area, or drive an extra 240 miles on the one paved road that goes to the region.

“Our countrymen in the west deserve and have a right to get access to development just as their fellow countrymen do all over the country,” said Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete recently. He said the highway is a necessary boost to the neglected region.

In addition to crossing the Serengeti, the proposed highway would pass through the Loliondo Game Reserve, an expanse of protected land to the east of the Serengeti that rivals its more famous neighbor in size and beauty. Loliondo is managed for hunting and sightseeing, activities that occasionally clash with the 50,000 Masai herders who graze cattle, sheep and goats throughout the rugged land.

The planned highway plan is very popular among the Masai who want more tourism and need better infrastructure.

“It takes two hours to get from my village in Loliondo to the nearest hospital, which is 45 kilometers [28 miles]. That is a long drive to take a patient. The road has to be built,” said Yannick Ndoiyno, director of the Olosokwan Economic Foundation, an organization that fosters economic development in the region. He added that the current rutted and gravel roads made life in Loliondo difficult.

Ndoiyno worries that although the road will bring economic development, it will be outsiders and not the local Masai who realize the benefits: “Unless the people here grab the opportunities like, for example, providing roadside services, there won’t be any value for us at all,” he said. 

It seems the needs of local people are diametrically opposed to keeping the Serengeti park open for the annual migration. But there is a compromise solution.

Some environmentalists and scientists acknowledge that the Loliondo, Mara and Mwanzaa regions need better infrastructure. They suggest a plan that routes a paved road south of the Serengeti Park, through a much more densely populated region.