A New Threat in the Serengeti to the World’s Greatest Animal Migration

A planned highway in the national park could interfere with the annual wildebeest migration and promote poaching.
(Photo: Daryl Balfour/Getty Images)
Mar 6, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

As wildebeest make their yearly clockwise migration of more than 1,000 miles in the Serengeti, they face epic dangers: lionesses on the hunt, crocodiles lurking in muddy waters, local villagers out to poach bush meat. In spite of all this, the 1.3 million ungulates prevail, helping to contribute over $1 billion in tourism dollars every year to Tanzania and keeping the Serengeti ecosystem humming.

For the past five years, though, the animals have been facing a new threat: a planned road through the park that would connect the Lake Victoria region, west of the Serengeti, with major populations to the east. Scientists and environmentalists have pointed out the risks of allowing speeding cars and fences across the biggest animal land migration route on Earth—recently named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. They also fear that the highway would open the way for further poaching.

Now, a new commentary makes the case that two alternate routes skirting the park would be better socially, economically, and environmentally. The road through the park is “the worst option of all the routes,” said Grant Hopcraft, a wildlife researcher at the University of Glasgow and the lead author of the commentary, published last month in Conservation Biology. That route would “connect the fewest schoolchildren to schools, the least agricultural centers to urban markets, the fewest people to hospitals” and do the least in terms of alleviating poverty, Hopcraft said.

Putting a road through the Serengeti would also be an “ecological nightmare” for the wildebeest and other wildlife that call the park home, Hopcraft said. While the wildebeest population is strong now, poaching is close to unsustainable, with up to 9 percent of the animals being taken every year. “We’re right on the cusp,” he said. He pointed to a 2011 paper predicting that increased access for poachers could reduce the wildebeest population by a third. “As soon as you put roads in, you provide access to people. And that just leads to a lot more illegal activity.”

A paved road through the Serengeti would also probably lead to fences across the migration route to prevent car collisions with wildlife, said Hopcraft. That’s what happened, for instance, when the Trans-Canada Highway bisected Canada’s Banff National Park in the 1950s. Fences on either side make the highway “impenetrable” for wildlife, Hopcraft said. That “would separate the wildebeest migration from the only water source they have in the dry season.” The current proposal for the road calls only for a gravel upgrade of the current dirt road, and a court ruling last year forbid Tanzania from installing a paved road within the park itself. Even so, paving would probably soon follow.

The debate about the road has been raging since 2010, when Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete made a campaign promise to build the road, probably in pursuit of rural votes. He earned 80 percent of the vote in some of the country’s more remote areas. Hopcraft thinks the commitment to the road is mostly political, pushed by members of parliament representing communities around the Serengeti.

Some scientists have countered that the case against the proposed highway is overblown, especially in the face of other major threats to the Serengeti and its wildlife. Eivin Røskaft, senior author of a response to Hopcraft’s paper, noted that nearly three-quarters of Tanzanians live on less than $2 a day. The road through the park is the only proposal, he argues, that would serve the needs of the Masai and Sonja people, who live east of the park, and the Kurya pastoralists living to the west. “All people… are entitled to the basic human right of improved infrastructure,” Røskaft and his coauthors wrote.

“A road is never actually good for the environment,” Røskaft acknowledged. But alleviating poverty can also reduce the need for people living near the park to illegally kill wildlife in order to survive. In a 2013 paper, Røskaft and his coauthors quoted placards held by villagers that read, “We are good conservationists; but the poverty caused by poor roads is forcing us to kill the animals in order to survive.”

Other threats to the Serengeti “are much more serious than this one road,” Røskaft said. The Mara River, a crucial water source in the Serengeti, originates in the Mau Forest region in Kenya. Massive deforestation there is already affecting the hydrology of the river, which dried up in the Serengeti for the first time a few years ago. He argued that people should focus on climate change and continued poaching, not the road. In addition, Tanzania’s population is projected to quintuple by 2100.

There are other grave threats to the park, Hopcraft agreed. But that’s all the more reason not to build the proposed road. “We’re on a fine line, I think, so the question is, why add another threat?” he said. Why do so especially when alternative routes would also alleviate poverty without needlessly damaging the Serengeti?

The debate may not be settled until after this year’s elections in October. President Kikwete can’t run again, due to term limits, so the new president will have to decide whether to pursue the road through the park. Meanwhile, if you’ve been thinking of checking out the wildebeest migration, this might be a good time to go. It might be your last chance to see the migration in all its glory—and by supporting the tourism industry around the migration, you will be helping to remind shortsighted politicians just how important the migration is to Tanzania’s economy.

Geoffrey Giller contributed reporting for this column.