The Greatest Threat in Serengeti’s History

Guy Combes - AFC
June 16, 2011 share
Artists for Conservation

One morning in April 2010, I read an online article by a reporter based in Kampala about the announcement made by Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete that Tanapa (Tanzania National Parks) had approved a plan to build a commercial road across a 53 km stretch of the Northern Serengeti. This is part of a larger infrastructure project connecting the port of Musoma on Lake Victoria in the West to Arusha to the South East, effectively slicing right through the migration route of approximately 1.3 million wildebeest.

The government maintained the position that this was essential to provide services to the small rural populations in the Loliondo area to the East of the park. As a Kenyan, my immediate concern was the effect this might have on the Mara. With the consequence of severely reduced numbers of prey animals, the uniquely large predator populations in the Mara would collapse and the entire Mara ecosystem would be compromised if this was to go ahead.

I immediately reached out to my contacts in Kenya, Tanzania and the US about starting a campaign page on Facebook and as a result, the Stop The Serengeti Highway project was created.

It began with the recognition that we had to gather as much scientific data and opinion on the impact of the road, support from major conservation bodies, and considerable socio-anthropological expertise. We assembled a team of willing participants and launched the website (click on the 'about' for the detailed background story and people involved).

We also registered and NGO, Serengeti Watch, to raise funds to mitigate the disadvantageous effects that the lack of a road would have on the Tanzanian people. Environmental impact studies were carried out to confirm the damaging effects this road would have, and we have exhaustively pursued major media houses to report on the crisis.

One year later, we have over 40,000 people signed up to 'like' the Facebook page with over 20,000 active monthly users. Every day the page averages around 150 interactions from 'likes', comments or posts. The website has carried three separate petitions, all of which have amassed to several thousand signatures.
The campaign has been recognized by many international news organizations including the BBC, The New York Times, Reuters, MSNBC, and National Geographic, and has been endorsed by some of the world's most recognized conservation notaries including Dr. George Schaller and Dr. Jane Goodall. The World Bank has offered to fund a suggested alternative Southern route and the German government has offered to fund infrastructure improvement for the communities East of the Serengeti.

Yet the Tanzanian government has turned their backs on these offers. In the last few weeks we have learned that a plan to build a soda ash mine on Lake Natron that was shelved in, is now being fast tracked for construction, and that this would probably account for the need for infrastructure development (roads and railways) in Northern Tanzania.

And so another potential environmental catastrophe is looming. Natron is the only nesting habitat for the lesser flamingo, and disruption of this unique ecology would affect many other migratory bird species that come from as far away as Eastern Asia.

Like a wild bushfire, these development projects threaten to consume a vast and globally recognized mosaic of ecosystems, and when attention is drawn to one conflagration, another one seems to ignite elsewhere.

We know that this campaign is not being ignored by the people that have the power to stop this, and that the weight of opposition from the Tanzanian people who rely on income generated by these globally recognized treasures, still has the power to make the government think twice about their decision.

This has to be fought on the ground by the Tanzanian people themselves, especially those who live on the border of the parks and benefit economically from them, who are still unaware of these threats or just blindly believe the government's smoke and mirrors. We have to reach out to them, and we have to prevent this construction so that generations that follow us are not left with barren wastelands, deep regret, and deep animosity for those who wantonly destroyed their heritage in the name of temporary profit.


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