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A Highway Through The Serengeti: Will The Gnu Survive?

August 20, 2010 in Environmental News

Africa the continent in the 21st century is associated with chaos, War, Atrocities against women and Children, hunger, poverty etc… Africa is also where the early human made their first appearance, where people lived in harmony with nature, where nature still remains natural in many pockets, where wildlife once thrived and many a hunter changed his view on hunting to become conservationists, where many a writer found his mojo, where the largest annual migration on earth still happens – The migrations of the Gnu (not the open source software but that which is its namesake – Commonly called the Wildebeest) antelopes etc… it is the land where every nature lover feels a connection to whether one has been there or not and feels drawn to. It is the one place on earth if given a chance I would love to visit – The Serengeti national park if only just to see the amazing Gnu migration, to hear the millions of hooves as they make the ground tremble, to see the stretch of antelopes as far as eye can see under the blue endless African skies.

Growing up one kind of romanticizes Africa and the endless skies with the abundant wildlife. I had only read about and imagined Africa until I saw it on the Large screen as a kid in The King Elephant which was later known as “the African Elephant” then “God’s Must be Crazy” etc.. to the Blood Diamond and others… My earlier films and the books I read made me fall in love with Africa, which has never wavered in spite of the state much of the continent is. As I grew older that one place where I really wanted to go visit has always been and probably will always be the Serengeti – Where the plains and the skies extend far beyond the eyes can see, where the Wildebeest, zebra, antelopes, elephants and giraffes co-existed with their predators lions, hyenas, cheetahs and leopards.

THE SERENGETI

Serengeti comes from the word Serenget which means “land that goes on forever or Endless plains”.

The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the oldest on earth. The essential features of climate, vegetation and fauna have barely changed in the past million years. Early man himself made an appearance in Olduvai Gorge about two million years ago. Some patterns of life, death, adaptation and migration are as old as the hills themselves.

More than a million Wildebeest traverse the plains of the Serengeti and the Masai mara(Kenya) along with 200,000 Zebras and gazelles following the rains. They are known to travel distances of 1300 miles a year! They move from the northern hills to the southern plains for the short rains every October and November, and then swirl west and north after the long rains in April, May and June. So strong is the ancient instinct to move that no drought, gorge or crocodile infested river can hold them back.

Development?

In the 1960’s the Tanzanian government tried to stop the Gnu from migrating into the Ngorongoro with barbed wire fence, the migrating herds trampled it to the ground as they made their way along routes engraved in their memories for who knows how many generations…

The Serengeti is a UNESCO world heritage site in Tanzania and now the Government of Tanzania plans to build a highway right in the middle of it! The Tanzanian government is moving forward with plans to build a public road through Serengeti National Park, despite conservationists’ concerns that commercial traffic will disrupt the annual wildebeest migration and allow poachers better access into the park.

If you have watched a video of the Wildebeest migration (scroll down if you have not) you will see how breathtaking and awe inspiring it is and just how easily startled they are by any intrusion (normally what we see are the predators creating the stress when they attack one of them en-route). Just imagine what many automobiles could do?

If you live in North America you can kind of understand the number of road kills we see every year as a result of deer being hit by cars on the road… it can be fatal for animal and human. This is when there are a few animals crossing our highways which have been around for decades now. Just imagine it being in the middle of the world’s largest migration every year! The standard procedure to protect wildlife is building of fences along the road sides… imagine having to leap over hurdles to continue their annual migration which is a part of their very being. However one weaves it we know roads are catastrophic for wildlife; we see that in our own backyards…  And to think the Tanzanian Government swears it will not be affected at all!!

The Politics of Promises with Power being the Ultimate Goal

The President of Tanzania came to power with the promise that he would build this road a 33 mile stretch which would connect Lake Victoria to the city of Arusha which is the tourist hot spot (base camp to Mount Kilimanjaro). What is interesting is the fact that a road through the park would “contravene the purpose of Tanzania’s accession to the World Heritage Convention,” according to the World Bank. The road would also “cause massive mortality of migratory species” and diminish the Serengeti’s value as a tourist attraction. The World Bank had in 1980’s rejected a similar proposal because of the negative ecological impact; I would think that should only have become more evident now than it was 3 decades ago.

There have been viability studies for the said road conducted by environmental groups which are independent (e.g. from Norway in 1997) which found it to be detrimental to the environment, and then the Government which stands by the road and the notion that it is “safe” did their own study in 2007 and came up with the response that “the effect on wildlife could be mitigated!” wonder how that will be accomplished when one really does not know how ecologically detrimental the road could be.

What is happening?

“Creating a commercial road through such a natural environment—where millions of wildebeest migrate annually—will be an intrusion in the natural habitat, so much so that the level of stress [among the animals] will be tremendous,” said Steven Kiruswa, the Maasai Steppe Heartland Director at the African Wildlife Foundation.

Poachers in Africa or any place where wild animals still survive and are protected in not news any more, But when Governments which are supposed to be protecting their own heritage turn a blind eye and cop up to vested interests dooming whatever is left protected, it makes me despondent. Why is it that there is still a market out there for animals and animal products? Why it is that man seems so unable to see what he is doing to what is left of the planet?

One thing is for sure like the Serengeti Park Management says “What we must face, all of us – poachers, tourists, farmers, conservationists and pastoralists – is the difficult truth that the land does not go on forever.”

Roads bring people and vehicles, development will encroach into the ecosystem of the Serengeti savannah. It will disrupt nature in ways we can’t imagine.

If you care PLEASE SIGN THE PETITION TO STOP THE ROAD SPLITTING THE SERENGETI

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Hoping that man’s greed and will-full ignorance does not make him blind enough to think that nature and its survival does not matter. Signing off with a quote from the from President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere who said “In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grand-children will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance.”

One reality that can’t be ignored is the fact that like every where else, unless the underlying issues are not taken care of these kind of band aids will appear more often than not. The only solution for environmental survival is not just education it is wiping out of poverty and the issues that come with it.

May be Tanzanians will remember Nyerere’s words, their tradition of conservation and act responsibly.

Possible Solution - A southern Route which won’t hamper the migratory path of the wildlife of the Plains that go on forever… May be the tour operators who bring in the tourists can make the Government listen and take action.

There are suggestions to build underground tunnels for the animals to migrate! This was done in places in India where elephants crossed over to their water sources when the government build rail tracks- problem they forgot to tell the elephants and there are still accidental deaths when an elephant is caught unaware on the track and meets its untimely death… Hopefully that is not where the Gnu and its ilk are headed.

Watch the Largest Migration in the World courtesy of National geographic :

Sources and Information:

National geographic

Stuart Pimm’s Blog Post

The Serengeti Website

Kristine Metzger’s Blog

Article in NYTimes by Olivia Judson

Relevant Videos and Books from Amazon:

Survival on the Serengeti

Africa: The Serengeti (IMAX) [Blu-ray]

Serengeti: Natural Order on the African Plain