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The Serengeti road to disaster

By Stuart Pimm What comes to mind when you think of Africa? During the World Cup, perhaps thousands of vuvuzelas sounding like a swarm of very angry bees as fans cheer their team. But other than that? Surely huge herds of animals walking across vast, open plains.  I arrived in South Africa, in 1996, to...

By Stuart Pimm

What comes to mind when you think of Africa? During the World Cup, perhaps thousands of vuvuzelas sounding like a swarm of very angry bees as fans cheer their team.

But other than that?

Surely huge herds of animals walking across vast, open plains.  I arrived in South Africa, in 1996, to work with Rudi van Aarde at the University of Pretoria. I knew from books that Africa had deserts, rain forests, and snow-covered mountains. The image of treeless savannas was so deeply embedded that I found myself unreasonably surprised when Rudi took me into the field for the first time –in Kruger National Park.  It was a landscape of thick bush.


I must have spent too much time watching the National Geographic Channel. Watch the brief trailer below to get a sampling of what I mean.

These instantly recognizable images belong to a very small part of Africa–the Serengeti ecosystem of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. It’s so spectacular that it burns our consciousness out of all proportion to its size of about 30,000 km2 (12,00 square miles). It defines Africa in a unique way, perhaps, as some scientists argue, because it’s the landscape where we became human.

If a planned road cuts it in half, it may be a landscape our children will watch only as history.


Photo of wildebeest by Stuart L. Pimm


Photo of zebra migration by Stuart L. Pimm

The surprising thing about Arusha, a city of a million-plus people in northern Tanzania is that you can get there from here–there are direct flights from Europe, as well as other African countries.

All those on my flight were heading west–to the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Olduvai Gorge and other places that so excite the mind. These are World Heritage sites, a recognition afforded only the most special places on Earth.

It’s slow going. The journey, all the way to Lake Victoria, may only be 400 km (250 miles), as the tawny eagle flies, but it’s a slow, punishing journey on dirt roads.

All that could change with a hard surfaced road that would connect Arusha to Musoma and other towns on the lake and open up sparsely populated grazing lands south of the Kenyan border. Construction is planned to start in 2012.


Photo of zebra and wildebeest on migration by Stuart L. Pimm

The Serengeti houses the greatest mammal migrations on Earth. As I wrote last year, many other migrations are now extinct–broken by roads or fences. (Many Mammal Migrations Are at Risk of Extinction.)

This road threatens the migration of nearly two million animals. Wildebeest, for example, spend the wet season to the south then move northward and across the border into Kenya for the dry season. The proposed road would block both northward and southward migrations.


Legend to map: The proposed road from Arusha to Musoma (red line) would bisect the annual migrations of wildebeest, zebra and other species as they move seasonally. The road would cross a substantial part of the Serengeti and associated ecosystems (shown in green), including its wildest areas (paler green.)

Map by Stuart L. Pimm 

In the environmental understatement of the decade, Arusha Regional Commissioner Isidori Shirima concluded that the controversy surrounding the project had been resolved.

Those who know this area sharply disagreed. I talked to Anne Kent Taylor, a recent National Geographic grantee through the Big Cats Initiative, who has lived in Kenya since she was a child. Anne works on lions–and how to prevent them taking the pastoralists’ livestock–in the Mara, the grasslands on the Kenyan side of the border. She’s a community activist, working to help build schools, provide books and sports equipment to help Masai who want their children to be educated.

“The road would completely destroy the migrations.”

“The road would completely destroy the migrations,” she told me. “The animals will be slaughtered by the trucks. And if there’s a fence along the road, it will stop the migration.

“There’s a second threat. Poaching is going to increase exponentially. It’s already a problem. But in remote areas, the animals are harder to reach and then their parts have to be schlepped long distances. With a road, the meat, rhino horn, and ivory will be able to reach their illegal markets much more easily.

“This road will be devastating–catastrophic. I do hope the Tanzanian government will make the right decision.”


Is this what lies ahead for the Serengeti? This road scene on an East African highway was made by my colleague Rudi van Aarde.

Photo courtesy of Rudi van Aarde

Commissioner Shirima was dismissive in his interview with the Daily News, Tanzania’s leading online news source. It quoted him as saying:

“The opposition mainly came from pressure groups and green activists who were concerned about the possible negative environment impact that the road might cause, but the latest feasibility studies have taken into consideration such matters.

“Even TANAPA (the Tanzania Parks Authority) who were also opposed to the project have so far conceded,”

Project of high economic importance

According to Mr Shirima, it took the President, Mr Jakaya Kikwete, to intervene, ordering that the project was of high economic importance to the nation and specifically the four districts of Monduli, Ngorongoro, Serengeti and Musoma Rural, through which the highway is to traverse.

I found this hard to believe. I’ve traveled enough roads in East Africa to know how brutal the traffic can be on them. The one from Nairobi to Mombasa is enjoyed only by those who feel immortal. It splits–very effectively–the two sides of Tsavo National Park. And I’m far too chicken to drive in elephant country at night; those who have, tell of harrowing tales of elephants that appear out of nowhere.

One name stands out when it comes to the ecology of the Serengeti: Tony Sinclair. He’s worked there for his long and distinguished career and written the definitive books about the ecosystem’s ecology.

“The politicians are deliberately ignoring the issues,” He told me. “And this is being pushed through very quickly.”

There was an obvious question, though: How essential was this road to develop towns like Musoma?

A better alternative

“That’s a poorly developed town, because it’s so isolated,” Tony told me.”But here’s the irony. There’s a much better route for the road–south of the Serengeti. It would avoid the ecologically sensitive areas, but importantly, serve a lot more people. Including the town of Mwanza,” which is also on Lake Victoria.

Along with Tony, colleagues at the Frankfurt Zoological Society had produced a detailed account of why the northern road should not be built and why the southern one would bring greater national benefits.

So who’s paying for the road? No one with whom I talked knew for certain. In the late 1800s, it was European powers who divided up Africa–without actually asking any Africans. They helped Africa build its infrastructure–to very different extents.


Photo  by Rudi van Aarde


Chinese construction of new road between Kasane and Maun in northern Botswana.

Photo  by Rudi van Aarde

But the changing face of African development is obvious. Drive into the city from Nairobi airport and there’s a large display of China and Kenya shaking hands.

Chinese investment seems to be everywhere. The UK magazine, The Economist, reports an investment of U.S.$10 billion in low-interest loans over the next three years. In a debate, Calestous Juma of Harvard University and George Ayittey of American University have sharply different views on whether this will improve Africa.

What China wants in return for development aid may be mutually beneficial, of course. For countries such as Tanzania and Kenya with spectacular wildlife–and a valuable tourism industry that depends on it–the trade-offs may be particularly challenging to get right.

Stuart Pimm.jpg

Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”


 Earlier blog posts by Stuart Pimm>>


National Geographic Magazine feature:
Heartbreak on the Serengeti

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Stuart Pimm
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).