Changing Planet

Is the Serengeti Highway Really Cancelled?

More than a year ago, a new threat to African wildlife surfaced. Plans were being drawn to pave a highway that would bisect Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. “The Road” would cut right across the Serengeti, connecting the coastal ports of eastern Tanzania to the resources and settlements around Lake Victoria and central African nations to the west.

While a new government statement announces the stretch across the Park will not be paved, conservationists’ concerns remain–focused on the traffic, not the tarmac.

Photo of wildebeest migration by Stuart L. Pimm.

The Background

Wildebeest and other mammals, in what is certainly the most famous terrestrial migration on Earth, seasonally move up the Serengeti to the Maasai Mara in Kenya and back. Laid in the path of these migration routes, The Road would interrupt some of the most important and well-known natural cycles in Africa. Enabling hundreds of vehicles to cut through the park per day, the plan not only puts individual animals at risk from direct roadkill impacts, increased poaching or smuggling, and greater exposure to traffic pollution, it has the potential to disrupt the natural functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, which is home to roughly ten percent of the world’s lions.

In June of 2010, shortly after this issue went public, Nat Geo News Watch, the NG Big Cats Initiative, and advisor Prof. Stuart Pimm published “The Serengeti Road to Disaster.” In September 2010, 27 more scientists of international renown published an article in Nature entitled “Road Will Ruin Serengeti.” A massive collective of organizations, institutions, universities, and individuals have hammered this issue at every turn. The intensity of criticism has not substantially waned over the past year, nor has the prominence of those voicing concern.

The initially proposed road (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 and legend by Stuart L. Pimm.

This Week’s News

The government of Tanzania issued a statement Wednesday on the “State of Conservation of Serengeti National Park.” It states “The 53km section traversing Serengeti National Park will remain gravel road…” and declares that the “proposed [tarmac] road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park and therefore will not affect the migration and conservation values of the Property” … but there’s a lot of wiggle room in there.

While many are celebrating the statement as a declaration that the road is “scrapped” or “stopped,” others are more cautious. The other roadbuilding plans outside the Serengeti are proceeding, and the gravel road into and across the park would still be met a few kilometers past its borders at either end by a major tarmac highway. Traffic through the park likely could still rise considerably.

The preferred solution for conservationists is to have the road avoid the park altogether. In recognition of this, the government said that it is “also seriously considering the construction of a road … running south of Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park.” However, past experience keeps some experts skeptical.

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, a Kenyan conservationist who is founder and director of the NGO WildlifeDirect, a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative Grantee, and winner of a 2011 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation is one of them. “We would like to see a stronger commitment that defends the Serengeti in to perpetuity. As it now stands, there is no promise not to go ahead with preexisting plans once the heat is off. It’s happened before.”

The Future

Whether the government’s statement is a permanent promise, or an effort to temporarily relieve international pressure remains to be seen. I am hopeful that we’ll soon receive word of a commitment to pave an alternate route south of Serengeti National Park.

Until then, we’re still just kicking the can down “The Road.”

Photo of zebra migration by Stuart L. Pimm.
While his own research focuses on learning about and protecting the fossa, Madagascar's elusive top predator, Luke Dollar has also devoted himself to promoting smart and effective conservation throughout the world. As a part of this larger dedication, he also heads up National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Learn More About Luke Dollar and His Work
  • […] For a less optimistic interpretation of this decision, see this post by Luke Dollar of the Big Cats Initiative on Nat Geo Newswatch […]

  • Mohamed Ismail

    Kenya has already ruined the Masai Mara by over developing and setting up so many lodges, encroachment on the migratory trails in the buffer zones with wheat fields, a surfeit of unnecessary balloons and tracks which have spoiled the grassland through compaction by balloon follow up 4 X 4 vehicles. While tourism can bring a greater yield than other forms of land use planning, it must be done with a lot of care for the habitat and it must benefit the local people if it is to remain sustainable. Many in the tourism industry are worshippers of Mammon and could care less as long as there is a short term profit to fill their own coffers.

  • kelvin njenga

    the govt of tanzania should not propose tha tarmacking of the road tha distribution of the animals wil b disrupted greatly changing their patterns greatly

  • Elaine Siika

    I beg to differ with Mohamed’s comment above, as much as there are lodges within Masai Mara, only one (Keekorock Lodge) resides near the migration route. All others were placed far and wide so as not to put any pressure in one area. Infact, most lodges and campsites are now being constructed outside the park so that the ecology of the park is kept as constant as possible. As for the hot-air balloons, they came about as a mitigation method for reducing the vehicle congestion on the park roads which usually gets very destructive during the peak seasons of tourism. That said, im glad the Tanzanian government has opted not to tarmac the road within the park, but we hope this is a permanent decision which they will commit to.

  • […] When I was asked for a quote for a National Geogrpahic news article, I toned down what I really wanted to say and instead said “We would like to see a stronger commitment that defends the Serengeti in to perpetuity. As it now… […]

  • Bob


    The welcoming news of conservation and halting of the African rich wild animals species along the mount Kilimanjaro, Serengeti and Masai Mara National Parks has saved a great biodiversity of events that would have altered African Safari and tour loving people just like the flow of ice in the northern hemisphere which has brought challenges to our general survival level. People like Africa with all its african tradition and wild animals. African safaris are the best animal safaris in the world and the idea of tempering with the beauty of wild animals the need to conserve animals is a priority in the peaceful animal world loving people. As a matter of fact this unpredictable and spontaneous natural event has saved the wildebeest migration and made African safaris to be appreciated even more. We human beings of superior brain advancement do have all what it takes to have alternatives without disturbing the flora and fauna. This natural cycle along the Kenya Tanzania border brings harmony and cross border effects which only need to be appreciated not only by the Masai who have been living with the Africa lions, giant elephants and any dangerous animals along the Savannah but also from all those African holiday makers around the world. Its not only the wildebeest which were saved but the African crocodiles, the ape family and the great Big Five as a whole. We only need to blend with nature as nature has its own ways of healing and sustaining itself as it has always done for thousands of years. Great and inspiring animal pictures will continue to be taken, ongoing animal facts and figures and statistics will continue to be obtained, preservation and conservation of African animals will enhance the animal and plant population and above all its just a big WIN! WIN! SITUATION FOR THE GREAT WILDEBEEST MIGRATION and the African World animals and the African Safari Human Species. For all those who mentally physically, financially, emotionally and spiritually contributed made this gigantic move to save animals of Africa, endangered species and the African wild beast migration wonder of the world to these African animals have their own undisturbed natural habitat.


  • Farid Sheikh

    why is it that on the Kenyan side there are good tarmac roads? Why is it that its not the TAnzanians that are voicing their fears and its the so called “conservationist” who do not even know how an average Tanzanian is living at this time of famine should comment on tarmac road? Anyway the road from Mwanza to Musoma is tarmac and the wildebeeste cross it when getting to the water on the other side have these question not been asked? Its not a decision to be made by foreigners as its Tanzanians who have to decide what needs to be done.

  • PeterPank

    Well, I hope the Lions can seize the new situation. (Nature is wise)

  • Racha

    Post, post, post to every Facebook Zoo page you can find. London Zoo check. Denver Zoo Check. SURELY this would be an excellent theme for their zoos to spraed awarenesss wish I could get to them all!!!

  • Dr. Frank Mello

    Why would you try to destroy your biggest asset, namely tourism? It has to be that the government is corrupt! And we all know about the Chinese effect on wildlife, namely Rhino horn, elephant tusks, tiger parts, shark fin, etc. very disgusting!

  • […] Links:  HABITAT #3: Serengeti Highway – The Road to Nowhere? Serengeti Watch: Why we’re not Celebrating National Geographic: Is the Serengeti Highway Really Cancelled? […]

  • […] Watch: Why we're not Celebrating National Geographic: Is the Serengeti Highway Really Cancelled? ← Previous Next → Nyhed facebook Twitter digg […]

  • […] conversion, conflict with humans over livestock, use of lion parts in traditional Asian medicine, insensitive infrastructure projects, and unsustainable trophy hunting. With these and additional data in mind, the U.S. government has […]

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