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.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
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