Every spring, over a million wildebeest – with a few thousand zebras thrown in for good measure – go on the move. They walk, trot, bound and leap across thousands of miles, through the dry grass in the southern end of the Serengeti National Park, up to Tanzania’s northern border with Kenya. At night it’s hard to sleep, said Anna Estes, an ecologist from the University of Virginia who works in Tanzania. It sounds like the rumble of a distant highway, she said, and “the air just vibrates with the sound of wildebeest.”
But on either side of the park, there are people. To the east there are the communities surrounding Lake Victoria, and to the west the city of Arusha and village of Loliondo. Recently, the Tanzanian government revived plans to connect Arusha and Lake Victoria with a road that cuts directly across the park, simultaneously slicing right through the path of the wildebeest migration.
If the road is built, conservationists say it will devastate the Serengeti. If it isn’t, the government says, the people of northern Tanzania will be forced to remain in extreme poverty. It looks like the classic debate: animals or people, conservation or development. But that distinction is a false one, said
geologist* geographer Mara Goldman from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Instead, she said, the debate should be about “what kind of conservation and what kind of development.”
Wildebeest are one of the most important animals in the Serengeti. By grazing, they remove dry grass and keep brushfires down. Their manure creates fertile soil, and they serve as prey for lions, cheetahs and hyenas. Without them, the Serengeti would be a drastically different place.
If the road is built, there will be “thousands and thousands of heavy trucks intersecting with the movement of millions of animals,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. These collisions could cause thousands of wildebeest deaths and scare the rest away from the migration route.
Beyond direct collisions, many ecologists fear that a road would also increase poaching of endangered species like the white rhino. And trucks can also carry in invasive species like the Prickly Pear. “If this does happen, it will be a complete disaster,” said Pimm. “The future of the Serengeti is at stake,” agreed Andrew Dobson, an ecologist at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Shamsa Mwangunga, Tanzania’s Minister for Natural Resources, said in an interview with The Citizen, a Tanzanian newspaper, that the environmental concerns over the road were unfounded. Government officials in Tanzania could not be reached for comment.
A road through the Serengeti has been proposed several times, but this time there is real political momentum behind it. Little orange flags have already popped up in the park, marking the route. Many think president Jakaya Kikwete is trying to use the promise of the road to regain popularity with the Maasai, one of the indigenous groups in Tanzania, after some of them were recently burned out of their homes by wealthy hunters.
The Maasai have lived in the Serengeti for 3,000 years. They were evicted in the 1950’s when the park was created, said Daniel Brockington, an anthropologist at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. “This place has had people in it ever since people became people,” he said. And many of them are living in extreme poverty. A well-designed set of roads could allow communities to ship their products to market and travel to hospitals and schools, while allowing them to maintain their traditional lifestyles, said Estes.
But this road is not designed to do that, said Pimm. Its main purpose is “to get products from Lake Victoria to ports on the Indian ocean” and off to countries like India and China. Asking people to choose between saving the Serengeti and developing the local communities ignores the actual intent of the road and its potential consequences, like the spread of HIV and the destruction of traditional livelihoods, he said. And the money that the road is likely to make won’t come back to those it could harm.
Goldman, who was recently in Loliondo and the Lake Natron region – two of the mainly Maasai regions that the road will connect to eastern Tanzania – asked the people there to name one Maasai area whose roads were paved and that still remained Maasai. They couldn’t, she said. A highway would bring in other tribes and could force the Maasai to abandon their traditional nomadic lifestyle and to sell their land to farmers. “We’ve seen Simanjiro being eaten up by mechanized agriculture,” said Estes, referring to another region of Tanzania where the roads were paved. There’s nothing to suggest the same won’t happen in Loliondo, she said.
The real question is whether a road through the Serengeti is the best way to develop these communities, said Estes. “And the answer is no.” People need roads that will take them to markets, hospitals and schools, she explained, not a trucking route that will put pressure on them to sell their land. “But the government isn’t making a ton of money on those kinds of roads,” she said. They make money on large trade routes.
Smaller, networked roads like the kind Estes suggests are more expensive, she said. But if the Tanzanian government really cared about community development and the ecosystem, it would find another way, said Richard Forman, a road ecologist at Harvard University in Massachusetts. “If you identify something as really valuable,” he said, “you do what’s necessary to protect that thing.”
Some have proposed a southern road that goes around the bottom of the park. This route could ship goods to markets just as well, and avoid destroying habitats and livelihoods, said Pimm.
But before any road is built anywhere, the voices of the people should be heard, said Katherine Homewood, an anthropologist at the University College London. “These are people who have no political voice, their interests are not represented, and their governments do not have their interests at heart.”
When their interests are taken into account, it becomes clear that this isn’t about choosing between people and animals, said Estes. Delopment could happen in ways that preserve the Serengeti, the wildebeest migration and the Masaai way of life.
*Correction 1/17/10 – The sentence incorrectly identified Mara Goldman as a geologist. She is a geographer.