A Long and Winding Road

The debate over a road through the Serengeti is heating up again, but for all the wrong reasons

January 14, 2011

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.

About the Author

Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth graduated from the University of California, San Diego with a B.S. in ecology and a minor in writing. She spent the last four years there poking around in labs, studying krill, climbing trees, riding bikes and perfecting her fish doodles. A sucker for being lost in strange places, she recently wandered her way through Costa Rica, Portugal, Tokyo and Bonaire and is excited to take her wandering to the epicenter of strange places, New York City.



Khalil A. says:

Reading your article, I fail to see why you say that there is a sort of debate here. Because I don’t get the impression that there is. If the government decides to go ahead with the road, is there a lobby powerful enough to provide resistance?

Rose Eveleth says:

First, I have to disagree fundamentally with the idea that just because a government plans to do something means there can’t be a debate. That’s a scary, and dangerous idea.

Second, there are many environmental groups rallying against this road, including but not limited to Serengeti Watch, Change.org, and The Frankfurt Zoological Society and resistance efforts have been successful at stopping its construction in the past. It remains to be seen whether they can do so again but just because Tanzania says they will build it doesn’t mean that everyone should just give up and go home.

Khalil A. says:

I completely agree with you! Just because a government plans to do something DOES NOT means there can’t be a debate. My point was, are there any groups lobbying to actually START/CREATE a debate here? You’ve listed some environmental groups, thanks. I have read about this issue in the international press (Nature had an editorial on this) but still I didn’t get the impression that much could be done (or was being done) to convince the government that they aren’t taking an appropriate decision here. This, as you now tell me, was a wrong assumption.

Susanna N. says:

Interesting, but a bit confusing. There are several scientist voices presented as if they are all telling the same story. Maybe they are all against a road through the Serengeti, but I think they have very different views on what the Serengeti is. Only the situation for the Maasai east of the Serengeti is briefly described, while the (non-Maasai) people of Mara Region aren’t mentioned. The writer of the article is aware of the 2009 evictions and should therefore know that the Maasai pastoralists’ land is already under threat – by what is basically an extension of Serengeti NP only that it’s called a “wildlife corridor” or “buffer zone” and hunting will be allowed. The current threat to people east of SENAPA is primarily the government wanting their land for conservation and tourism (consumptive and “non-consumptive”), and not agriculture. There were large-scale projects in the 80s that failed because of dry conditions. It’s unclear what kind of roads are supposed to be good for people east of the Serengeti. Better local roads to Loliondo/Wasso, or to Karatu or Mtu wa Mbu? The latter would facilitate transport for scary outsiders just like the Serengeti road. Would a southern route not bring “the spread of HIV and the destruction of traditional livelihoods”? I highly doubt that Dan Brockington said that the Maasai have lived in the Serengeti for 3,000 years. Is “Nachon” Lake Natron?

I don’t know if there’s a “debate”, but there certainly is an international outcry against the Serengeti road plans.

As an African, I weep at the paucity of actual fact here.

Yet again, another piece of online journalism is framed on some kind of hyperbole and innuendo.

For the record, I am bitterly opposed to the construction of any commercial road through the Serengeti National Park, but it must be for the correct reasons and not to the detriment of affected communities east and west of the park.

1. You quote Katherine Homewood and Dan Brockington – are you aware that they distanced themselves (together with Sian Birbeck) from the piece of 27 scientists led by Prof. Andrew Dobson in Nature journal on 15 September 2010 with the following letter?

“Alternative view of Serengeti road Andrew Dobson and colleagues overstate the argument against a road across the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania (Nature
467, 272–273; 2010). Migrant wildebeest already regularly cross transportation arteries in the Serengeti and in adjacent linked ecosystems. Established evidence of impacts on declines in migratory wildlife populations is centred not on roads, but on fencing — a separate and more remote possibility.
Conservation policy in the Serengeti has too often been based on idealized notions of what landscapes should look like.
The Serengeti ecosystem has been shaped by thousands of years of human use, and is now groomed by park managers rather than by local inhabitants.
The ecosystem is supported and enhanced by pastoralist land use in surrounding buffer zones.
Dobson et al. do not consider the likely importance of the road for
the land use, mobility, livelihoods and welfare of people living near
the park.
Wildlife tourism is a major contributor to Tanzania’s economy. But local people,
whose land-use practices have created and now maintain the ecosystems valued by Western conservationists, are being dispossessed by state and international elites who capture much of the tourism revenue and reinvest it in conservation incompatible land use.
Wherever the road goes, it will have an environmental impact as well as socio-economic costs and benefits that require rigorous analysis of good data.

Katherine Homewood,
University College London, UK,

Daniel Brockington,
University of Manchester, UK

Sian Sullivan Birkbeck,
University of London, UK

2. Are you aware that the editors of Nature issued a “caveat” to readers stating that the assumptions made by the 27 scientists were based on a tarred road that was fenced and that the Tanzanian government had made a statement via President Kikwete that the planned road would be gravel?

3. Are you aware that the Frankfurt Zoological Society claims in its online report “The Serengeti North Road Project” that there would be 6 million tonnes of freight shipped annually in the region via the coat of East Africa (i.e. Mombasa) and Central Africa, but yet Mombasa only handles a mere fraction of this transport, with the bulk being routed directly via Dar es Salaam? Thus, the volumes alluded to in this report presentation are factually and fundamentally false;

4. Are you aware that geographically and logistically the shortest route from the port of Mombasa, which seemingly handles less than 10% of central Africa’s (Burundi, Rwanda and eastern Congo), is via Arusha and Singida (which road is under construction currently) and in no way passes whatsoever anywhere near the Serengeti?

5. Are you aware that this 20-page Frankfurt Zoological Society presentation by Prof. Dobson, Prof. Sinclair, Dr. Borner and Mr. Bigerub, assumes no population in their stats and graphics for the Mara region which lies east of SENAPA – although graphics show dots for communities, but little mention is made thereof – and which is currently home to an estimated population of 1.5m+ people?

6. Has it crossed your mind that scientists who understand herds and migrations and wildlife ecology might know nothing about regional human development? have you read any reports they’ve offered by human ecologists?

7. Has it crossed your mind that whilst Prof. Pimm might allude to trade from Lake Victoria to “ports on the Indian ocean”, he has not studied optimal, commercial trade routes and that such might not even traverse the Serengeti, as well as the fact that he might allege such a road is to get products from Lake Victoria to India/China, he cannot substantiate such a claim with any quantifiable fact?

8. Has it crossed your mind that this body of scientific opinion should simply be centred on the park and its biosphere (their area of expertise) and not in areas of which they have little or no knowledge, such as trade, economics, regional socio-development, politics, etc?
and finally,

9. Has it crossed your mind that there are over 600 000 Kuria people east of the Serengeti in the Mara region who are as equally affected as the Maasai west of the Serengeti, so it is not simply a Maasai issue, but rather a regional issue?


The issue is simple –

There must NEVER be any commercial road through a major conservancy area for conservancy scientific reasons.

And NOT for other issues such as AIDS – which is most condescending! Why not quote increased potential trade in heroin or illegal DVD’s, or other social ills, etc, as distinct from the blight of HIV-AIDS?

Stop ramping rhetoric. Let’s deal with facts!

A commercial road will affect migrations. Full stop!

Do not pronounce on socio-economic areas in which you have not properly researched the complex matters at hand!


BTW – Mara Goldman’s commentary is substantially flawed.

FACT – in the Mara region there are officially 2677 kms of roads and only 179 kms are tarred (paved) roads.

FACT – in the Ngorogoro Conservancy Area and west of Loliondo there are ZERO paved roads in the regional community, outside main arterial road networks adjoining the park and Arusha and the south.

No wonder the Maasai asked could not quote a “paved road” in the region!

In my first post (5) above, I mixed up EAST and WEST. Blush!!

The Mara Region is to the WEST of SENAPA, between the park and Lake Victoria. The Kuria people are from this region. The home of the Maasai in Tanzania is primarily EAST of the park.

Apologies. Too much type-haste, without re-reading.

Xavier Surinyach says:

As my friend Brian says teh issue is simple: “There must NEVER be any commercial road through a major conservancy area for conservancy scientific reasons.” “A commercial road will affect migrations. Full stop!”
People living west and east of Serengeti have the right to improve their way of life and it can be possible without a commercial road across the Serengeti.

Rose Eveleth says:

Hi Brian,

Thanks for your input! You bring up a lot of good points, many of which I agree with. The issue of a tarred road is definitely important. The problem here is that the road goes through areas that have what many call “black cotton” soil. Which means that as soon as the ground gets wet, it becomes nearly impossible to drive cars across it, let alone trucks. They will probably start with a gravel road, but the experts I spoke with doubt that will last long – since the trucks that the road is built for would not be able to cross during much of the year. Once the paved road happens, and the trucks start hauling products through, the wildebeest most likely create a serious hazard for drivers, which many feel will prompt the government to fence the road.

It’s true that many ecologists do not see beyond conservation, but many of the people I spoke with in this story have lived in Tanzania and worked with the people there for many years not just on ecological projects, but community development ones too. The effort of this story was to get away from the “ecology” vs. “people” rhetoric that is so often present in debates like these. While the ecological argument against the road is strong, so is the sociological and economic one.

Rose Eveleth says:

And Susanna, thanks for spotting my typo.

Rose, thanks for your input. I appreciate your frankness and perspective.

To some, a glass is half full. To others – half empty.

If you were writing a piece on whether or not the world is round for The Times of London in the early 1800’s, a reader such as me would have considered you took all your reference points from the Flat Earth Society.

Scientists in ivory towers, by the very nature of who they are – and especially ecologists and dedicated environmentalists – have a passionate focus.

If you jigsaw all the relevant pieces of the complex Serengeti issue together, involving a wide spectrum of role-players and opinions, for me – as a deeply passionate African concerned with balancing the protection of nature-kind with the urgent needs of humankind development – I believe your piece completely lacked a “human face”.

The developed world has effectively over-consumed their rich natural resources. So those with guilt and knowledge are trying not to replicate history.

Here in Africa, we need to learn from the mistakes in developing our peoples responsibly, since we have a rich diversity still that can feed, educate and cloth many, many generations to come, if wisely used.

The REAL story is not government-bashing (or China trade bashing) or posting silly messages online about “If you can’t save the Serengeti, then who can?”, but rather about how to balance our urgent need to lift millions of people out of poverty and despair, whilst safe-guarding our heritage for our children’s tomorrows.

The UN Pop Div projects Tanzania will have 109.5 million people in 2050. If I were the nation’s President or even a cabinet minister, I’d feel like a battered boxer on the ropes. Maybe ill-considered opinions are made without due thought process? Maybe some wise counsel is needed? But certainly not loud voices shouting across the Atlantic or Indian oceans.

I, and millions of other Africans, spend hours each day and week trying to find smarter ways to deliver more healthcare, build more responsible and ethical trade, educate more children, stop the cycles of poverty and violence, and so on, in our daily endeavours. I’m a kindergarten kiddie in this space, but I feel I’m far more exposed to reality than any scientist or media commentator in the USA or elsewhere (outside Africa) than I’ve found, because we eat, sleep and drink these challenges every single day. And having “lived” in Africa for a few years, is certainly not a passport to understanding…in general terms!

In the next 2-3 years, the population of the Mara Region west of the Serengeti will reach about 2m people. They currently have 2677 kms of roads, of which only 179 kms are tarred, and probably service less than 20% of the region’s population.

Their Kuria people (of about 600 000) were part of the surrender of their ancestral lands towards the formation of what is now known as the Serengeti. Add that to similar numbers east of the Serengeti for the Maasai – who did likewise – where there are thousands of square kilometres without tarred roads.

Now put in place a Frankfurt Zoological Society proposal that wants a murram road upgrade from Loliondo to Arusha in the east and a road “improvement” in the Mara region between Mugumu and Musoma, coupled with a commercial road development south of the park…and one, incidently, that has been underway for 2-3 years already anyway.

What signal does that send out about having a “human face” on this issue?

The UN Charter on Human Rights respects the role of those peoples. Surely – in the extreme – promoting a cause that denies someone a fair and equitable right to human development in their own region and space must surely border on a “gross human rights violation”? Maybe, in absurdum, a “crime against humanity”?

To conclude – this entire “Serengeti campaign” has been run online, primarily via Facebook. There are about a quarter of a million Tanzanians who can engage via this social network medium, at huge online cost, mainly via mobile devices. Are the inter-connect exchanges fair and equitable? Frankly, most people I interact with are petrified to voice their opinions online for fear of poor language usage (English not first language), being spoken down to by hordes of passionate & “wealthy” tree-huggers globally, or even being seen to be in conflict with their own government.

To round off –

Thank you reading and clearly thinking about points I raised. This issue is way beyond muddy roads in rainy season. It is all about objective writing. The 2 views of the glass.

I pray that when you next write on African issues, you might think a little deeper and delve a little further. We are people with hearts and souls who care and can add value to our world, no matter the Afro-pessimism perpetuated by international media and capital interests.

My spirit informs me that many millions and millions of my fellow brothers and sisters feel likewise. The FIFA World Cup 2010 proved such an indomitable ethos permeates the continent amongst ordinary men and women. As democracy slowly spreads, all that ordinary Africans want is to be treated with equanimity worldwide and respect on the great soccer-pitch of life.

Timothy Baird says:

It seems reasonable to consider that Kikwete has very little incentive to see this project through now that the election has passed. Oranges flags or no, might this be a case of political rhetoric and little else?

Timothy Baird says:

Also – Mara Goldman is not a Geologist – but a Geographer.

Rose Eveleth says:

Thanks Timothy! Noted, and embarrassed. As for Kikwete and his incentive, I really don’t know what he’ll do. This election was one of the closest since Kikwete’s party took power in 19961977*, so even though this election is over he might be thinking about the future. Some people I spoke with suspect that the Chinese are funding and pushing this road, which might provide a monetary incentive to actually go through with it – but it remains to be seen whether he’ll make good on his word.

*thanks to Navaya ole Ndaskoi for pointing out my error there.

Navaya ole Ndaskoi says:

I chose not to comment on this article on this page.

However, I think it is recklessness to claim, “This election was one of the closest since Kikwete’s party took power in 1996, so even though this election is over he might be thinking about the future.” CCM has been in power in Tanzania in 1977. Which President can afford not “thinking about the future”?

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