Proposed Serengeti Highway: An Environmental Disaster Of Choice

There’s an environmental disaster in the making that has scientists issuing warnings about the collapse of an entire ecosystem.

If you’ve already leapt to the conclusion that I’m talking about the Gulf of Mexico and the fate of its fish, shrimp and birds, you’d be forgiven. We certainly have plenty to worry about here at home.

But the story I’m referencing — a proposed highway through Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, the last great wildlife sanctuary on our planet, home to wildebeests, zebras, lions, cheetahs, and too many more species to name — is no less urgent and every bit as heartbreaking. The difference here is that this is a disaster of choice. It can still be stopped.

By a “disaster of choice” I mean that it is not the result of an accident or unforeseeable event. However preventable it might have been, BP’s oil spill was still certainly not deliberate (unless you ask Rush Limbaugh, of course). But, in Tanzania, plans are afoot to build a 31-mile, two-lane highway right through Serengeti National Park. As Laura Goldman details on the Animals blog, this plan is a “highway to hell” for the Serengeti’s wild inhabitants and could lead to the collapse of the largest remaining migratory system on Earth.

Recently, 27 experts, led by Andrew Dobson of Princeton, published an article speaking out against this “environmental disaster” in the current issue of Nature. Importantly, they note that it’s not just wildlife at risk if the highway blocks wildebeest from accessing the Mara river in Kenya. “Simulations suggest…the population will fall to less than 300,000. This would lead to more grass fires, which would further diminish the quality of grazing by volatising minerals, and the ecosystem could flip into being a source of atmospheric CO2,” they write.

So, the highway threatens to turn the Serengeti from an ecological marvel into a contributor to climate change. The Nature article also details threats to local vegetation and watercourses, which would have huge impacts on Tanzanian residents in the area, many of whom make their living from the tourism industry.

Somehow this story seems to have barely made a dent in Americans’ environmental consciousness (though, to be fair, some US media outlets have covered the story, including the New York Times, USA Today and Discover Magazine.) And to my knowledge, no major environmental group is rallying the base here in the States to speak up. But that’s okay, we’re more than capable of organizing ourselves when it’s called for.

A user of this here very website, David Blanton, has, in fact, already got a jump on the process by starting a petition calling on anyone who could help fund a project— lending institutions, development banks, governments — “to help Tanzania protect its priceless world treasure and ensure that the people of Tanzania benefit from its preservation.” His Save the Serengeti web site is full of information and the Facebook page has more than 21,000 fans.

The situation is not looking good. It’s an election year in Tanzania, and the Serengeti highway is a hot-button issue because the road will make it easier for foreign interests to exploit the mineral resources of central Africa by linking Tanzania’s coast to interior nations like Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi. So the destruction of the Serengeti will not only, as the experts argue, trigger the collapse of a valuable wildlife sanctuary but will also beget further environmental destruction if allowed to proceed.

The road is not built yet, so there is a very real opportunity to make an impact and avert this disaster. There is also still time to reroute the highway: a more southern route that skirts the park has been proposed as well.

It is important, however, that we not simply bash the Tanzanian government — after all, it’s probably only considering the highway because of the economic benefits it will have for the country and its people. This is why it makes the most sense to target the worldwide development and aid community: We have to let them know that we expect them to work with the government of Tanzania to find the best possible solution—not just to maximize investment return, but to find a project that develops the country’s economy without sacrificing the local ecosystems and the people and wildlife who depend on them.

Please sign David Blanton’s petition. He writes, “If we can’t save the Serengeti, what can we save?”

Photo credit: Marc Veraart via Flickr

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