Richard Leakey comments on the Serengeti Highway

We informed you earlier of the Tanzania authorities plans to construct a commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park will bring an end to one of the worlds greatest spectacles, the wildebeest migration.That blog post attracted numerous comments – not one reader thinks it’s a good idea!

So I went further and interviewed renowned conservationist, Richard Leakey about the project and why it threatens a globally important heritage should the Tanzania authorities go ahead.

Listen to the podcast here – Richard Leakey comments on Serengeti Highway the transcript is below.

Background


Over 1.3 million wildebeest and zebras participate in one of the worlds greatest spectacles, The great migration in Kenya and Tanzania. But this could end in a matter of years, the Tanzanian authorities have just approved the construction of a commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park to develop the northern and western towns along Lake Victoria. Executive Director of WildlifeDirect, Dr. Paula Kahumbu, interviewed renowned conservationist Dr. Richard Leakey, to understand the consequences of a strip of tarmac across the path of millions of migrating animals, and discusses the alternative options that the Tanzanian authorities have for development in this impoverished region.

If the player doesn’t work for you you can read the transcript below

Transcript

It’s early July 2010 and the wildebeest migration has just started, over a million wildebeest and zebra are expected to flood into Kenya’s Masai Mara from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park crossing crocodile infested rivers, and dodging lions and other predators. The ‘Great Wildebeest Migration, as it’s come to be known’ has been occurring every year, at about the same time for thousands of years. The Wildebeest, zebras and other plains game take a journey of over 2,000km in search of grazing. The time they reach southern Kenya, the Masai plains are swarming with fantastic concentrations of wildlife.

The great migration attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors to both Kenya and Tanzania, but conservationists say that this global spectacle is in danger. The Tanzanian authorities have just approved the construction of a highway across the Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park, it cuts right across the northern path of the migrating wildebeest at a time when they are most vulnerable. Conservationists are up in arms about the decision, and warn that a commercial highway across the Serengeti will bring an end to the great migration.

But the Tanzanian authorities insist that the highway is essential for development in this impoverished region, and that their own environmental impact studies show that it will not disrupt the migration. They plan to start construction in early 2012.

I put these fears to one of the most renowned conservationists in Africa Dr. Richard Leakey, in his Nairobi office.

What do you understand about this proposal that the Tanzanian government has put in place?

Well I think for the development of the great lakes and the development of Tanzanian business interests, they obviously do need a good road network, and putting a road that links the Indian ocean port of Dar es Salaam with Musoma and Mwanza on Lake Victoria is obviously of critical national interest to the Tanzanians. The question arises however, is what is this going to do to the critical Serengeti wildebeest -zebra migration?

Well they say that the TZ government is doing this for the sake of economic development, but why is this particular road so important?

Well I think the road is important, the sighting o the road raises questions and there is an alternative route that goes south of the Serengeti that would serve a very large population of Tanzanians on the way to the Lake. It might cost slightly more, but I would have thought that the southern route was in many ways the best option, but they obviously also need a route that would open up lake Natron and the northern part of Serengeti with access to Kenya and things of that kind.

I can see the economic arguments but we must remember that the purpose of this is to grow the towns of Mwanza and Musoma on Lake Victoria, and at the moment you are talking about half a million people in each town, perhaps. Lets project forward 50 years, lets project to a time when those cities are 3 – 4 million people each, can the Serengeti withstand not just the road as we see it today, but the road as it has to be 50 years from now.

That begs the question, are the animals really worth more than the economic developments that this road will actually bring?

I would hope that it’s not a question of either the animals or the economic development, the animals should be part of the economic development, and there seems to be two options

One would be to re-examine the possibility of the main arterial road linking Lake Victoria with the Indian ocean going south of the Serengeti and putting in an additional road that would open up the northern part of Lake Natron with Loliondo  and up to the Kenya Tanzania border near the Mara which is  a very viable possibility. Alternatively should we not be thinking of whether the y couldn’t elevate the road, as it crosses the Serengeti, put it up on stilts so that the animals could move freely below it. This would be very expensive but not impossible.

Conservationists and tour companies are warning that the construction of the highway will lead to the collapse of populations of wildebeest and zebra.  They are predicting the end of the great migration. But why will these great animals disappear – after all, the numbers of wildebeest and Zebras exceed 1.3 million  individuals and they cross much more difficult terrain than a tarmac road, they are crossing crocodile infested rivers every single year. So what does a narrow strip of road really do to stop these animals from crossing?

I think it’s a narrow strip of road as we envision it today, but it won’t be a narrow strip of road in 30 or 40 years, that’s for sure. There will be a railway line that will parallel it, and there will probably be a 6 lane highway in each direction. So I don’t think we should think of it as a narrow strip of road that we project in to the year 2015, that’s the first point. The second point is that wildebeest and Zebra have to migrate into Kenya and the Masai Mara which is the northern extent of the migratory route which enables these vast numbers of animals to access fresh grass after the rains. If that road becomes too difficult to cross because of a continuous line of traffic in either direction, the wildebeest wont’ make the crossing, and they will be turned back in fear of the road and therefore will overgraze their existing range in Tanzania and will disappear for all time.

Lets say that this road goes ahead and that the protests of conservationists and tourist organizations, the TZ government goes forward and builds this highway, leading to the decline of the wildebeest and the zebras and the migration stops. Does that really matter? Is that a problem?

Well you could argue that it doesn’t matter.  I would think that preserving one of the last great spectacles on the planet, a planet that used to have far more of this but all of which has been destroyed by humanity except this one, is something we should save, it is a responsibility of the Tanzanian government to play it’s role in making the planet a better place for future generations. And by deliberately going into an action that could degrade one of the great spectacles of wildlife on the planet is a very heavy responsibility. I hope the TZ government and the backers of this scheme will think very carefully about not just the next ten years which is the life of their parliament and the life of their president in office, but the next 50 to 100 years. We should be projecting this planets needs way beyond the 15 – 20 years that is all politicians seem to be able to do today.

So if you were the president of Tanzania and you had to make a decision, there’s the economic benefits the short term, and the long term rewards of keeping the Serengeti and the migration going, what would you do?

I think the TZ government which enjoys a really first rate international standing amongst conservationists for having done so much since the days of Julius Nyerere their first president to create new national Parks and to put in place actions that have saved vast areas of their country for wildlife. I think they should think carefully about squandering that reputation. There are alternatives, they may be more expensive, but the world is so concerned, I think, about the importance of this, that additional money could be found to either do two roads. One to the south which is the main artery, one to the north for development of the nothern area but that would not dissect or cross the Serengeti. Or they should give serious thoughts to the feasibility of an engineering project that would raise the road up above the wildebeest routes so that people could get to the lake and the wildebeest could get to the Mara beneath it. This is one international issue amongst the many.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

The only important point that I would like to add, is that it should not be an either or, its not a question of the migration or development. The migration is part of development. The economic development of Tanzania is critical to its people. It should not be that we have one or the other. Let us find ways which both can be done together. But let’s not leave it until it’s too late. Let’s not waste money. Let’s get talking now about alternative strategies. And if the costs are going to double, can we justify spending that much money? I would have thought Tanzania could justify it and would get a lot of international backing for saving the wildebeest migration into perpetuity.

Well you heard what Richard Leakey had to say, what do you think? Participate in the conversation, join me, Paula Kahumbu at WilldifeDirect.org for more information, maps and opinions about the Serengeti Highway.

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2 comments on “Richard Leakey comments on the Serengeti Highway

  1. JIMMY FROM IRELAND on said:

    Richard is a rock of sense as usual – I hope common sense prevails elsewhere when it comes to this crazy proposal

  2. I love how Dr. Leakey approaches these topics and balances the needs of humans with the needs of wildlife today and in the future. Clearly, sound judgment must prevail in Tanzania if both humans and wildlife are to have any future. If it does not, we all will suffer as a result.

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