Tanzania’s Serengeti Highway plan could destroy major carbon sink

Migrating wildebeest

Migrating wildebeest help to maintain the Serengeti as a major carbon storage (© Boyd Norton)

Environmentalists are dismayed at plans by the Tanzanian government to build a major commercial highway through Serengeti National Park

The Tanzanian President has vowed to go ahead with controversial plans to construct a major road through the Serengeti, despite fierce opposition from environmentalists and the tourism industry.

The 480-kilometre road will link the Lake Victoria area with eastern Tanzania and, according to the Tanzanian government, bring essential economic development to the region - linking remote communities to the major road network, allowing transport of people and goods and connecting farmers with markets.

However the project has attracted criticism from environmental groups which fear the effects on the ecosystem could be devastating and may even result in huge releases of carbon into the atmosphere.

Wildebeest and zebra

The road will bisect the path of the renowned ‘great migration’ of wildebeest and zebra, when each year millions of animals migrate between the Tanzanian Serengeti and Kenyan Masai Mara in search of fresh water sources.

‘Recent calculations show that if wildebeest were to be cut off from these critical dry season areas, the population would likely decline from 1.3 million animals to about 200,000,’ said Dagmar Andres-Brümmer of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), who have been heavily involved with Tanzania National Parks for over 50 years.

‘This would mean a collapse to far less than a quarter of its current population and, as a consequence, most likely the end of the great migration,’ he added.

Andrew Dobson, Professor of Conservation Biology and Infectious Disease Ecology at Princeton University, who has worked in the Serengeti since 1986, said this decline in wildebeest numbers could indirectly destroy the region's function as a major carbon sink.

‘If the wildebeest population declines by even fifty percent it could lead to an increase in the fire frequency in the park, as less grass would be eaten - this could flip the entire system from a major carbon sink into a major source of carbon.’

Environmentalists are also concerned about the consequences of increased road kill for threatened species such as cheetahs, for which even a marginal increase in mortality rates could lead to disastrous population decline, as well as increased poaching, and the spread of disease and invasive plants.

Tourism decline fears

The tourism industry has also expressed concern over the potential loss of thousands of people that come to watch the migration every year and of damage to the Serengeti's reputation as an untouched wilderness.

Tourism is Tanzania’s biggest source of foreign exchange, with half of the country's tourism revenue generated from the Serengeti National Park.

UNESCO and IUCN said they were ‘seriously concerned’ about the highway, which could see the national park lose its status as a World Heritage Site.

The Tanzanian government says the road will improve access for tourists and boost local economies, but some local communities have raised concerns about the potential impact the road could have on the availability of already-scarce pasture for cattle, which is their main livelihood.

Alternative routes

Opponents of the project are pressing for an alternative route that bypasses the national park to be considered by the government. According to FSZ, the proposed alternative southern route ‘will serve five times as many people as the planned Northern road and fulfil the same needs for linking major regional centres.’

‘In view of the importance of the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem as one of the world’s premier wildlife reserves and as a major contributor to the economies of both Tanzania and Kenya, it is hoped that the authorities in Tanzania will consider an alternative route passing around the outside of the Serengeti,’ said Jake Grieves-Cook, Chairman of the Kenya Tourist Board.


Map of proposed highway routes

Migrating wildebeest


Useful links
Study linking wildebeest population levels to carbon storage
Save the Serengeti website

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