Scientists Say: The Highway Across the Serengeti Is a Terrible Idea

By Andrew Moseman | September 15, 2010 3:57 pm

WildebeestsTwo weeks ago we covered the dust-up between eco-groups and the government of Tanzania over the latter’s proposal to build a road through the heart of Serengeti National Park, home to the world-famous annual migrations of wildebeests, zebras, and more. Today in Nature, a group of 27 scientists chimed in on the project. Their verdict: It would be a biodiversity disaster.

Conservationists led by Princeton’s Andrew Dobson … argue the planned 2012 road would stop the yearly migration of 1.3 million wildebeests, the cornerstone species of the park, and harm other animals such as the 1.5 million zebras that yearly migrate as well. [USA Today]

The researchers studied other parks where human structures like fences and roads cut through migratory routes, and they simulated what it would mean for the Serengeti. The effects wouldn’t be seen just in animal life—wildebeests help to maintain the grassland ecosystem, too.

“Simulations suggest that if wildebeest access to the Mara river in Kenya is blocked, the population will fall to less than 300,000,” they said. “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.” [AFP]

And if biodiversity and the ecosystem as a whole suffer, the people who depend on tourism won’t be doing too well either. As we noted in prior coverage, there’s an alternate solution: building the road further south to avoid the path of the great migration. This is what the scientists advocate in Nature. USA Today says the route would be longer, but cheaper to build.


Related Content:
80beats: Eco-Groups Try to Stop Tanzania’s Highway Through the Serengeti
DISCOVER: To Save a Watering Hole
The Loom: Hyena Blogging, Live from the Serengeti
Not Exactly Rocket Science: By Eating Fruit, Birds Protect Serengeti Forests from Beetles
Discoblog: Citizen Scientists Take Charge of California’s Roadkill

Images: Wikimedia Commons; Felix Borner, FZS

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • TomInAK

    I’ve spent a number of years working on highways in Alaska, and the presence of a road doesn’t appear to have any effect on the migration of large animals such as caribou, for example, unless you count the few that wind up as road pizza. Is there anything unique about these critters that causes them to be incapable of crossing a few feet of gravel or pavement? I can’t speak to the relative merits of the two routes discussed, but this impresses me as a made-to-order study for the purpose of preventing a road from being built through the park.

  • scott

    I’d be curious to know what other parks were studied, and how do they rule out other factors that could have also hindered migration?

  • ObamaSr

    Great way to prevent any type of African progress. “Oh you’d like to build a highway to increase commerce, trade, and connect isolated towns? Sorry, we’d rather you not because every single wildebeest will run into cars. And after all, us Americans only want to come to Kenya for safaris.”

  • m

    Tom makes a great point. We had similar issues here in Ottawa where a few enviro “scientists” suggested a new road would impact the migration of turtles and frogs.

    They had signs and pickets and “calls to action”.

    It turns out not to be true…in fact, the grading of the road meant that certain fields maintained a steady water table as opposed to annual flooding.

    The result – thousands of turtles and frogs crossing the road on their way to the river.

    It didnt hurt the species one iota….in fact, because their mating grounds didnt flood and maintained a stable water source, they flourished. But it does cause traffic problems with greasy-grimey frog guts that make the roads slippery.

  • Nemesis

    @everybody above

    “The researchers studied other parks where human structures like fences….cut through migratory routes, and they simulated what it would mean for the Serengeti. The effects wouldn’t be seen just in animal life—wildebeests help to maintain the grassland ecosystem, too.”

    The key word is “fences”. Until wildebeests spring hands and learn how to use gates, fences could halt migration. Roads might not prevent migration, but how many of them will be mowed down while trying to migrate, which they do in huge quantities? Either the road will have to be temporarily shut down for an indefinite period of time every year during the season, or thousands of them will be shot, struck by cars, or moved by some other conveyance.

    Progress doesn’t always come in the form of increased capitalism. Who are you people?

  • Dean

    I am from Africa. This road would not harm migration. African’s would now better than to travel on this road during a migration. If you hit one off these things you would most likey be killed in the accident. It’s not like hitting a smaller animal and driving on as though nothing happened. There are plenty of roads in Zimbabwe that run through areas where animals are prevalent and they don’t stop them one bit.

    Sure some will die here and there by human hand, but not in the quantities Nemesis implies. this isn’t going to be like an american interstate. there will not be thousands of cars traveling it everyday. think of it more like the roads out in the nevada and new mexico deserts.

  • TomInAK


    They’re proposing to build a road. Any study involving fences is irrelevant, unless a fence is part of the proposed highway project. I seriously doubt that this is the case, as fencing is expensive and, even in the US, use is pretty much limited to high-traffic areas with a history of animal-vehicle collisions.

    Why would the highway need to be shut down yearly for migration? Up on the Dalton Highway, tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of caribou migrate across the road annually. There are few collisions with vehicles, and the presence of cars & trucks doesn’t appear to effect their movement at all. I’ve had them cross the road within a few yards of me on a number of occasions. I can say the same for moose, fox, wolves, etc. Is there any evidence to show that African wildlife is different?

    Finally, your preferred economic system has no bearing on this discussion. The study would be equally valid or invalid regardless of whether we’re all flaming commies, wild-eyed anarchists, or something in between. My take, based on real-world experience, is that it’s not particularly useful.

  • Gaythia

    It isn’t just about a roadway as a wildlife barrier or or issues like colliding with animals while driving. The road is about access and the need for access is about development.

    The Sarengeti and Ngorongoro are both World heritage sites, and development on the actual boundaries of the preserved Parks and can be very disruptive. Access can lead to changes in current patterns. This may aggravate ecological balance threatening expansions of small scale local, (and not so local), based utilization by hunter/gatherers, herders and agriculturalists. Access from now remote areas can lead to policing problems such as poaching. Also, international interest apparently aiding in funding this roadway have economic interests in further large scale exploitation (mining, big game hunting on the boundaries of the Park).

    See for example:

    Big Game Hunting: and

    Related evictions of indigenous peoples:
    “Eight Maasai villages in the Loliondo region of Tanzania have been burnt to the ground, leaving 3,000 people without food, water or shelter.” ….”They were forced from their villages to create a game hunting area for the Otterlo Business Corporation (OBC). “…”Otterlo Business Corporation is reportedly linked with the United Arab Emirates royal families and has held exclusive safari and hunting rights in Loliondo, northern Tanzania since 1992.”


    “Tanzania has, in past years, climbed into the top of the African gold producers,”….” and the endpoint of the new highway at Musoma is intriguingly located in the exact same neighborhood area, where such mining concessions owners are waiting to go active.”

    ….” and then passing an area of another mining concession for soda ash, which India’s Tata Corporation wishes to exploit and which also met stiff resistance from conservationists and the tourism sector. Lake Natron is the only breeding ground for the East African flamingos”

    Like all countries, Tanzania has a strong interest in, and need for, road building for economic development. And ecologically sensitive economic development is a valid need which should be supported. As noted in the post above, there is a proposed southern route for this roadway which is reputed to be much less damaging.

  • Wyatt

    As an expat biologist living in Tanzania one can see things a bit more from the local perspective. Its hard to guage what Tanzanians are thinking on this issue as the press is not reporting on this very heavily and there is no massive groundswell of protest since this may be seen as being anti CCM the party of the President in a time of election. But I detect a great deal of cinicism of ‘why this road, why now?’ when there are many other less controversial priorities. The answer seems to be political. Personally I do think the road will have a bug impact on the ecology (see the articles in Nature), and even if they say now it will only be gravel, later on it will be upgraded for sure. Traffic levels will be high, buses and lorries by the hundred every day, so it wont be like the New Mexico highways. Tanzania already has a main road through the Mikumi NAtional Park and there road kills but not by the 10s of animals everyday, BUT there is no big migration cfossing the road twice or four times per year depending on the rainfall patterns. So comparing it to south africa or Zimbabwe is not useful here. However the caribou migration is a case in point I agree, but ecological experts who have been studying the place for 30yrs + think there will be a serious impact. I’m with them. Further, I am told that the road strip (50-80m wide) will have to be degazetted as a national park so the park authorities (TANAPA) will have no juristiction on what goes on at the road side. This means the Serengeti will be legally cut in 2. The suggested alternative southern route will link even more poeple and towns who have been asking for a road for years but will not be that much further than the northern route. I would also say that for a country like Tanzania which has a political capital (Dodoma) in the middle of the country NOT conected by good paved roads to its northern and southern cities is much more of a priority and would get alot more support. How will this new road be paid for (450M USD) is the next question and will we ever see the leagally required EIA report? I think many here in the conservation community are not anti developement, just anti a road through one of greatest wildlife spectacles (which in turn drives the serengeti ecology) in the world. Why risk it? Why take the chance when there are other routes available?

  • paolo

    I not agree to build this road. why? is not enough the road than exist today? you want cross serengeti 150 kmh and not see any animals?just to say i have been in serengeti?

  • Mike

    Aside of the migratory issues with wildlife that might be impacted, what about the wilderness character of the park. In reading this, respondants use the example of Alaska and places like the Dalton Hightway. The Dalton is a haul road, not a tourist access point. They build a paved road through the park savannah and they’ll have a lot of problems. But, what else is new with Africa. Whatever that might be left alone or pristine, they’ll f*** up for future generations. Pave the whole god damn place!! Roads simply spoil the wilderness character of a park.

  • Marisa

    We’re not just taking about a few animals here, that will cross the highway at a reasonable speed, We’re taking thousands. The consequence of this will be carnage on the road as large herds of wilderbeast colide with oncoming cars. This will result in a large fence being errected and that will be the end of the Migration.

  • Bella

    Wyatt hits the nail on the head! There is more important infrastructure thats lacking in EA than this proposed highway. Thrilling speed & Game drives do not go together!

  • Jen

    Germany and the World Bank have already offered to pay for the southern route. The parks boundaries need to be respected or it will dwindle more and more with each passing year. These are not ordinary animals, these are protected and endangered animals that are only found in this part of the world, nowhere else. That’s not a gamble anyone should take. A loss of a few endangered animals is quite a lot, then add introduction of non-native plant species to the habitat and poaching and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. Lately Chinese poachers have been killing Elephants and Rhinos in Kenya as if their numbers weren’t already counted. The southern route will connect more remote villages, will cost less, but there is something very corrupt underneath this all and lots of money in someone pockets is at stake. I wonder how it feels when they devise their evil schemes? Sorta like Monopoly I guess? This park is a jewel of the world and we will be greatly impoverished if it gets cut up and spliced, or if these animals die off completely. The world will have lost more than a damn mine. In fact I’m willing to wager very few people will benefit from this road. Its not about helping remote villages, there’s hardly any villages up that way, and Tanzania has a tourist economy, which they are threatening also. In that particular part of the park, they don’t even allow vehicles, scientists determined that, so why should they allow it now? Because money determines it?

  • Jen

    And yes, Marisa, a road through the park would be deadly, it would have to be shut down seasonally or they would build a wall. So either they respect the animals or they kill them and we all know they would lose their precious money if they shut down the road for a while. Greed after all built those plans. There is no harmony of active road and 1.3 million wildebeests migrating in a massive herd. To even suggest such a thing is just insulting everyone’s intelligence. Which is probably why it’s been kept out of the news for the most part. What kind of psychopath would even come up with such an idea? It is either truly malevolent or retarded but in both cases extremely shortsighted. Why would you build a road you have to shut down? Unless you had a plan to prevent those shut downs with a wall, in which case, the proposal is to destroy migration for money. The only actual viable option is the southern route, whether they like it or not, they will find that out.


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