The Fight Over the Serengeti Highway

Sven Torfinn/ Panos Pictures

It would forever change the greatest animal migration on earth, but could the Serengeti Highway also be Tanzania’s great road to progress?

There is a highway in Africa that has divided the world. It runs across a stretch of Tanzania, only 33 miles long but immeasurable in the imaginations of those who are for it or against it. While the highway has not yet been built, it nonetheless exists, either as a great opportunity or an apocalyptic threat. It is called the Serengeti Highway, and, if constructed, it would cut across the most hallowed place for wildlife, the northern section of Serengeti National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where mankind is believed to have taken some of its first steps and where today 1.3 million wildebeest annually thunder across 1,300 miles of plains and through crocodile-infested rivers in the last great animal migration on earth.

Having followed the war over the Serengeti Highway for the last several years, I was eager to witness one of the hardest-fought conflicts in conservation history firsthand. Early last summer, I took a commercial plane from Nairobi to the airport at Kilimanjaro. From there, it was a short bush flight to Seronera, in the heart of the park, which measures 5,700 square miles proper—larger than Connecticut—and 10,000 square miles if you count the entire Serengeti ecosystem.

My guide, Emmanuel Mbuya, picked me up at the Seronera airstrip, and we were soon bumping down dirt paths in search of wonder. Finally I could see it, or at least a small piece of it, the place named for the Masai word siringet, the “endless plain.” It stretched as far as the eye could see, its glorious expanse dotted with hundreds of thousands of tiny specks: wildebeest in the early stages of their migration in search of fresh grass and water.

“This is the highway,” said Mbuya, meaning that what we were on would become a stretch of the Serengeti Highway. Right now what we were driving on wouldn’t even qualify as a roadway: two dusty ruts cut between the uninterrupted grassy plains. The “road” was not merely our route; it was also our guide. “The bush newspaper,” said Mbuya, explaining that the road would tell us everything we needed to know about what animals were moving through the area that day. Every so often, he would stop the Land Rover and peer down at the soft, porous dirt, where he would invariably spot a variety of paw and hoof prints. All we had to do was follow the prints and soon we were in the middle of them, a veritable horizon of horns. The ground seemed to shake as we drove beside an immense herd of grunting, bucking, copulating, stampeding wildebeest. In their wake came the Serengeti’s legendary animals, thousands of them: Lion, cheetah, elephant, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, hyena, warthog, antelope, baboon, ostrich and every other conceivable creature crisscrossed the road. They weren’t running. They were walking, crawling, sitting and sprawling, behaving as if the road belonged to them. How could a high-speed highway, with thousands of cars, trucks, vans, buses and motorcycles rolling 24 hours every day, coexist with the greatest profusion of wild animals on the planet?

Tanzania is an impoverished country—95 percent of its citizens live on less than $2 a day; villagers around the Serengeti’s northern border are among the poorest, earning little more than $100 a year. In 2005, when the current president, Jakaya Kikwete, ran for office, he appealed to the poor—many without access to electricity, cell service and medical care—with the promise of a passageway to prosperity.

The Serengeti Highway, by connecting to other highways outside the park, was first seen as a way for northern villagers to gain access to the city of Arusha to the east and Lake Victoria to the west. But there was supposedly more to it. Gold mines around Lake Victoria, soda ash that could be mined on Lake Magadi, oil in Uganda and South Sudan, and minerals like coltan, coveted by the Chinese for cell phones and other electronics—these and other reserves could enrich the country, if only they could get from one end of Tanzania to the other. The highway would link the ports of eastern Tanzania with not only the mineral-rich areas of Lake Victoria but also the bordering interior countries to the west: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi.

For those languishing in the teeming cities and subsisting below the poverty line in villages, the annual wildebeest migration means little. What they demand is the migration of money, which, many Tanzanians insist, cannot travel from one side of the country to the other because the 33-mile stretch of the Serengeti stands in the way. “We are good conservationists; but the poverty caused by poor roads is forcing us to kill the animals in order to survive,” a placard reportedly read when villagers met with a World Bank official in 2011. One pro-highway biologist, Eivin Røskaft, who has conducted research with Tanzanian scientists for 20 years in the Serengeti, told me the outcry over the highway ignores the people’s needs. “Tanzanians deserve to develop, and they deserve to make their own decisions on how to develop,” he said.

As I traveled the little roads that would compose sections of the Serengeti Highway route, I encountered a land existing in a time warp, seemingly unchanged since its 1951 designation as a national park, supposedly protected forever by Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, who in 1961 issued the Arusha Manifesto: “...These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well being....We will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance.”

For some Tanzanians, living in a time warp is an embarrassment. In 2012 a presidential aide was quoted as saying that Kenyan cattle buyers were taking advantage of Tanzanians, who did not have alternate buyers due to the lack of transportation avenues. “People from Arusha have to go through Kenya to get to Mwanza and Musoma,” lamented one of my guides, referring to the route some take to detour around the Serengeti when driving from Arusha to the country’s northernmost cities, each bursting with people and growing fast. Most travelers, however, take the southern loop around the conserved areas, a drive of at least 14 hours. In contrast, the straight shot from Arusha to Musoma, if there were the Serengeti Highway, would be only 341 miles.

Vast riches are waiting under the feet of Tanzanians, ready to be shipped to an eager marketplace, which could transform the country into a powerhouse, potentially dwarfing even Tanzanian tourism, an industry worth more than $1 billion and that employs 600,000 people.

The eternal conflict between development and conservation in Africa is an age-old dilemma. The Gibe III Dam, under construction in Ethiopia, is expected to pour an estimated $400 million into its economy while imperiling Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of tribespeople who depend upon it. A new Chinese-financed seaport in the ancient Kenyan island town of Lamu promises to import international maritime trade while destroying the fragile ecology of this UNESCO World Heritage site. But the struggle has found perhaps its most dramatic focal point in the Serengeti Highway, expected to undulate with more than a million vehicles a year by 2035, simultaneously transporting prosperity while killing everything in its path, begging the question: Is wildlife more important than people?

“The decision’s been made,” said Salvator Rweyemamu, of the president’s staff, to The New York Times in October 2010. “If this government comes back into power—and we will—the road will be built.”

“I will yield for antelope and wildebeest, elephant and buffalo,” the bush pilot announced in the single-engine commercial prop plane prior to takeoff. There were herds of game grazing just past the runway, and the animals, he made clear, had the right of way. Once we eluded the game, we were airborne, soaring alongside squadrons of hawks and storks over the Serengeti, emerald green from the spring rains. Within minutes, we landed in Lobo, and I was bouncing down more rudimentary roads, driving toward the highlands near Loliondo, bordering the park. Here, in late 2010, news leaked about the impending Serengeti Highway through a sign from nature: thorn trees festooned with tiny red surveyor flags. Dr. Dennis Rentsch, a technical advisor in the Seronera headquarters of the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS), a German organization dedicated to conservation programs in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia and Zimbabwe, was making his rounds when he spotted the flags, along with bulldozers. He quickly learned that the flags mapped a section of the proposed highway and the bulldozers were ready to roll.

“It was the first time I realized this was something real,” said Rentsch, as we sat in the little house that serves as the FZS’s Serengeti office. He immediately reported what he’d seen to the FZS’s then–Africa director, Dr. Markus Borner. “We had used our internal channels to try and influence—obviously without much luck—the government not to go forward with the plan,” Borner said. “It became a lot more realistic when the Caterpillars appeared at the park boundary.”

Immediate construction was stopped, but the plans remained. “When it became clear that we could not convince the government about the dangers of such a road,” said Borner, he and his colleagues began speaking out. An opinion column appeared on The New York Times website (“Road Kill in the Serengeti?” June 15, 2010). A study was commissioned to explore creating two alternative southern roads around the park. (The German government allegedly offered about $30 million to help build an alternate route; the World Bank also offered support.) Borner and 26 foremost Serengeti scientists coauthored an article opposing the highway in the weekly conservation publication Nature. Finally, Borner and his colleagues “convinced a number of high-level authorities and individuals to write and make personal appeals to President Kikwete,” including Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. secretary of state, who met with the Tanzanian president “in a one-to-one closed meeting,” said Borner.

In the Nature article, under the headline “Road Will Ruin Serengeti,” the scientists demanded that the plans be halted and presented their scenario for an asphalt apocalypse: By restricting the wildebeest migration, the highway would cause “the Serengeti ecosystem to collapse.” Blocked from access to water and hindered by fences that the highway would impose, the migration would essentially end. The herd of 1.3 million, which consumes 50 percent of the Serengeti’s 5,700 square miles of grasses and “produces 500 truckloads of dung and 125 road tankers of urine,” fertilizing the ground and “recycling vast quantities of nutrients throughout the system,” would be reduced to less than 300,000. With the wildebeest goes the Serengeti: The predators would disappear along with the visitors and their billion in annual tourism revenue. In their place would be 24-hour traffic, causing constant animal collisions and carrying invasive species, chemicals, pesticides and intensified armies of organized poachers, pillaging and escaping with their prey in high-speed vehicles through the wide-open supermarket that the Serengeti would become. All this would be followed by fire: “Eighty percent of the park would burn every year,” read the article.

Next came the ghosts, a nameless, faceless army of bloggers, mostly American, who arose after an American also spotted the red surveyor flags while driving near the village of Ololosokwan in May 2010. His Masai guide told him about the highway, “along with the possibility of a railroad,” said the American. “I posted the discovery on my Facebook page,” he continued. “Within days people began contacting me. In a week a few of us had started a new Facebook page, Stop the Serengeti Highway. Word soon spread, and in a couple of months, it had thousands of followers.” (Today it has more than 50,000 followers.)

I met one of the bloggers in Tanzania and was soon in contact with others by phone and e-mail. They are a passionate group of conservationists on a dogged mission to save the Serengeti. But no names could be used, they insisted, for fear of losing their government-granted permits to visit, and in some cases work in, Serengeti National Park. Along with the Facebook page, the group created an organization called Serengeti Watch with the Earth Island Institute. Quickly, they created an action plan, assembled a database of hundreds of scientific researchers with experience in the Serengeti and began contacting media and circulating petitions worldwide. “Three hundred international conservationists and scientists signed the petition that the highway would be a death blow to the Serengeti,” said one of the campaign’s leaders. “And we sent that off to as many people in Tanzania as we could. We also had a petition for the public, and we had 2,500 people sign that. The Tanzanian government was made aware really quickly that this was not considered a good idea by the public around the world.”

Other conservation groups, including the African Wildlife Foundation in Washington, D.C., joined the chorus of protest. The foundation’s CEO, Patrick Bergin, who spent years working in Tanzania’s national parks, said, “A tarred commercial highway was put through the middle of Mikumi National Park in Tanzania in the 1950s. The park lost control of the road, and it was carnage. A buffalo gets hit by a car on the road. Hyenas and jackals come to feed on the buffalo and then they get hit. Then people get killed from colliding with wildlife. So you get a pileup of roadkill. I’m talking about the same country, the same ministry. In the Serengeti, it would be much worse, because the Serengeti has a migration of two million large mammals.”

Carnage is merely the aftermath. The whole idea is crazy, according to the FZS-commissioned study into the two alternate roads. It was conducted by Dr. Grant Hopcraft, a research fellow at the University of Glasgow, who showed me a PowerPoint presentation that mapped the whole of Tanzania laced with the three options: the northern route, which includes the Serengeti Highway, and two proposed southern routes, both detouring around the park. “The northern route is actually the worst option, a really bad idea for the people of Tanzania, regardless of the conservation issues,” Hopcraft said.

His study showed that the highway route would be the most expensive, requiring the most new asphalt. Because it would cross the Great Rift Valley at a high elevation, parts of the highway would be too steep for a parallel railroad and cause oil and gas pipelines, which would presumably link the rich fields of Uganda to Tanzanian ports, to burst and leak. Although the Serengeti Highway route is the shortest distance by 50 miles, it would take almost as long to drive—7.9 hours from Arusha to the shore of Lake Victoria, compared with 7.8 hours and 8.6 hours for the southern routes.

The saddest revelation of the study, though, showed that compared with the two southern options, the Serengeti route would fail to deliver on its promise of economic deliverance, connecting substantially less people, less unemployed, less schools and providing less access to economic activity, livestock and agriculture and the fewest avenues for the alleviation of poverty. “Building a road is probably the best thing you can do for building local economies,” Hopcraft told me. “But by building a road through the Serengeti, you’re not getting any of that benefit. There’s no benefit. There’s nobody there.” Nobody but the powerful mining companies, said the highway’s longtime critic Dr. Wolfgang H. Thome. “The main beneficiaries are the mining companies,” he said. “They would gain a direct route to their concessions without the southern diversion/detour.”

There’s little doubt as to who is pushing the highway. “I think the pressure would be probably from politicians,” said Hopcraft. “You pull out a map, it’s a two-dimensional thing, you connect the dots in the simplest pattern that gives you the shortest distance and you say, ‘There’s our road.’ Without looking at the other factors.”

Of course, as always in Africa, there’s more to it than that: a maze of possible motives and motivators. With Tanzania’s reputation for corruption—six government ministers fired in the latest corruption scandal in 2012—it’s not unreasonable to consider that some of the highway’s $480 million estimated cost might pass through the wallets of the country’s leaders. Another major proponent of the highway, however, is supposedly Tanzania’s biggest foreign investor: the Chinese, whose insatiable demand for blood ivory has made Tanzania the leading exporter of poached elephant tusks. (Thirty elephants are killed each day.) China—Africa’s biggest trading partner and driver of its economic growth—has reportedly invested $1 billion in the country, bankrolling an airport, a seaport and a railroad, and, some insiders claim, it has offered almost half a billion dollars more to finance the Serengeti Highway. “Final user is in China” read one mining industry website of China’s push to open up international transportation corridors to rush reserves, including coltan, the mineral used in cell phones, from Lake Victoria to the coast in the quickest possible way.

Will one of the last wonders of the world be plowed up and plundered for the sake of the almighty cell phone? I asked an insider.

“China is most likely a scapegoat in all this,” he replied, and what he said next was simultaneously wilder, more infuriating and oddly more plausible than the Chinese theory: The highway is nothing but a venomous political ploy. “The Serengeti lies between Tanzania’s two political strongholds: the ruling party, CCM, and the strongest opposition party, Chadema,” he said. The Lake Zone, encompassing the populous Lake Victoria region, is home to more than a third of the voters in Tanzania. “The ruling party is keen to bolster voter confidence in its political strongholds. The construction of a road would undoubtedly win votes.” And the voters are around Lake Victoria, which the Serengeti Highway would deliver and serve.

Would this explain why the Tanzanian government hasn’t accepted World Bank or German government funding for one of the southern routes? Hoping for answers, I bombarded politicians from both parties with incessant calls, texts and e-mails, only to be repeatedly disconnected, delayed and, eventually, dismissed. “Those who know aren’t talking,” said one Tanzanian who had tried to facilitate interviews.

In late 2010, the Kenya-based African Network for Animal Welfare filed a lawsuit against the attorney general of Tanzania to permanently restrain through court injunction the country from “upgrading, tarmacking, paving, realigning, constructing, creating or commissioning…the Superhighway…across the Serengeti National Park.” The attorney who filed the lawsuit said, “The road violates a number of positions of the East African Community treaty, which was signed by all five members of the East African Community.” Although the East African Court of Justice responded that the lawsuit was “fatally defective” and was filed in a court with “no jurisdiction,” the lawsuit added yet more voices to the now howling outcry against the highway.

“By 2011 the government realized it had a tiger by the tail,” Anthony R.E. Sinclair, the preeminent Serengeti scientist and author, told me. “The president admitted it. He said, ‘I’ve never had so many letters on one issue.’ We know the president quite well, and he is quite open about it all.”

On June 22, 2011, it seemed that the conservationists had won. Ezekiel Maige, Tanzania’s minister for natural resources and tourism, wrote a letter to the director of the World Heritage Centre. “The United Republic of Tanzania is honored to take this opportunity to clarify on the proposed tarmac road in northern Tanzania,” the letter began, stating that any new highway built would stop short of the Serengeti National Park gates. “The State Party confirms that the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park and therefore will not affect the migration and conservation values of the Property.”

“The big fuss is over,” Sinclair said after the letter was released. “The government has essentially backed down. That does not mean the problem is over. If the world does not produce the money and make a viable alternative, the whole issue will resurface.”

Celebration ensued, but the bloggers at Stop the Serengeti Highway remained skeptical. “As far as we’re concerned, it’s never off the table; there will always be pressure to connect Tanzania,” one told me.

They turned out to be right.

Signs that the highway wasn’t off the table began to surface in early 2013, first with the preparation of a pro-highway article refuting the 2010 Nature piece. Written for a publication called Conservation Biology, it was signed by 13 predominately Tanzanian scientists, scholars and government ministers. “Claims that a single threat—an improved road—in Serengeti will lead to the demise of this World Heritage site (Dobson et al., 2010) are incorrect,” the article said. “In our opinion, climate change is a more serious threat than the road.”

For the Tanzanian authors, the highway would be a “gate to development...the road planned to cross the northern Serengeti, where the wildebeest spend much less time, is much less of a threat than the park’s main entrance road, which has a high density of traffic throughout the year,” read the report. Anti-highway scientists, insisting that the wildebeest spend four to six months in the northern Serengeti, their main refuge during the dry season, anxiously sought alternatives. One came from legendary conservationist Richard Leakey, who led the war against poaching in the 1980s by organizing a bonfire of 12 tons of elephant tusks in Kenya. Why not create an elevated highway over the Serengeti, Leakey suggested. “It would be a grand spectacle, to see animals migrating by underneath, and signal Africa’s commitment to wildlife,” he said at a conference this past May. “If I can drive over 30 miles of elevated highways in New Jersey, why not in the Serengeti?” Conservationists, incensed over the environmental impact of an elevated highway, called the idea Leakey’s Lunatic Express.

News that the highway was back on again came in June. During a Tanzanian parliamentary session on the 2013–2014 budget, a member of parliament asked the minister of works a “supplementary question” about the status. The reply: Construction would commence as soon as studies, currently under way, were completed. In August, I finally received official word from Pascal Shelutete, a government spokesman for Tanzania National Parks: “The status is that the government is doing a feasibility study on the said project before it starts,” he said.

Up here in Klein’s camp, on the northeastern border of the Serengeti, there is sketchy Internet service. It’s part of the charm of a lodge seemingly lifted from Hemingway’s scrapbook: old leather and aged brandy in the bar; open fires in the dining room; views to eternity from the thatched-roof cottages. Outside, the Black Rock pride of 30 lions is on the prowl.

Progress is looming seven miles away in the Masai village of Ololosokwan, the ramshackle settlement where the red survey flags dotted the thorn trees, home to what’s left of the warrior tribe that once ruled the Serengeti. Now part of their village sits in the route of the highway expected to stretch from Arusha to the northern border of Serengeti National Park.

“Nobody comes to the village without seeing the chairman first,” said my interpreter, referring to the village chairman, Yohana Saing’eu, 68. I sat beside him beneath a shade tree, along with two other elders, who spoke Swahili. With an infant on his lap, he recalled when ten government men in three SUVs rumbled into the village a few months ago. Even before paying their respect to the elders, they began taking measurements for the highway. “The Masai were shocked,” the chairman said. “We wanted to throw our spears to fight.”

It had come to this: The Masai trying to stop a highway with a spear.

To the village they represent—where only 12 out of 6,000 residents own a vehicle—the highway gives nothing and takes all. “We are low in education and depend on the land,” said the chairman. “The highway will destroy our animals and forests. People will come from Arusha and all over and occupy our land.”

I glanced at a nearby house of unfinished concrete walls and a cow-dung roof. Across the front wall was an elaborate number, 128L-004, spray-painted in red. The chairman pointed to other houses. Soon it became clear: Every house had a number scrawled across its concrete portal. Even the school wore the red spray paint, which, the elders said, meant that their village would be decimated—the villagers would be turned into nomads once again.

On March 25, 500 people from the Masai village staged a protest over the highway. The elders told me it had absolutely no effect.

Sitting under that shade tree, I could see the end of things: the end of the Masai, the end of the Serengeti, the end of the wild, replaced by a highway leading to an Africa that is both modern and mundane. My heart went out to these Masai, with the demolition numbers on their homes and the highway ready to roar through their lives. But it also went out to the poor in other villages, landlocked from opportunity due to the lack of a road, and the endless expanse of imperiled Serengeti wildlife caught in between. It was yet another only-in-Africa situation, with no solution, or clear compromise, in sight.