God’s Own Country – the Serengeti

Posted in: Conservation, Editorial, Environment, Wildlife
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Perhaps no other place is more globally recognized as a symbol of the African continent’s true natural beauty than the Serengeti, Tanzania’s oldest national reserve. Regardless of the countless documentaries one may have seen showcasing a million wildebeest making their way across the vast Serengeti savanna on their annual pilgrimage, the spectacle never ceases to amaze. We watch mesmerized the struggle these wild animals go through with death and life going hand in hand as thousands of calves are born daily while many of the animals fall prey to the hunting lion prides reminding us of the all important rule of life – survival of the fittest!

Serengeti means an ‘extended place’

Located in the north of Tanzania, the Serengeti National Park extends into neighboring Kenya where it is referred to as the Masai Mara. Incidentally, the term Serengeti means an ‘extended place’ in the Masai language.  The park which is 14,763 sq km (5,700 sq miles) in size, is home to animals like rhinoceros, giraffes, zebras, gazelles, buffalos, elephants, gazelles, hyena; smaller animals like the gaudy agama lizards, rock hyraxes  dung beetles, and more than 500 species of birds including the ostrich and black eagle. In summers the sun-burnt savannah plains grant a golden hue to the grasslands for as far as the eye can see and in the rainy season (March- May) life springs eternal with endless expanses of grass, thick bushes and wildflowers.

Ironically, it was deemed suitable to be classified as a National Park in 194O because the land was found to be unproductive for European miners and farmers; although the reservation of the land was met with violent protests by the Masai people who felt that their interests had been disregarded to protect the animals and flora and fauna. In 1959 ‘Serengeti Shall Not Die’ a wildlife film by German conservationist Professor Bernhard Grzimek and his son Michael on the migrating herds (which also won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature) brought to the fore the epic beauty of the land and the need to conserve it.

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Effects of illegal hunting. A wire snare around the neck of an elephant. Photo: B KatlenBorn; Source: Review Article ‘Serengeti Shall not Die’ by Jafari R. Kideghesho (2010)

 Facing Clear & Present Danger

Tanzania has among the highest percentage (if not the highest) of protected land compared to other countries, with 38% of its territory having been earmarked for conservation since independence in 1961.  Undoubtedly a lot has changed since then.  Growing population in areas surrounding the Serengeti National Park (population of Tanzania is expected to exceed 51 million by 2016 compared to 10 million at the time of independence), rising poverty and failure to adequately address concerns of the local population has led to illegal hunting and destruction of surrounding wildlife habitat putting immense pressure on the  Serengeti ecological system. It is estimated that 40000 animals a year are killed by people living around the Serengeti. Growth of eco-tourism has resulted in construction of hotels, which poses problems of its own. While the human-wildlife conflict is a known problem facing reserves all over the world, the Serengeti is facing graver danger in the form of proposed large scale development projects that will literally cut right through the heart of it!

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Lions at Serengeti National Park (credit: Lincoln Park Zoo)

One such project that has been slammed by conservation organizations is a proposed 53-kilometre long commercial highway that will pass through the northern section of the Serengeti National Park, which if constructed will cross paths with the annual migration of the wildebeests. The Chinese government has expressed interest in supporting the Tanzanian government in this project. A visit by China’s new premier Xi Jinping to Tanzania in March earlier this year foretells ominous times ahead for the Serengeti. An impact study by Tanzanian government estimated there will be 800 vehicles a day by the year 2015, and 3,000 vehicles a day by 2035 passing through the National Park if the highway were to be constructed. This would spell disastrous consequences for the Serengeti habitat. Besides hindering the great migration, it will increase human access to hitherto restricted areas and lead to higher poaching, hunting, accidental killing of migratory animals and higher demand for resources such as fuel wood, bush meat and land. Also equally worrying is a proposal by the Tanzanian Government to build a $350 million airport adjacent to the Serengeti.

Call of the Wild – Efforts to Save the Serengeti

A 2010 paper written by Jafari R. Kideghesho (Tropicalconservationscience.org) offers valuable insight into efforts that must be made to save the Serengeti. These include ensuring active participation of local communities in natural resources management, taking efforts towards inducing positive attitudes towards wildlife conservation, finding production methods that are less damaging to the environment of the Serengeti and taking steps to check population growth in the surrounding areas.

The Lincoln Zoo Park is involved in initiatives to safeguard the health of not only the animals of the Serengeti but also its people. Its Serengeti Vaccination Campaign has inoculated more than a million dogs to prevent the spread of rabies amongst the people. Serengeti Wildlife Surveillance involves monitoring of the health of the predators of the Serengeti by collecting blood samples and keeping a check on the spread of diseases such as rabies and distemper among the animals.

Serengeti Watch’ has emerged as a significant global initiative to save the Serengeti from the construction of the commercial highway.  Formed under the auspices of the Earth Island Institute  (a highly recognized non-profit organization which for the last three decades has sought to work towards finding a solution to some of the world’s most pressing environmental and social issues) Serengeti Watch has been instrumental in raising global awareness on the issue as well as in putting mounting pressure on the Tanzanian government to shelf its plans. Besides regular updates on their website and Facebook fan page which has more than 50000 followers, it is helping raise funds to fight the legal case filed by the Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), a Kenya nonprofit organization, before the East African Court of Justice against the Tanzanian government’s decision to construct the highway.

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This is a picture of Hanna who wanted to contribute to saving the Serengeti by donating all the money in her piggybank. Unwittingly, she has become the symbol of a campaign to raise money for the Serengeti Watch cause.

National parks of Tanzania are global natural heritages that need to be preserved at all costs. Over the last few decades there have been constant efforts by the international scientific community, conservationists, governments and media to bring focus on the eminent dangers of modern civilization to the wildlife of Serengeti and indeed the indigenous Masai people. The Serengeti is even recognized as a U.N World Heritage Site.  The outcome of the ANAW case and our ability or inability to save this remarkable setting will have an important bearing on the future of natural reserves elsewhere and perhaps the world as we know it. However, with the Tanzanian government showing no signs of abandoning its ambitious infrastructural projects and its refusal to sign the Trans-Boundary Ecosystem Bill, the question yet again presents itself – will the Serengeti survive?

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You can help the Serengeti have a fighting chance by supporting the legal battle being waged against the Tanzanian Government. To know more visit Serengeti Watch

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