Serengeti highway proposal reopened

The debate about how to connect East Africa's Lake Victoria region, Central Africa's populous bread basket, with major coastal cities in Kenya and Tanzania, is back in the news, weeks after a controversial proposal to build a highway through the environmentally sensitive Serengeti-Mara ecoystem appeared to have been shelved for good. 

Tanzania's president, back from a recent visit to Kenya, said the project is back on, according to reports in several Nairobi newspapers.

That's discouraging news for conservation groups like Friends of Serengeti, as well as field biologists who study the annual Serengeti wildebeest migration.

There are fears that a highway — let alone construction of that highway, which in itself would take months — will stall the annual migration of nearly 2 million animals dead in its tracks.

More importantly to stakeholders, including countless Maasai (the proper spelling, by the way) in Kenya who make their living  from the tourism industry, a highway could prevent the wildebeest and zebra from their crossing into Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve. That would have a devastating effect on the carnivore population, including already endangered lions, cheetahs and, to a lesser extent, leopards. Quite apart from the issue of lost tourist revenue, which could well drive a dramatic increase in poaching and illegal hunting for bushmeat, the entire Mara ecosystem could crash.

Alarmist thinking, or simple reasoning? Where nature and the environment, these things can be impossible to predict, though recent history in other parts of wild Africa — the much-maligned "buffalo fence" in Botswana, for example — suggests the results could be catastrophic. In Botswana, instead of turning around and going back where they came from, thousands of migrating wildebeest simply lied down where they were, and died.

Why should we care? Serengeti-Mara, after all, is just one ecosystem, in one part of Africa.

Well, we should care not just because Serengeti is a household name in the West — and a UNESCO World Heritage site — but because the issue itself represents Africa in microcosm: Large, growing populations of people in economically deprived rural areas who need easier access to markets in major cities and ocean-going sea ports on international trade routes.

Another Serengeti highway proposal in Tanzania, this one through the centre of the park, is designed  to connect the coastal capital of Dar es Salaam with the national capital of Dodoma, which is more-or-less in the centre of the country.

It's impossible to say at this time how these controversies will play out. Africa's economy is growing so fast, though —  both rural and urban populations — that something has to give  somewhere.

Environmental groups like Friends of Serengeti and tourism officials in Kenya are determined that not come at the expense of one of the world's last remaining wildlife migrations. There are precedents for both outcomes: A proposed dam on the Namibia-Angola border that could have had dire consequences on the Okavango Delta region was recently scrapped; the controversial  Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the Benishangui-Gumuz region of the Blue Nile is currently under construction, despite protests from Egypt, further up the Nile.

Time will tell.