It is called the Great Migration, and it is widely considered one of the most spectacular assemblies of animal life on the planet.
But how much longer it will stay that way is another matter. Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, plans to build a national highway straight through the Serengeti park, bisecting the migration route and possibly sending a thick stream of overloaded trucks and speeding buses through the traveling herds.
Scientists and conservation groups paint a grim picture of what could happen next: rare animals like rhinos getting knocked down as roadkill; fences going up; invasive seeds sticking to car tires and being spread throughout the park; the migration getting blocked and the entire ecosystem becoming irreversibly damaged.
“The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the wonders of the planet,” said Anne Pusey, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. “It must be preserved.”
But it is election time in Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, and Kikwete is embroiled in what political analysts say is the feistiest presidential race this country has seen. Few things symbolise progress better than a road; this road in particular, which will connect marginalised areas of northern Tanzania, has been one of Kikwete’s campaign promises.
“The decision’s been made,” said Salvator Rweyemamu, the president’s spokesman. “If this government comes back into power — and we will — the road will be built.”
He said Tanzania had done more to protect wildlife than most countries, and he added, with clear frustration at outsiders, that “you guys always talk about animals, but we need to think about people.”
Hundreds of thousands of people here depend on tourism for a living. And the Serengeti is like a giant ATM for Tanzania, attracting more than 100,000 visitors each year, producing millions of dollars in park fees and helping drive Tanzania’s billion-dollar safari business, an economic pillar. “If anything bad happens to the Serengeti,” said Charles Ngereza, a Tanzanian tour operator, “we’re finished.”
Most Tanzanians scrape by on the equivalent of a few dollars a day, so economic development is a pressing issue in the election, scheduled for Sunday. But corruption is a growing — and related — concern.
Kikwete’s ruling party has been widely accused of siphoning millions of dollars out of the treasury by awarding contracts to ghost companies. Perhaps no one in the campaign has better channeled voters’ frustrations over being poor while the ruling class is getting rich than Willibrod Slaa, a former Roman Catholic priest and legislator, who has crusaded against corruption for years and is now running for president, along with five other challengers.
Tanzania’s government is not accustomed to upstarts. The governing party, the Party of the Revolution, was formed in the 1970s as a continuation of the Socialist-leaning political party that brought Tanganyika independence in 1961, and it has dominated Tanzanian politics ever since.
But the government now seems to be worried. It recently threatened to close independent newspapers, and Kikwete refused to debate Slaa on television, sending his campaign manager instead. The government is also delaying opening universities until after the election, which means many students will not be able to vote and will be scattered across the country, not concentrated on campuses, should there be any trouble.
Kikwete’s green guards, the governing party’s youth wing, have attacked journalists and opposition supporters. Tanzania’s police, who rarely confront civil disobedience, have tear-gassed rowdy opposition rallies. This is one of the few African countries that has escaped civil war and ethnic violence, but some Tanzanians now wonder if their tradition of harmony will be tarnished.
“There’s no way this government can win this election in a clean shot,” said Azaveli Lwaitama, a political analyst at the University of Dar es Salaam, who predicted vote-rigging and possibly turmoil. “The masses are discontented. They’re seething for change.”
That may be true in the towns, but in rural areas, where most Tanzanians live, the president still has plenty of support. In Engare Sero, a village of 6,000 people, mostly Maasai herders, just about everyone interviewed said they would vote for him.
Engare Sero lies along the proposed 300-mile highway route, already marked by red paint on rocks. The only roads out here right now are spine-crunching gravel tracks. People here not only want the highway, said chief Loshipa Sadira, “but we’ve been praying for it for years.”
He rattled off the reasons: cheaper goods; getting to the hospital faster; being better connected to towns; and having a higher chance of someday getting electricity and cellphone service.
It is hard to argue with him. Loshipa and his family eke out a living herding cows in what is essentially a desert. There are fertile grasslands nearby. But they are mostly reserved for the animals.
This policy goes back to colonial times, when Maasai were summarily evicted from their lands for the sake of conservation. It has left many Maasai destitute, with young men now converging in the towns to hustle tanzanite, a semi-precious local stone, or to seek poor-paying jobs as night guards.
None of the leading conservation groups pressing Kikwete to reconsider say they are trying to block the national highway altogether; they just oppose it running through the Serengeti, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. Grass-roots groups are mobilising around the world, circulating petitions and setting up websites, like savetheserengeti.org.
Kikwete recently promised that the roughly 30-mile stretch through the park would not be tarmac but packed dirt, like the mainly tourist roads already in the park. But conservation groups say any major road would allow poachers to quickly get in, shoot the animals from the highway and get out.
Scientists say the ecological damage is very hard to predict but potentially enormous. During the annual migration, the wildebeest produce more than 800,000 pounds of dung — per day — which nourishes the grasslands. If the highway fragments that migration and makes the wildebeest turn back, “the whole ecosystem could crash,” said Bernard Kissui, a research scientist for the African Wildlife Foundation.
He spoke of a cascading effect on the lions, leopards, birds, plants, all interconnected in an ecological web that has been relatively undisturbed for eons.
The World Bank looked into financing such a highway around 20 years ago and rejected it, partly for environmental reasons. Western scientists have recently come up with an alternative route south of the park, which they say will link up more towns and spare the wildlife.
But the Tanzanian government is not biting. Tanzanian officials say that the original route through the park is better, that construction will start soon and that if no donors will pay the approximately half billion dollars for the road, they will build it themselves. “We are Tanzanians,” Rweyemamu said. “We know where the people are. The research has been done.”