The Serengeti at a crossroads

Is there a better option to paving a highway through the middle of the Serengeti and disrupting the greatest land migration on Earth? The conflict between conservation and development is something we have touched on at Naturally Speaking before—here at the Institute our researchers understand that a fine balance between the two must be achieved. However, when Dr Grant Hopcraft, Prof. Markus Borner and their collaborators heard about the proposed Serengeti road they knew there must be a better option. In this edition of  Naturally Speaking reports we look at how changing the route could not only protect the park, but also bring greater economic and social benefit to the people.

The Serengeti’s current roads are a little rough. Geof Wilson [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr.

The Serengeti at a crossroads


The Serengeti National Park in Tanzania is one of the world’s greatest unspoilt environments, hosting incredible biodiversity and the largest remaining animal migration on Earth (at least on land). Known to millions through wildlife documentaries and seen by thousands of tourists every year from open-topped safari vehicles, the stunning Serengeti has been protected as a national park since 1981. However, new infrastructure proposals have raised concerns that this unique landscape may one day be viewed against a backdrop of speeding transport trucks.

A few weeks ago, Naturally Speaking brought you news of an exciting new venture being spearheaded by the Institute’s Dr Grant Hopcraft, who is part of a team developing a mobile app that tourists can use to track wildebeest. A landscape ecologist, Hopcraft is interested in the migratory movements of the roughly 1.3 million wildebeest and 250,000 zebra in the Serengeti. However, conservationists are worried that this migration may be under threat from a proposed highway that, if allowed to proceed, will cut the park in two.

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While the Tanzanian economy has seen 5–7% growth each year for the last decade, much of the country still suffers crippling poverty. An estimated 44.9 million people, 74% of the population, live below the poverty line. Despite this, Tanzania is well placed to become a commercial hub for East Africa, with a long coastline and shared borders with eight trading neighbours, five of which are landlocked. Building new infrastructure is seen as integral for catalysing economic development, and new roads are essential—only 6.7% of the country’s 103,706km of roads are paved.

The proposed highway through the Serengeti would link the business capital of Dar es Salaam with ports on Lake Victoria, and facilitate transportation connections to Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda. However, this road would bisect the park, and with an initial estimate of 3,000 vehicles using it a day, the impact on migratory wildlife could be devastating. In fact, for a host of reasons the Serengeti Route may actually be the worst option.

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In a recent paper in PLoS ONE, Hopcraft and Prof. Markus Borner (also with the Institute), together with Tanzanian colleagues (Gerald Bigurube and James Lembeli), showed that a road circumnavigating the Serengeti—as opposed to bisecting it—would bring substantially larger social, economic and health benefits to the Tanzanian people. At the same time, this would allay widespread fears that the highway would be both ecologically damaging and significantly disruptive to the annual wildebeest migration. These concerns are serious: Tanzania’s natural landscape and wildlife attracts £1.28 billion of tourism revenue per year, and the road could seriously jeopardize the exclusive Serengeti product Tanzania currently markets.

The study compared the social and economic returns of three possible transportation routes: the proposed Serengeti road and two others that pass to the south of the park via Lake Eyasi and Lake Mbulu. They found that the routes going around Serengeti National Park access twice as many people as the route through it, connecting more than 900,000 economically active people in several economic hubs with 700,000 unemployed people. By comparison, the Serengeti Route has around 55% of the economic activity of either alternative route, and fewer than half the number of unemployed people.

The three proposed routes. White arrows: Path of wildebeest migration. Adapted from Hopcraft et al. (2015) PLOSone.
The three proposed routes. White arrows: Path of wildebeest migration. Adapted from Hopcraft et al. (2015) PLoS ONE.

In particular, the Mbulu Route connects the highest number of unemployed people to regional economic hubs, and the largest labour force to the most entrepreneurial businesses. It would also dramatically improve national food security as it opens up the most fertile crop and livestock production areas, has the largest potential for future agricultural developments and links several regional supply chains. If that were not enough, the Mbulu Route also connects the most schools and hospitals and makes the greatest contribution towards improving social welfare—it has twice as many school children as the Serengeti Route as well as the largest populations of children living in low-income rural areas.

The Serengeti Route, by contrast, requires the most extensive paving at the highest overall cost while contributing the least to a national transportation network and connecting the fewest people with opportunity. It accomplishes all this whilst jeopardizing wildlife and tourism, derailing one of Tanzania’s most effective sources of revenue.

“It is important to remain objective about issues of national development, especially in relation to wildlife conservation,” says Hopcraft. “The central question is: Which route would provide the greatest returns to Tanzania’s economy and social well-being without compromising the ecological integrity and services provided by the Serengeti?”

It seems as though the choice is simple: the Mbulu Route provides the best economic potential. So why is there such strong pressure for the Serengeti Route?

The strongest driving factor is most likely that the Serengeti Route would be the shortest at just 548 km, compared to the 628 km Eyasi Route and the significantly longer Mbulu Route (691 km). In terms of new road paving, there is not much in it: Serengeti would need 428 km of new road, Eyasi 332 km and Mbulu 403 km. While the Serengeti Route would require the most fuel due to incline, the shorter distance may mean that time is more valuable than petrol. However, here is where the argument fails. Unless restrictions on speed limits within the park (50km/hr) and a ban on nighttime driving are removed—a worrying possibility if the proposal goes ahead—the Serengeti Road is actually slightly longer than the Eyasi Route, and only 45 min shorter than the Mbulu Route. The alternative roads would also be accessible for 24 hr a day, rather than just the 12 hr of daylight.

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For now, the plans for a Serengeti road are on hold following a ruling in July 2014 by the East African Court of Justice against the building of asphalt roads through the national park. However, the Tanzanian Government still intends to pave the roads up to the park boundaries, while upgrading the tourist tracks inside the park to two lane all-season gravel roads. Conservationists and international development agencies worry that, with asphalt roads on each side of the park, the Government will eventually yield to pressure to complete the route and forego the opportunity for a far more economically viable option around the ecosystem.

Hopcraft and his colleagues are not idealists; they understand the need for a transportation backbone through Tanzania. However, their work makes it clear that the proposed route through the Serengeti National Park is the worst of all options. While conservation and national development schemes can often seem at logger heads, and are sometimes considered to be mutually exclusive, this kind of detailed comparative analysis shows that this does not need to be the case. By taking such an approach, solutions can be found that satisfy all major stakeholders, whilst at the same time protecting fragile and unique ecosystems. Perhaps, just like with the Mbulu Route, you may even find a solution that exceeds all expectations.


NaturallySpeakingreports with thanks to: Dr Grant Hopcraft, Stuart Forsyth, James Burgon, Karen Hotopp & Jim Caryl.

Hopcraft, J., Bigurube, G., Lembeli, J., & Borner, M. (2015). Balancing Conservation with National Development: A Socio-Economic Case Study of the Alternatives to the Serengeti Road PLOS ONE, 10 (7) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130577

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