Wildebeest Migration Threatened

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The annual wildebeest migration through Tanzania and Kenya is one of the world's greatest animal wonders. Some 1.2 million animals loop through the Serengeti and Masai Mara reserves, following the rain and the grass. Photographer Suzi Eszterhas documented the migration over a period of several years; her photos appeared recently in Smithsonian:

“In the dry season, you see them bunch up on the plains,” says Eszterhas. “The sky is empty except for one faraway rain cloud and—boom—within an hour they’re off in a mass, thousands of wildebeests moving as one, all heading for that single cloud. The earth shudders when they go—you feel their migration as much as you hear or see it."

Beyond being an awesome spectacle (and natural tourist draw), the wildebeests are a keystone species in this ecosystem. The sheer number of animals keeps tree seedlings from becoming established, preventing forests from encroaching on the grasslands. The animals' dung provides fertilizer for the grass species. The wildebeests themselves provide food for predators, including hyenas, lions, cheetahs and crocodiles. Without them, the grasslands and so many of the creatures we associate with Africa would disappear.

Which is why it is disturbing that the Tanzanian government plans to construct a highway through Serengeti National Park, thereby disrupting the migration. But that's exactly what they plan to do.

Conservation groups have pointed out that the planned highway would cut off the wildebeests from the Mara River, which is a critical source of water during the dry season, and keep the animals out of Kenya. The migration could end. “A commercial road would not only result in wildlife collisions and human injuries, but would serve to fragment the landscape and undermine the ecosystem in a variety of ways,” said Jonathan Baillie, director of conservation at the Zoological Society of London. “To diminish this natural wonder would be a terrible loss for Tanzania and all future generations.”

The road is meant to connect the inner part of Tanzania with the coast, providing a much-needed road for agricultural markets. But any of the benefits to the markets would surely be diminished by the cost to the ecosystem, wildlife and tourism. The Serengeti draws 90,000 tourists to Tanzania every year. Would you go if the wildlife wasn't there?

There is another option, a southern route for the highway that would actually serve more people currently cut off from the world. But the Tanzanian president has stated his support for the northern route and says construction will begin in 2012.

Wildlife in Africa already suffers from so many threats: expanding human populations, poaching, climate change. Surely we can find a way to promote development, however, without sacrificing nature. Because what would Africa be without lions and elephants and giraffes and impalas and cheetahs and, yes, wildebeests?

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