The Serengeti natural heritage area is in acute danger.
The potential collapse of the region's ecosystem could have even worse consequences than the cattle plague epidemic of the 1890s, which was introduced through domesticated animals and killed off more than 90% of the wildlife population. During the course of the following 70 years, human interference in the area was kept to a minimum and the wildlife population slowly returned to its previous strength.
Now, in 2010, the threat is not disease, but instead a road-building project that values economic interests above the lives of more than two million animals.
The planned Serengeti Highway will cut the Mara ecosystem in the northern Serengeti into two. In order to preserve the Serengeti's status as a natural heritage area, the plan is to build the road in a closed corridor within the Serengeti National Park.
This would, however, make the highway an insurmountable barrier for the 1.5 million ungulates that migrate to the Masai Mara every year in their search for food during the dry season.
Scientists predict that the loss of the Masai Mara food reserves would have dramatic effects on the animal population, starving more than 80% of the indigenous ungulates, including the gnus that are so important to the balance of nature in the region.
The ecosystem would simply collapse.
The region's predators are one of its main attractions, but their survival depends on the availability of sufficient prey. In the case of a disappearing gnu population, it is likely that their behaviour would reverse the dynamics of the food chain, and that they would hunt the remaining ungulates to a point at which the population could no longer recover.
Thanks to the efforts of Bernhard Grzimek, the Serengeti stood for decades under the direct protection of the Tanzanian government, a number of international conservation agencies and the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany. The society has not only collected and donated large sums of money over the last 50 years, but also sponsors a team of scientists who help the Tanzanian authorities to coordinate their conservation efforts and keep tourism at an ecologically sustainable level.
Unfortunately, Tanzania is increasingly becoming the target of international investors who see sustainable tourism as a hindrance to profit. The same economic interests that have in the last thirty years led to the destruction of more than 50% of the Earth's remaining natural habitats are now beginning to take hold in Tanzania. The Serengeti seems destined to be sacrificed to profit the same way as the Asian rain forests and, more recently, the Gulf of Mexico.
In order to make the Serengeti more appealing to tourism investment, a previous plan to develop the existing road that skirts the Serengeti to the south and links the urban centres around Lake Victoria to ports on the Indian Ocean has been shelved in favour of a new plan to build a highway straight through the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem to the north, even though the plan to improve the existing road makes more economic and ecological sense.
Plans also exist to build an international airport at the border of the Serengeti, which would, of course, further accelerate the destruction of the area's natural environment and ruin the vehicle-based tourism trade based in Arusha, doing considerable damage to Tanzania's national finances in the process.
The post-collapse Serengeti would most probably consist of small, fenced-in private parks built on the same pattern as those already operating in southern Africa, which are designed primarily to part well-heeled tourists from their money. The remaining 20,000 square kilometres could then be used to create monoculture plantations for producing biodiesel, finally ruining the rest of the Serengeti.
Only worldwide protest can save the last intact ungulate migratory grounds on Earth from destruction. We cannot afford to sacrifice millions of years of evolution to short-term profits. Experience has shown that once the money moves on, only devastation remains.
The savannah of the Serengeti has been the fount of life for man and beast since ancient times, and is quite possibly the ancestral "Garden of Eden" that is so firmly anchored in our mythology and our human subconscious.
The destruction of the Serengeti would not only mean the end of a wildlife paradise on Earth, but also the death of an important part of our human identity. The Olduvai Gorge in the southern Serengeti is known throughout the world as the "Cradle of Mankind".
Due to the temporary nature of food supplies in prehistoric times, the primates that populated the region had to learn to walk in order to find food. Those primates were our ancestors.
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