Serengeti migration commences – will it be one of the last?

by Apr 4, 2011Conservation Threats, Serengeti

The great herds of wildebeest are stirring again after the calving season in the low-grass plains between the Serengeti and Ngorongoro. The young wildebeest are now strong enough on their four feet to follow their mothers, as the age old trek in search of pastures once again begins. This migration has been happening in times of plenty and times of little for generations upon generations.

The great herds are starting their move en masse, final destination being the rich pastures of the Masai Mara in neighboring Kenya, which is part of the greater Serengeti trans-boundary ecosystem.

Between the end of March/beginning of April and late June/early July, when they are expected to cross the Mara river, the hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra have to run a gauntlet of predators, lions, cheetah, leopard, hyenas, foxes, and hunting dogs as they migrate through hostile territory.

Covering distances of hundreds of miles in the process, feeding only occasionally as their instincts drive the herds on, they fill parts of the Serengeti with life, which for much of the rest of the year lacks this spectacle. Normally, few animals are seen on game drives, until the wildebeest return in their constant cycle of searching for food and reproduction.

Conservation experts are watching the migration this year with bated breath, since the government of Tanzania has declared their intention to go ahead with a new highway across the migration route. The government has claimed the highway is “to serve the people,” but in reality, the highway will serve powerful mining interests. The mining activity will in turn in threaten the flamingo breeding grounds at Lake Natron where in particular gold mining brings with it a host of pollution problems. Many say Tanzania is ill equipped to deal with this mining activity and the government is risking the poisoning of large swathes of land around the mines and processing plants.

Water, already a limited resource, which will be used in mining operations for gold and other minerals in areas just outside the present boundaries of the Serengeti, will become even scarcer. This will, of course, affect people, livestock, and wildlife.

Once construction of the highway gets underway – although there is still some hope left that un-corruptible individuals tasked with the Environmental Impact Studies may put a halt to the plans – the path for the great migration will be irrevocably disturbed. The future of the migration in its present age old cycle of North to South to North to South may become a thing of the past.

Estimates presented by studies of globally-respected and renowned institutions with experience in monitoring the Serengeti/Masai Mara migration, speaks of a reduction of the herds to a fraction of their present size. This will likely cause yet greater damages to the ecosystem when the “natural lawn mowers” will no longer consume the grass. This will result in much greater fire risks and removing much of the natural fertilizer left behind by the herds as they move on.

Estimates of traffic development on the planned highway, in fact presented by government itself, show an alarming rise in traffic over the coming years and decades, making it all but clear that the highway will sooner or later be paved. If eventually fenced off to prevent animals from crossing it and causing accidents, then the great herds will be condemned to the loss of their annual feeding grounds in the Masai Mara. This will be the death knell for the great migration as we know it. As this year’s trek from the low grass plains back to the Masai Mara goes underway, it may well be the last one as we have known it.

The advice of this correspondent: Visit now as is may not be there for much longer in the future.