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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Saving Serengeti


A photographer’s call to preserve a world treasure

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Wildebeest and zebras on the Serengeti Plains during migration. A population of two million migratory animals may be decimated by a proposed highway and railroad.

Serengeti.
The Maasai call it siringet, which means extended or endless, a place that goes on forever. The United Nations calls it a World Heritage Site. Photographer Boyd Norton calls it The Eternal Beginning, the title of his recent book. But he also calls it threatened.

Africa's Serengeti ecosystem, a region in northern Tanzania and southwestern Kenya encompassing an area the size of Massachusetts, is home to the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world. Each year, some two million wildebeest, zebras and other herbivores make a 300-mile round-trip journey that has come to be known as the Great Migration. The grazing animals move in search of fresh water and grasses. Predators like lions and hyenas feed on this massive smorgasbord of moving prey.


A leopard sits on a kopje in Serengeti.
Photographers from all over the world flock here to witness one of the planet's greatest spectacles. But a proposed commercial transportation corridor, consisting of a paved highway and a potential rail line, would slice through Serengeti National Park and other protected areas, disrupting the migration and opening the region to poaching and settlements. Norton, who has been traveling to the region for nearly three decades, says the transportation corridor is the single greatest threat to the park in its entire history.

"Imagine snipping a hole in a beautiful tapestry and watching it unravel," says Norton. "If this transportation corridor is built, it will unravel the entire Serengeti ecosystem."

As a child growing up in the 1940s, Norton's first exposure to Africa was through books and Saturday afternoon matinees watching short features made by early explorers and filmmakers Martin and Osa Johnson. He hoped that if he ever had the opportunity to travel to Africa there would be something left of the wildness and wildlife. Fast-forward to 1984 when, Norton says, "It took me about two milliseconds to say 'yes' when asked to lead photo trips to Tanzania and Kenya.

"My first time to Serengeti was just mind-boggling. It was everything I had ever read about and imagined," he recalls. "It's one of those 'gee-whiz' places that no matter how many times you go there, it's just absolutely incredible. It's not just the sights, but the sounds and smells, too. The smell of earth after a rain or the smell of carrion on the plains. The sound of birds or wind blowing through the grass. And there's nothing like hearing a lion roar outside your tent at night to dig deep into your DNA and bring out primal fears."

Norton encourages people on his photo trips to put their cameras down once in a while and just absorb the place. Many people tell him that visiting Serengeti is a life-changing experience. He likes to tell a story that friend Jim Fowler related to him. A zoologist, Fowler is best known for his role as the cohost of the television show Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Fowler also made regular appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, bringing various wild animals on the show for many years. Fowler became good friends with Johnny Carson and offered to take him on safari to Serengeti. Carson didn't travel much, particularly to wild places, and at the end of the safari, he said to Fowler with tears in his eyes, "This has changed my life." Carson returned to the region numerous times.

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