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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Saving Serengeti

A photographer’s call to preserve a world treasure

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Some 1.5 million wildebeest and half a million zebras make the annual migration each year in search of food and water. These scenes have attracted photographers and captured the awe of the world.
"There's something about Serengeti that moves people," says Norton. "Being there is like stepping back in time and seeing the world when it was young."

Perhaps being there also resonates with people on a deeper, more cellular level. Most scientists agree that humankind originated in southeastern Africa, and there's ample evidence to support this single-origin theory.

"I think we have a genetic memory that this is where we came from," says Norton. "We're all Africans, and being there affects people in that way."

So a trip to Serengeti can be likened to a homecoming welcomed by a parade of wildlife not seen anywhere else. Norton says that the eastern shortgrass plains of Serengeti can be filled "wall to wall" with upwards of two million animals during the Great Migration. He likes to remind people that it's similar to what North America's Great Plains looked like 200 to 300 years ago. An estimated 30 to 60 million animals, including the American bison and pronghorn antelope, once roamed a 500,000-square-mile swath of land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. When Norton tells his African guides that people purposefully killed North America's version of Serengeti, they look at him in disbelief and ask why anyone would do such a thing.

The commercial transportation corridor proposed for the region would cut across the northern part of Serengeti National Park and through the adjacent Loliondo Game Controlled Area. This east-west transportation corridor could see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of commercial trucks per day slicing through the north-south wildlife corridor of the Great Migration. While the Serengeti ecosystem encompasses 10,000 square miles—almost three times the size of Yellowstone National Park—every square inch of it needs to remain intact to support the life cycles that have existed for countless millennia. A highway would fragment the habitat and alter the movement of animals, with devastating impacts.

The migrations are integral parts of the vast and complex Serengeti ecosystem. The well-being of plants and animals at the base of the ecosystem, as well as apex predators like this lion pride, are all at risk if the migrations are disrupted. All photos: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
"The animals migrate because they have to follow the rains to get fresh grass and water," says Norton. "When you have millions of animals trying to move from one area to another crossing a highway, the number of animals hit and killed would be enormous. If this happens frequently, the number of trucks damaged would be costly and would also slow the transport of goods. The next logical step would be to build a fence to prevent animal-vehicle collisions. But a fence would cut off the migration. Many animals would die from overgrazing and lack of water, and we'd see a ripple effect up and down the food chain."

In addition to animal-vehicle conflicts, the highway would open up an avenue for poachers seeking animal hides, parts and sought-after ivory. The hefty sums paid for rhinoceros horn on the black market—about $65,000 per kilo, or $30,000 per pound—would attract organized crime operations that are usually involved in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and humans. A highway would also bring an influx of people whose settlements, farms and activities would impact the land and wildlife. A degraded ecosystem would lead to fewer visitors as the Great Migration falls apart and loses its attraction for tourism, which currently generates $1.8 billion a year and employs 600,000 people in Tanzania.


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