Saving Serengeti

A photographer’s call to preserve a world treasure

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.

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.

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.

Despite these threats, Norton has hope that an international outcry can stop the transportation corridor as currently proposed through Serengeti. The ultimate authority on deciding whether or not to build the highway rests with the government of Tanzania. And even though Serengeti National Park is designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Tanzania has the final say. In 2010, Norton co-founded Serengeti Watch (, a tax-deductible nonprofit organization. The group has raised funds to help with legal costs for a lawsuit seeking to halt the highway filed in the East African Court of Justice by the African Network for Animal Welfare. As of press time, the lawsuit is awaiting trial. Serengeti Watch also has helped fund a Tanzanian environmental group to organize grassroots support for preserving Serengeti. Long term, Norton hopes to fund projects in media, journalism and education that help young Tanzanians have a voice in charting the future direction of their country.

“Tanzanians used to pride themselves on conservation, but today’s leaders have focused on exploitation and development,” says Norton. “Current generations haven’t been exposed to the benefits of conservation, and Serengeti Watch aims to rebuild that conservation ethic by building local grassroots support.”

Norton is no stranger to fighting environmental battles. Throughout his 40-year career, he has worked tirelessly and played a key role in establishing several wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountains, new national parks in Alaska and a World Heritage Site in Russia’s Lake Baikal. At age 76, one might think he’d be in retirement mode, idly spending his days in search of wildflowers to photograph. What keeps him going?

“Wilderness and the incredible diversity of life it supports enrich our lives,” he says. “Without it, we would be such a poor global society. Serengeti can survive if the world wills it to survive.”

Boyd Norton is a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. He’s the author of 16 critically acclaimed books, including Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning. His work has appeared in TIME, National Geographic, Audubon, Natural History and other publications. See more of his work at Amy Gulick is an American nature and wildlife photographer. She’s one of the founding Fellows of the International League of Conservation Photographers.