Elephants in the Serengeti

Elephants play in a mud hole in northern Serengeti National Park. Conservationists say poachers are killing as many as 30 elephants a day, mainly in the Selous National Game Reserve.

During President Obama’s African tour, anti-poaching activists hope he  will talk wildlife conservation strategy with President Jakaya Kikwete  of Tanzania when he visits the country July 1 and 2.

The issue is suddenly more pressing because Tanzania has earmarked funds in its 2013–14 national budget to plan and design a controversial gravel road across the northern sector of Serengeti National Park.

The on-again, off-again Serengeti Highway, which wildlife activists have been fighting for years, would link the Indian Ocean coast to Lake Victoria and beyond to Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, opening direct routes to ports and neighboring states for Tanzanian’s inland gold mines and soda ash extraction industry. But conservationists fear construction and industrial traffic will displace and devastate the annual migration of more than a million wildebeest, who calve at the southern end of the park from December through March and then follow rains north through the Serengeti into Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve, where the great herds have now begun arriving.

Although the German government and World Bank have offered to fund a longer paved southern road that would bypass the Serengeti completely, mining lobbies appear to back a northern shortcut.

The largest country in East Africa, Tanzania has put 28 percent of its landmass under protection for wildlife and nature conservation in 16 national parks and 32 game reserves. Its nature tourism is among the most diverse in Africa. You can climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, trek after chimpanzees on the shore of Lake Tanganyika, go on walking safaris in the immense Selous Game Reserve, and snorkel and scuba dive off the coast of Zanzibar.

Although tourism contributes $1.3 billion annually to Tanzania’s GDP, the country remains one of the world’s poorest. Some 80 percent of citizens rely on small-scale agriculture for a living, and road proponents argue that more efficient transportation networks, including a proposed railroad, would create jobs and reduce the poverty that has forced some communities living on park boundaries to turn (or turn a blind eye) to poaching. In the northern and western Serengeti, for example, the buffalo population has dropped from 70,000 head to 40,000 due to demand for bush meat, while the elephant population has fallen from 2,500 to just 500 in recent years. Conservationists argue that a combination of infrastructure development and demand for ivory and rhino horn from China is actually driving a far more widespread and lucrative illegal wildlife trade. Already 10,000 elephants are being killed for their tusks annually across Tanzania, more than in any other African nation, and the country is also a transit point for illegal ivory headed for Asian nations. Not only do improved transportation networks facilitate the export of wildlife contraband by international wildlife mafias, but they create opportunities for Chinese and foreign work crews contracted to build the roads in the first place to participate in ivory and other wildlife trafficking.

The challenge of pursuing development while protecting wildlife is not confined to Tanzania. Transnational highways and hydroelectric dams in Ethiopia, highways and a new Lamu port in Kenya, natural gas and oil discoveries in South Sudan and Uganda, and Rwandan aspirations to become Africa’s Silicon Valley are creating pressures on governments to make tough choices and on conservationists to fight cross-border poaching syndicates. While U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been diligently combatting the international ivory trade through its US$3 billion African Elephant Conservation Fund the U.S. also needs to balance the needs of the planet with African allies and trading partners.

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