Every spring, in Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, an endless sheet of yellow grass,
two million wildebeest, zebras, gazelles and other grazers march north in search of greener pastures,
with lions and hyenas stalking them and vultures circling above.
It is called the Great Migration, and it is widely considered one of the most spectacular assemblies of animal life on the planet.
But how much longer it will stay that way is another matter.
Tanzania’s president, Jakaya Kikwete, plans to build a national highway straight through the Serengeti park, bisecting the migration route,
and possibly sending a thick stream of overloaded trucks and speeding buses through the traveling herds.
Scientists and conservation groups paint a grim picture of what could happen next:
* rare animals like rhinos getting knocked down as roadkill;
* fences going up;
* invasive seeds sticking to car tires and being spread throughout the park;
* the migration getting blocked; and
* the entire ecosystem becoming irreversibly damaged.
“The Serengeti ecosystem is one of the wonders of the planet,” said Anne Pusey, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. “It must be preserved.”
But few things symbolize progress better than a road;
this road in particular, which will connect marginalized areas of northern Tanzania, had been one of Mr. Kikwete’s campaign promises.
“The decision’s been made,” said Salvator Rweyemamu, the president’s spokesman.
He said Tanzania has done more to protect wildlife than most countries,
and he added, with clear frustration at outsiders, that
“you guys always talk about animals, but we need to think about people.”
At the same time, hundreds of thousands of people here depend on tourism for a living.
And the Serengeti is like a giant A.T.M. for Tanzania, attracting more than 100,000 visitors each year,
producing millions of dollars in park fees and helping drive Tanzania’s billion-dollar safari business, an economic pillar.
“If anything bad happens to the Serengeti,” said Charles Ngereza, a Tanzanian tour operator, “we’re finished.”
Most Tanzanians scrape by on the equivalent of a few dollars a day, so economic development is a pressing issue.
But corruption is a growing — and related — concern.
Mr. Kikwete’s ruling party has been widely accused of siphoning millions of dollars out of the treasury by awarding contracts to ghost companies.
Perhaps no one has better channeled voters’ frustrations over being poor while the ruling class is getting rich
than Willibrod Slaa, a former Roman Catholic priest and legislator who has crusaded against corruption for years and ran for president last year, along with five other challengers.
Tanzania’s government is not accustomed to upstarts.
The governing party, the Party of the Revolution, was
formed in the 1970s as a continuation of the Socialist-leaning political party that brought Tanganyika independence in 1961,
and it has dominated Tanzanian politics ever since.
Mr. Kikwete’s green guards, the governing party’s youth wing, have attacked journalists and opposition supporters.
Tanzania’s police, who rarely confront civil disobedience, have tear-gassed rowdy opposition rallies.
This is one of the few African countries that has escaped civil war and ethnic violence,
but some Tanzanians now wonder if their tradition of harmony will be tarnished.
“The masses are discontented. They’re seething for change,” said Azaveli Lwaitama, a political analyst at the University of Dar es Salaam.
That may be true in the towns, but in rural areas, where most Tanzanians live, the ruling party still has plenty of support.
One of them is Engare Sero, a village of 6,000 people, mostly Maasai herders,
that lies along the proposed 300-mile highway route, already marked by red paint on rocks.
The only roads out here right now are spine-crunching gravel tracks.
People here not only want the highway, said chief Loshipa Sadira, “but we’ve been praying for it for years.”
He rattled off the reasons:
* cheaper goods;
* getting to the hospital faster;
* being better connected to towns; and
* having a higher chance of someday getting electricity and cellphone service.
It is hard to argue with him.
Mr. Loshipa and his family eke out a living herding cows in what is essentially a desert.
There are fertile grasslands nearby.
But they are mostly reserved for the animals.
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