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I’m With Stupid – September 17, 2010

by Todd Hartley

Affluent Europeans and Americans who zip around their countries on massive, eight-lane superhighways were outraged recently when the impoverished nation of Tanzania announced its plans to build a highway through the southern part of the Serengeti plains.

“This highway will ruin one of the most magnificent sites on Earth!” cyber-shrieked someone on Facebook named Pia. “This is an urgent environmental issue.”

Indeed it is, Pia, who I can only assume is an expert in environmental issues and not some 16-year-old high school student tweeting from her car. Indeed it is.

What’s at stake is one of the world’s most spectacular and important wildlife habitats and migration corridors. The fabled grasslands of the Serengeti stretch from southern Kenya to northern Tanzania, and each year nearly two million wildebeest, zebra, gazelle and other herd animals trek from the northern hills to the southern plains and back in the largest mammal migration on the planet.

Ecologists fear that if the highway is built, it could have a drastic impact on the migration and threaten animal numbers, which in turn could harm the tourist industry on which so much of the region depends.

“Although this highway will be of considerable economic importance to Tanzania, and it will improve their human migration,” wrote Dnapes, a blogger from neighboring Kenya, “the opportunity cost to wildlife and to us in Kenya will be ruinous.”

Certainly, officials in Tanzania will have to rethink their plans for the highway, despite its being economically important for Tanzanians, if it will somehow be more ruinous to Kenyans than widespread rioting and murder sprees after every tainted election. That wouldn’t be very neighborly at all.

Might I posit, however, that the fears of Dnapes and other ecologists are somewhat unfounded. That is to say, I don’t think the highway is going to bother the animals all that much.

One of the major obstacles for the migrating animals each year is the Mara River, which they have to cross twice. It’s banks are steep and treacherous, and in the rainy season its strong current can sweep away young animals. And, oh yeah, it’s filled with crocodiles who spend all year waiting for wildebeest to try to swim across, contributing to the more than 250,000 of the beasts that die each year during the migration.

A highway, by comparison, requires good timing and a mad dash of no more than five seconds to negotiate. Somehow I don’t see that as too big of a problem.

What Tanzanians and others should fear, on the other hand, is that building this highway will have the same sort of impact that America’s road-building boom of the 20th century did. It’s estimated that in the early 1900s, when there were very few roads in America, the deer population in the United States was about 500,000. Now, with the world’s most extensive highway system, Americans kill roughly 1.5 million deer each year with their cars.

The overall population of deer in America today is thought to be somewhere between 25 million and 30 million. That’s 50 or 60 times as many deer as there were a hundred years ago. If Tanzania experiences a similar effect, those 2 million migrating animals will number more than 100 million by the turn of the next century. I don’t think Africa’s big enough to handle that much poop.

The good news is that Germany’s Frankfurt Zoological Society has proposed an alternate route for the highway, one that would cost less by connecting and widening existing roads, avoid disrupting the migration paths and also serve a greater number of Tanzanians.

Hopefully the Frankfurters will be able to convince the government of Tanzania to adopt their plan, because putting a highway through the Serengeti really would be a stupid thing to do and could have devastating — though probably not ruinous — effects on tourism.

If Tanzania is determined to stick with the current routing, however, might I propose something to all the concerned Westerners who take their own highways for granted until they have to deal with Third World roads: Instead of griping about this from afar and trying to deny Tanzanians something that would be economically important for them, get involved.

Throw some money at the project and build them an elevated highway like the Millau Viaduct in France. That would not only keep the animals safe and free to migrate where they choose, it would also be a cool tourist attraction itself. Just make sure they build it tall enough to accommodate giraffes.

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Todd Hartley

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09 2010

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