Threats Facing the Serengeti

The Serengeti ecosystem extends beyond the boundaries of the park and adjacent protected areas, into surrounding farms, villages, and towns. Ultimately, people and wildlife share this extended ecosystem and their fates are intertwined.

We have divided threats under categories of Natural Ecology and Human Ecology.  Both are interconnected and amplify each other. And under Human Ecology, there is one underlying driver, Population Growth. 

We focus on Human Ecology

Natural Ecology Threats

  1. Climate Change

Climate Change is predicted to have a disproportionate effect in East Africa and will impact the Serengeti ecosystem.

The impact is already happening in the Serengeti ecosystem:

  • More frequent and severe droughts affect the productivity of Serengeti grassland and its ability to sustain large herds of herbivores.
  • Drought affects the level of the Mara River, the lifeblood of the Serengeti migration.
  • Increased competition for water, resulting in dams that will reduce or dry up the river. Population growth combined with drought is increasing the demand for crops, which will require even more water.
  • A prolonged or heavy rainy season may alter the normal seasonal movement of the large herds of wildebeest and zebra. They may stay in one region longer and disperse over a wider area instead moving on their usual mass migration toward wetter regions.
  • The effects of climate change are growing and have the potential to set back socio-economic gains and drive more people into poverty. Wildlife conservation under such circumstances would politically have to take a back seat.
  1. Poaching & Deforestation

Releasing a snared wildebeest

This is widespread along the boundaries of the Serengeti, particularly on the western side. Primarily bush meat hunting by local people as a source of protein, it is extensive. A recent study estimates an annual offtake of 97,000-140,000 wildebeest a year. This is growing. And according to the Serengeti National Park Warden, William Mwakilema, poaching for bush meat “has advanced from a subsistence to a commercial level.” Added to this, there is a substantial threat from organized wildlife gangs that trade in rhino horn, elephant ivory, and even cheetahs and giraffe.

Tanzania is also losing huge areas of forest to both local people seeking energy and to organized logging gangs who ship away wood for construction and furniture. This is true of areas around the Serengeti, and also to the Mau Forest in Kenya, which is the catchment area for the Mara River.

  1. Water

Lack of water is perhaps the most critical threat, especially in Kenya, as the entire Serengeti ecosystem and migration is dependent on the Mara River. It is experiencing reduced flow from the Mau Forest highlands, which serve as a catchment for the Mara and other important rivers. New dams and forest destruction are going to reduce the flow even more.

The big threat, Kenya is planning a series of hydro and irrigation dams upstream of the Mara River, lifeblood of the migration, the only source of water during the dry season. Simply stated, if the Mara dries, the migration will die. One study predicts 30% wildlife mortality per week. That is what will surely happen if these dam projects go through. And construction of one of the key dams is imminent.

A simple formula: P+W+C = 0. Population growth + Demand for water + Climate Change = Drying of the Mara River and collapse of the Serengeti ecosystem

Water presents a zero-sum game, a winner and a loser. It’s certain that the basic human need for water will bring retention dams and irrigation projects. This demand will grow as the population around the Mara continues to expand at an exponential rate. As climate change brings more frequent and longer droughts, it will force decisions on how to allocate available water: for people or for wildlife. These dams ensure there will simply not be enough for both.  In times of drought, it could mean deciding on diverting water to people or wildlife.

  1. Invasive Species

Introduced, invasive plants and insects can wreak havoc on an ecosystem. And microbes can decimate wildlife. The Serengeti is at risk for this, as a recent study concludes:

We predict that in the absence of efforts to contain, or reverse the spread of invasive alien plants, the condition of rangelands will deteriorate, with severe negative impacts on migrating large mammals, especially wildebeest, zebra and gazelles.”

There are often ways to combat invasive species, but it takes vigilance, expertise, and funding. In some cases, invasive species can change entire ecosystems and there is little to combat them.

Microbes can be even more serious. Canine distemper jumped from domestic dogs around the Serengeti to lions, causing the death of about 30% of the lion population. It now is being spread by other carnivores, such as jackals and foxes.

  1. Land Fragmentation & Degradation from Farming and Livestock

It’s happening all over East Africa, the number of domestic livestock around the Serengeti has increased dramatically, often by wealthy, absent land owners. Pasture is being overgrazed and farmland spread thin, not allowed to lie fallow and replenish because of the constant need for more food. Data from NASA satellites shows this pattern throughout Africa. This introduces the prospect of food scarcity or famine on a large scale as population grows. See the population discussion below. As more land is devoted to farming, livestock, and settlement, there is a corresponding fragmentation of the natural ecosystem, especially from fencing and roads.

Human Ecology Threats

  1. The Tsunami of Population Growth  

Serengeti means “endless plains” in the Ma language. But this far from true. The Serengeti is an island in a sea of people. Unchecked population growth is the primary, existential threat that underlies all others, both for the Serengeti and for all Africa.

Despite the best efforts of scientists, the bravery of rangers, the good intentions of conservation organizations and donors, or the income from wildlife tourism, runaway population growth amplifies all other threats, and it can make all other efforts futile.

Tanzania’s population is on track to more than double by mid-century, from 57 million people in 2017 to 137 million in 2050. At this rate, it will reach nearly 300 million by 2100.

Population growth rates around the Serengeti are the highest in Tanzania. The Mara District, adjacent to the park on the western side, has the highest fertility rate in the country (5.9), followed by Shinyanga District to the south of the Serengeti (5.6).

Population density maps for Tanzania showing increase in density around the Serengeti. Top 2016 . Bottom 2050. (Amy Haak)

In the western Serengeti there were 600,000 people in 2010. This may be over 900,000 by 2050. Around the Masai Mara in Kenya, population is set to quadruple by 2033, in just fourteen years! One Maasai leader states that without urgent intervention it is “the end of the world as we know it.” Because of human-wildlife conflict in this area, fencing is fragmenting a once open rangeland.

How can development keep up? How can protected areas like the Serengeti survive such an onslaught of human presence and basic needs?

Population growth means more agricultural land, more livestock, overcrowding and stress on rangeland, more demand for water, roads, schools, and medical facilities. It means more human-wildlife conflict, compensation for damage to crops and lives, invasive species, and poaching. It means more demands for fencing, as is happening around the Masai Mara reserve. A recent study of this is entitled, “Fencing bodes a rapid collapse of the unique Greater Mara ecosystem.”

Most of the area outside the [Serengeti] has been lost to cultivation, and a large proportion of the area inside the Park has been significantly altered by poaching. Some 40% of the natural ecosystem has been lost. This has occurred through the expansion of the human population. Today, there is no sign this loss is abating and it may be accelerating.

– Anthony R. E. Sinclair, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia

We can project how many wildebeest and other animals might be killed when human population doubles. Researchers state that “wildebeest offtake cannot remain sustainable if communities continue to grow at an exponential rate and the per capita demand for bush meat remains at the current level.” At the current rate, poaching would go from a low estimate of 100,000 to 200,000 wildebeest per year by mid-century. Other wildlife face a similar fate, including lions.

“If the Tanzanian population does reach 160 million people in the next few decades, as predicted, I don’t see much hope for the conservation of many of the large habitats we see for the African lion today, unless there is an enormous change in attitudes.”

–Craig Packer, Lion expert in National Geographic

But population growth goes beyond wildlife. It affects all aspects of human welfare and the prospects of future generations of Tanzanians. In a very real sense, the welfare of people is intimately linked to the protection, wildlife, habitat, and biodiversity. And this relates to the next point.

  1. Lack Benefits for Local People

Wildlife tourism provides income and jobs to Tanzania, and the Serengeti is responsible for most of this. In 2016, the total contribution of tourism to Tanzania was USD 5.9 billion, 13% of GDP. Total contribution to jobs, including those indirectly supported by tourism, 1,389,000 or 11.6% of total employment. This is expected to rise to 2.1 million jobs by 2027.

Such numbers provide a strong rationale for conservation, yet most people living around the Serengeti do not get their share of these benefits. Without improved welfare from wildlife conservation, they cannot be expected to be good stewards of their land nor respect boundaries that separate them from wildlife. Resistance, poaching, and encroachment will be the result.

Kenya offers a recent, stark example: the stress of drought brought demands for water and new pasture, resulting in ranch burnings and violence. When competition for water, land, and food mount, people suffer and wildlife loses.

  1. Erosion of Cultural Heritage

Tanzania’s remarkable record of conservation has helped shape the identity of Tanzania.

“These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration, but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well-being.” 

– Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president

Some roots of this conservation ethic go even deeper, into the tradition and lifestyle of the people themselves. But this heritage is being lost as new generations emerge. There is little knowledge of the roots of conservation. And there has been little done to relate traditional conservation to a modern setting.

  1. Lack of Information / Weak Media

People generally do not know the contributions that conservation and tourism make to the Tanzanian economy. They do not generally know how unique their heritage is, how highly the world regards it. Often conservation is seen as simply a conflict between wildlife and people.

Media. The role of media in educating the public has been limited. Tira Shubart, a Serengeti Watch advisor and BBC Africa media expert, summarizes:

Tanzania has seen advances in the media landscape. There has been a proliferation of new media outlets in print, radio, television and a growth in the internet community, there has not been a correspondent rise in the quality of journalistic output.

In the print sector, editors are limited in being able and willing to commission and publish investigative and public interest journalism due to a variety of reasons; economics work against the Tanzanian press due to the (very) limited circulation and sales of newspaper and the quality press is dominated by a handful of media houses and the state press. Consequently, the media houses, often have vested interests and editorial stances which can determine the content of their newspapers.

Individual journalists, whether staff or freelance, face other hurdles; logistical challenges travelling in rural areas, lack of public trust and the reluctance of public officials to speak to journalists. The low wages paid to most journalists has seen some individuals leave the profession and other to feel undervalued in their jobs. Finally, there are also safety and security issues facing journalists.

Stories about rural areas, difficult social and economic issues are largely neglected by media houses & mainstream broadcasters have been neglected. Voices of the rural areas have been ignored in favour of experts, public officials & politicians who are able to speak for themselves.

Coverage of conservation issues, the role of tourism, or the value of conservation to the economy follows this same pattern. It is difficult and expensive for journalists to travel to parks and reserves, and there is little priority given for such articles.

Schools. Likewise, the school system does not provide this education. There is an immediate need for school curricula, outreach programs, teacher training, and teaching materials on all levels from primary to university level.

  1. Uncertain Governance & Policy

No one can predict what new governments in East Africa will look like, nor what their priorities will be. The current government in Tanzania appears to support conservation, albeit through a “fortress” model: removing cattle from protected areas, levying fines, evicting settlers, employing paramilitary forces, etc. It is an inefficient, short-term solution that can backfire.

But as he demands of a growing, hungry population increase, the threat of radical, populist politics may well emerge. Local politicians were urging the government to build a hugely destructive highway across the Serengeti, with much popular support, even though the loss would have outweighed the local benefits.

When such political change happens, an informed population is vital. As we have seen, even in a developed country like the United States, there has been a drastic change in environmental policy. Even the iconic Grand Canyon, itself a World Heritage Site, may well be under threat from uranium mining.

  1. Large Scale Development.

There is increasing pressure for large scale development: roads, railways, mines, dams, oil pipelines, and ports. Africa has resources eagerly sought by China and both Tanzania and Kenya are part of its massive One Belt, One Road plan. Plans for huge transport and mining projects have multiplied, and this will increase due to population growth, politics and pressure for development. Tanzania is eager to become industrialized.

Stark examples: A commercial highway that would doom migration. Dams in catchment areas and tributaries of the Mara River that would be ruinous to the entire Serengeti ecosystem, included in the Kenya government’s new master plan.

  1. Overdeveloped and Unregulated Tourism

Tourism has been a benefactor for Tanzania’s economy, particularly tourism from the northern circuit, Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater, where most visitors want to travel.

But there are problems:

  • Tourism revenues are not being reinvested into the park. Money is siphoned off by the government for other uses. According to one expert, “The funding shortfall is on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”
  • The popularity of the Serengeti has increased pressures from accommodations, roads, and vehicles. Ngorongoro Crater has been overbuilt with lodges. This is also true in Masai Mara, which has too many lodges and camps, many of them illegal. Vehicle traffic has already increased in parts of the Serengeti to a point that it stresses wildlife. Stories abound of aggressive drivers trying to please clients, competing for the best position, especially during a wildebeest river crossing. Serengeti Watch has received numerous reports of harassment of wildlife, including a tourist vehicle that killed a zebra when trying to get into the best position.
  • There is constant pressure to bring more tourism to the Serengeti each year. The model of small-scale, low-impact nature tourism in the Serengeti is being challenged. A move toward mass tourism will change the quality of the visitor experience and the impact of tourism on the ecosystem.

The World Bank published a report advising Tanzania to increase its tourism earnings eightfold by 2025. This would mean 8 million tourists visiting the country. It admits that this would involve “deterioration of natural asset, increasing competition for the use of land, and natural resources and cultural tensions.” Although it suggests diversifying geographically away from the northern circuit, demand would certainly remain for the Serengeti.

Meeting this demand would be a move toward mass tourism, probably by increasing numbers of Chinese travelers. Kenya saw an increase of Chinese tourists of 35% in 2016 and expects the same increase in 2017.