How do you stop a herd of wildebeest? According to many international conservationists, the answer is: build a road.
The Serengeti grasslands are known across the globe for the famed wildebeest and zebra migration that is both a natural phenomenon and the annual source of millions of tourist dollars for Tanzania and Kenya. The grasslands are also the subject of a heated debate — a proposed 54-kilometer (34-mile) highway that could potentially disrupt the planet’s largest mammal migration.
This debate is but one example of the conundrum that faces societies around the world: how to accommodate the infrastructural and economic development needs of a rising human population, and achieve that growth without unduly impacting the ecosystem services — from freshwater provision to clean air — whose true economic value we are only just beginning to understand.
Roads are but one in a range of development tools that unfortunately contribute to that most destructive impact on environmental integrity: habitat fragmentation. Worldwide, the carving up of our natural environment into smaller and smaller chunks has been among the biggest causes of biodiversity loss.
Thankfully, that lesson increasingly is being incorporated into large-scale development planning. One great example is the growing global trend towards the creation of corridors and transboundary protected areas to enhance ecosystem resilience. Southern Africa abounds in these transfrontier parks — multination initiatives brought to life by treaties aimed not just at biodiversity benefits, but at putting cash in the pockets of local people through expanded tourism opportunities as well (even if still somewhat limited at present).
In earlier decades, the dictum “Good fences make good neighbours” was staunchly enforced, not only by veterinary disease control officers, but also national security agencies fixated on preventing cross-border smuggling. Now, fences are being dropped in favour of allowing wildlife to move freely across borders and access much-needed additional habitat.
In Botswana, an African nation that has achieved admirable conservation successes and exemplary tourism models, fences remain a thorny issue. To satisfy European Union export requirements, they are designed to protect cattle from wildlife diseases such as the foot-and-mouth virus, but in the process they have contributed to the loss of tens of thousands of lives amongst zebra, wildebeest and other wildlife species.
Fortunately, the government is increasingly receptive to listening to new arguments and engaging in more open systems of environmental protection. It has no choice — with a growing elephant population approaching 150,000 in northern Botswana, confinement is not an option. This is where the beauty of transboundary corridors lies — in allowing unimpeded flows. It gets complicated, however, because these same elephants repopulating previous habitats by crossing through Namibia into Zambia and Angola are now also increasingly clashing with rural subsistence farmers, destroying crops. (Several CI partners are helping farmers keep elephants away from agriculture through an unusual solution: growing chilli peppers. Check out this story from our digital magazine to learn more.)
The main lesson here is that we must learn to be better at compromising. We need development; we also need protected areas. Therefore, we will have to greatly improve our long-term land-use planning, ensuring that we are working toward a big picture that accommodates the 2 billion or so additional humans that we will have to squeeze onto our planet over the next few decades, and yet avoid compromising critically important ecosystem services we all need to survive.
One 30-mile highway may not seem all that significant in itself, but it can be an important barometer of how societies plan and arrive at development decisions that have long-term consequences. Once the Serengeti road is constructed, there it will stay, serving as an artery that feeds subsequent development. Whether we like it or not, there will be lots more stretches of road coming. As conservationists, our job will be to make sure we support the national planners and developers creating them to make the right decisions as to where those new roads are best located.
Dr. Leo Braack is the director of CI’s Southern Africa Wilderness Programme.