Tanzania's national pride, the Serengeti is a priceless resource, home to one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet; yet it remains vulnerable as urbanisation and poaching threaten its fascinating inhabitants. Fortunately, conservation efforts are underway to protect this invaluable treasure.
Across the sweeping plains of the Serengeti, millions of wildebeest hooves are pounding the ground, following an age-old route through Eastern Africa. They are on the move in search of water and green pastures for grazing. The herd embarks on their trek year after year, completing a circuit from Tanzania's Serengeti to Kenya's Masai Mara and back – but the numbers are experiencing a downward spiral. One of the last intact wildlife migrations on the planet – nature's true spectacle – is under threat.
It's not the predators that lie in wait, hoping to catch the herd off guard, ending their arduous journey, as thousands are born each year to replenish the numbers lost as prey, sustaining the circle of life. But the ultimate hurdles are the ones that seem the least harmful, yet cause the most damage. New roads, fences, settlements, farms and other developments are affecting these ancient migration routes, leaving very few areas for the animals to roam freely; with additional challenges, such as overgrazing, agriculture and poaching, influencing the extreme decline.
Fortunately, things have begun to shift, with the Tanzanian government recognising the urgent need to implement conservation and wildlife protection projects. With an aim to protect the beauty and wonder of Tanzania – from the Kilimanjaro to the dazzling eastern coast, lush forests and savannahs – the challenges are being addressed. And growing right alongside the number of visitors to the country are a host of independent sustainable travel businesses and NGOs, who are doing their part to ensure that the health of the local community, environment and the planet is maintained.
Stepping up conservation efforts
The Serengeti National Park was founded in 1951 as Tanzania’s primary national park. And a decade later, the slogan “Serengeti shall not die” started to gain popularity in the 1960s when Bernhard and Michael Grzimek authored a book of the same name.
At the time, Tanzania's first President, the late Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, proclaimed: "The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife, we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance."
Expressing this sentiment helped make the global community aware of the urgency of conserving the Serengeti. Tanzania has since dedicated more than 42,000 square kilometres to a total of 16 national parks, many of which, today, form the core of a much larger protected ecosystem. In 1981, the Serengeti National Park was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list as it is one of the last few remaining places on the planet with high biological diversity, home to threatened or endangered animal species, such as the black rhinoceros, elephant, wild dog and cheetah.
The most significant step was the establishment of TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) to manage the Serengeti, other parks and protected areas in the country. With the primary aim of conservation, the foundation works closely with NGOs, such as the Serengeti Conservation Project, to preserve the country's rich natural heritage and provide secure breeding grounds where its fauna and flora can thrive.
Addressing the challenges of illegal hunting, habitat loss and human-wildlife conflicts aggravated by human population growth and poverty, multiple strategies have been implemented by TANAPA over the last few years, with a major focus on sustainable tourism development and community involvement. The authority is committed to low impact, sustainable visitation to protect the environment from irreversible damage while creating a first-class ecotourism destination. Human activity is closely monitored and all development is strictly regulated. Thanks to their efforts, in the Serengeti, more than 7,000 square kilometres – almost half the park’s area – remains a wilderness zone with no roads.
Furthermore, the authority has involved the local community to guard their precious habitat by employing them within the parks, particularly in the fight against poachers. The presence of staff in most safari camps and lodges that operate inside the national parks and within wildlife corridors plays a key role in deterring poachers. Wardens are also employed to conduct regular land and aerial patrols to spot disturbances in the habitat as well as locate and destroy wire snares and other traps set up by poachers. Finally, strict anti-poaching laws are also in place to reduce the loss of these magnificent species to illegal practices.
TANAPA also works with local communities to teach sustainable environmental management, assist with tree planting, establish nurseries as well as promote cultural and wildlife conservation. Scientists working in these parks continue to find previously undiscovered species of plants, birds and insects as they undertake surveys to monitor the health of the ecosystem. This research forms a key part of new study material for teachers and schools, which helps in educating the local community about the importance of preserving these rich habitats.
The authority is also currently acquiring further land to expand certain parks and to raise the status of traditional migration corridors connecting protected areas. Due to these efforts, Tanzania has accorded some form of formal protection to more than one-third of its territory, including other reserves, conservation areas and marine parks.
What can you do?
One of the primary ways in which TANAPA is able to sustainably fund the work of protecting the wilderness is from the park entrance and concession fees paid by tourists and tour operators who visit these parks on their travels to Tanzania. Tourism is a big revenue generator for the authority, which makes more funds available for their overall operations.
Reiterating the words of President Nyerere, "The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us," which means that as tourists, it is our responsibility to choose our travel providers wisely and contribute to businesses that have committed to running their operations responsibly. And when we do travel, it is important to do so with an open mind, while respecting the environment that has so much to offer us and leaving nothing more than our footprints behind.