Not Leakey’s finest hour …

An opinion about the response to Save the Serengeti’s letter seeking clarification on the proposal for an elevated highway across the Serengeti.


Following the revelations that Dr. Richard Leakey had waded into the Serengeti Highway debate with a hair brained proposal to build a flyover highway across the migration routes of the wildebeest, did one of the world’s foremost Serengeti defense groups, Save the Serengeti write to him, expressing concerns over his statements and requesting clarification. Save the Serengeti is made up of renowned individuals, supported by leading conservation institutions, and is credited with encouraging factual debate over the initial proposals to build a highway across the Serengeti’s migration routes. In fact, StS is the voice of over 51.500 individuals and NGO’s and THE place where factual exchanges were facilitated since the group was formed in 2010 and which has provided a platform for conservationists from around the world standing together to ensure that Serengeti Must Not Die. The group’s letter is quoted verbatim here below:

Dear Professor Leakey,

It is with great concern that we have again learned of your support for an elevated highway across the Serengeti National Park.

Such a project is not only impractical in the extreme, it would undermine the very existence of the ecosystem we all wish to protect. The cost of constructing an overpass would be enormous to the point of being prohibitive. According to a former World Bank transportation expert with years of experience in East Africa, it would cost not forty percent more than a similar New Jersey highway, but up to ten times as much.

Instead of thirty miles in length, it would need to be much longer. As you know, the migration spans a large area outside of the park. Fifty miles is more like the required length. The Frankfurt Zoological Society concurs with us, stating:

“Just absolutely ridiculous from the cost side. We are talking billions. In Germany it is significantly more expensive 120 million € for 4 km! This reason alone, makes any further thinking useless.”

They cite the Danyang-Kunshan Bridge in China, which is 100 miles in length. It took 10,000 people four years at a cost of about $8.5 billion.

Here is how the transportation expert describes it:

The foundations and bridge piers would be poured on site, and then concrete precast beams, or steel beams, trucked in to support the concrete deck which would be cast on top of the beams. As for the design, it might be possible to get away with one lane each way, separated by a crash barrier, provided that passing places, a sideways expansion of the bridge, were installed at about 500 meter intervals. Service areas would have to be provided at about five kilometer intervals to allow vehicles to turn around.

The first requirement for such a massive project would be the building of a road to provide large quantities of resources and materials. There is no sand or gravel available in Serengeti, so all the material for the concrete would have to be trucked in. Large quantities of other materials, would need to be produced and transported. Where would the water come from? Camps and catering for hundreds or thousands of workers would have to be set up, with the likely result of a thriving bush meat trade, as commonly happens with such projects.

Adding to the cost is the fact that a highway would be constructed on black cotton soil that is unstable, particularly in the rainy season. Engineers say it would shift and move causing cement pillars to crack and fall. This is also a highly active volcanic area that includes earthquakes – a 6.0 was recorded in 2007.

Who then would bear the enormous expense of maintaining such a highway? Tanzania has so little money now that it can barely keep its electric grid running. Accidents and breakdowns are common in Africa. What happens when a huge truck jackknifes in the middle of an elevated road?

Construction would last years, with a large swath of destruction from heavy machinery and trucks – all this during several seasons of migration across this critical area.

Both the construction and the highway would have long term impacts. As pointed out by Andrew Dobson of Princeton University in his published study, habitat fragmentation of the Serengeti ecosystem would likely mean the collapse of the migration.

The project would be a terrible waste of scarce funds. What a huge opportunity cost this would represent, using funds that could be used for real development.

Who would visit the Serengeti during the years of construction? But not just construction would impact tourism, a huge international protest would cause a drop in tourism income and jobs. The Serengeti would be taken off the UNESCO World Heritage List. It would no longer be regarded as a unique wilderness area, but a monument to a useless engineering project. A priceless heritage would be irreparably scarred and ultimately lost.

Finally, the big question – why would one build such a project in the name of development when a superior alternative exists?

A highway to the south of the Serengeti would not only connect populations to the west of the park, it would benefit vastly more people, connecting the Lake Victoria region to the central and eastern parts of the country.

The advantages of such a route are clearly documented in a presentation by the Frankfurt Zoological Society. See the attached for a detailed socio-economic analysis.

What’s more, the government of Germany has offered to build local roads for communities around the Serengeti and the World Bank has offered help to build a southern route.

We trust that the facts speak for themselves – the tremendous impact of an elevated highway, tunnel, railway, any sort of commercial corridor, would be devastating to a place we all wish to preserve for future generations of Africans and visitors.

We urge you to join the Frankfurt Zoological Society, our organization and many others in supporting a southern route around the Serengeti.


The two responses by email to the letter, seen by this correspondent but not cleared for publication by the recipients, can at best only be described as rude, offensive and condescending and at worst as fame gone to the head, a head swollen with an inflated ego or a head gone soft with age. Playing on the cheapest sentiments, otherwise perhaps found in bar conversation just before closing time when the discussants are sufficiently inebriated, the good Dr. Richard wasted no thought on the facts but instead opted to rant about unrelated issues and throw missives at Save the Serengeti. Instead of engaging with the substance of the proposals made by the Frankfurt Zoological Society for the southern route, which has received the full support of the German government, the World Bank and other development partners including offers for soft loans and grants to carry out a full feasibility study before building the alternative road, he decided to go on the offensive by throwing mud and calling the credentials of StS into doubt. Humility clearly is not something the good Dr. Richard has engrained in himself and as a result, the considerable professional respect hitherto accorded is now dented and will, should no substantive focused response still come forth from him, evaporate completely.

The internet has a great capacity for naming and shaming, and like the Tanzanian government has found out such flow of information prevails, even though that government has and continues to bedevil critics and opponents of their scheme to build a highway across the Serengeti and is calling them enemies of progress and worse. Through the Internet, pressure groups have the ability to garner global support for causes, enlist help to lobby key global institutions and in this case has it has played a major role to ground the highway project, at least until an ongoing court case at the East African Court of Justice to obtain a permanent injunction against the Tanzanian government, is decided.

Egomania has been the bane of many failures in the past to make conservation a centerpiece of a new global policy approach in how to protect crucially important ecosystems for future generations. It is reminiscent of the failure of CITES to not just totally ban the trade with ivory but challenge the main culprits by naming and shaming them. They got away because of, among other reasons, too many egos needing to be stroked of people who continue to sit on the fence or voice their opposition, because their egos have, or so they perceived it, been rubbed the wrong way. Like in school, there is a bad boy corner on the Internet too, and that is where the good Dr. Richard is headed for, unless he can come to terms that even he does on occasions talk utter rubbish. Time to make swift amends or else bear the stain of complicity in the attempt to ruin the Serengeti. Watch this space.

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