A Wildlife Paradise…The Tarangire Ecosystem in northern Tanzania is one of the richest areas on the planet for large animal diversity and abundance, and is a world hotspot for diversity of ungulates. Ungulates are herbivorous mammals with hoofs and include antelopes, zebras, buffalos, wildebeests, and giraffes. Ungulates are critical to shaping and maintaining the habitats in which they live; and they improve the rangelands for Maasai livestock.
The region’s ungulates are not only ecologically priceless but are a critical part of Tanzania’s economy. Ungulates figure prominently in photographic tourism as icons of wild nature and symbols of a nomadic existence that has been lost in much of the rest of the world. Wildlife-based tourism represents an important long-term source of income – but only as long as resources are managed sustainably. Increasing tourism pressure in Serengeti requires development of nearby resources to maintain sector growth while preserving quality.
The Tarangire Ecosystem is defined by the large migratory ranges of the eastern white-bearded wildebeest and Grant’s zebra as they move in and out of Tarangire National Park in their age-old search for water and food. Historically, these populations migrated along 10 routes between their dry-season range in Tarangire and their wet-season ranges outside the park, with annual distances up to 250 km. The wet-season range is critical because it provides nutrient-rich grass necessary for reproduction. However, only 2 of these migration routes remain – one north to the Opirr Calving Grounds on the Gelai Plains (purple area on the map at left), and one east to the Simanjiro Plains (not shown). Neither route is adequately protected. Habitat within these migration corridors continues to be rapidly lost to farming and permanent housing, and illegal poaching of wild ungulates along the migration routes is rampant. Not surprisingly, the eastern white-bearded wildebeest declined from 40,000 animals in 1988 to just 7,000 in 2014.
A Cultural Paradise…Northern Tanzania is also the heartland of the Maasai people. The Maasai are traditionally pastoralists, moving across the landscape in search of forage for their cattle. Traditional Maasai are friends of wildlife as their livelihood does not significantly alter wildlife habitat. In fact, wildlife benefit from Maasai burning practices, and Maasai benefit from wildlife maintenance of short-grass grazing swards. Recent settlement in the region, particularly around Mtowambu, with concomitant increases in farms and permanent houses, has resulted in a loss of land for the Maasai and their cattle. Moreover, the dramatic increase in illegal poaching of wild ungulates for inexpensive bushmeat deprives all livestock producers of a fair market value for their livestock.
Extinct is Forever…Without immediate protection of the remaining two wildlife migration corridors, the eastern white-bearded wildebeest and other migratory ungulate populations will undoubtedly continue to dwindle and might even disappear altogether. Genetic evidence indicates that Tarangire population of wildebeests is unique, as it has not mixed with the population in Serengeti/Ngorongoro for thousands of years. Thus, the loss of these wildebeests could mean the extinction of an entire species. Research has shown that 30-50% of Tarangire wildebeest migrate northward to give birth in the Northern Plains, and thousands of Tarangire’s zebra, eland, oryx, and gazelles also use the plains south of Lake Natron each wet season. Furthermore, the Tarangire wildebeest migration is one of only three wildebeest migrations that remain in the world, along with the Serengeti just west of Tarangire, and Kifue in Zambia. All the many other wildebeest migrations that used to exist have been disrupted and destroyed.
Economic growth …The extirpation of these migratory ungulates would devastate not only the ecological function of the Tarangire Ecosystem but the local economy as well. The Tarangire Ecosystem and the Northern Plains represent an area with high growth potential in tourism development now that the Mtowambu-Ngaresero-Loliondo road has been improved. Without wildlife, tourists will travel elsewhere for their safaris, equating to far fewer tourism dollars for Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks, village Wildlife Management Areas, and local lodges and gift shops. As wildlife tourist traffic increases each year, the Serengeti is becoming overcrowded. The Northern Plains area is the best-placed location for growth and expansion of the wildlife tourism sector due to its proximity to the established infrastructure of the northern safari circuit. Furthermore, during the tourist high season, tourists flock to the concentrated wildlife in Tarangire National Park. To protect this attraction, the wet-season ranges must be conserved.
From Tarangire to the Northern Plains…With this in mind, the Wild Nature Institute, together with local community leaders and partners in the conservation community and tourism sector, has launched its Northern Plains Campaign. Our goal is to protect the connectivity of one of the last remaining migratory routes for the eastern white-bearded wildebeest and promote grassroots eco-tourism in order to conserve and develop the economy, ecology, and culture of the Tarangire Ecosystem.
Our solution is to formally protect the migration route between Tarangire National Park and the Gelai Plains just south of Lake Natron. A protected area would allow continued use for traditional Maasai livelihoods and increased tourism while protecting critical habitat for migrating ungulates. Habitat conversion to farmland and permanent housing as well as new road construction within the migration route would be governed by a comprehensive land-use plan.
A protected area between Tarangire and the Northern Plains would be an economic engine for the region. Local villagers’ traditional livelihoods would be protected, and income would be generated via grassroots eco-tourism developments that ease tourism pressure in Serengeti and expand market growth along the established infrastructure of the northern safari circuit. Northern Plains attractions are closer to Arusha than Serengeti and conserving the migration route would protect investments already existing in and around Tarangire and Lake Manyara national parks.
We are working towards the following measures to be implemented to preserve habitat and individual animals as they migrate from Tarangire to the Northern Plains:
Northern Plains migration route between Tarangire National Park and Lake Natron formally protected within a Wildlife Management Area or comparable village conservation effort.
Comprehensive land-use planning along the entire migratory route.
Speed bumps and signs along the Makuyuni-Mtowambu and Makuyuni-Kibaoni roads where wildlife concentrate to cross.
Anti-poaching patrols employing local Maasai warriors.
Grassroots eco-tourism developments.
Low fees to encourage visitors while funding protection and development.
Conserving the migration from Tarangire to the Northern Plains is an idea whose time has come. Without immediate action, many migratory ungulates in the Tarangire Ecosystem, most notably the unique population of eastern white-bearded wildebeest, will be greatly diminished or gone forever. The local tourism industry will suffer immensely if this occurs. The local Maasai and the wildlife can and should thrive together in their historical landscape. Conservation of this area will preserve the economy, ecology, and culture of the Tarangire Ecosystem and provide an engine for economic growth in the region for generations to come.