Conserving the Serengeti under uncertainty (Part II) or What can we learn from the Serengeti highway controversy?

Posted by Ana Nuno. Text also posted at Imperial College Conservation Science

Some time ago I blogged about my PhD research on managing social-ecological systems under uncertainty. I used the conservation of harvested ungulate species in the Serengeti, Tanzania, as a case study to investigate the importance of considering multiple types and sources of uncertainty when making conservation decisions. Far from being simply an interesting academic question, I’d argue that the need of acknowledging the social-ecological context and uncertainty in which conservation interventions take place has never been greater. Hear me out…

The Serengeti is one of the most famous protected areas in the world and so it isn’t surprising that there has been worldwide outcry against a commercial road crossing the Serengeti which was proposed in early 2010 (over 1000 press articles published in 48 countries over 8 months after its announcement; Sinclair 2012). Much controversy about trade-offs between different development pathways and their ecological impacts has arisen since then, catalyzing interventions by the World Bank and the German government, and announcements that the Serengeti road had been cancelled or it hadn’t been cancelled but wouldn’t be paved.

Yet, almost four years after being proposed, I would say there aren’t many certainties about what’s going to happen next (and the answer definitely varies according to the person you ask). BBC recently published a story about ongoing road improvements around the Serengeti, some say the proposed road will be built but not as initially planned and others challenge its construction in the court or fight for a southern road instead. More than definite solutions, this proposal has generated a number of questions similar to many other conservation issues worldwide. How is wildlife going to be affected if the road is built? Will the road contribute to alleviating poverty in local communities? Are there other options that would also benefit communities but minimize environmental impacts? How do the environmental impacts of building a road compare to those caused by other threats? The list goes on… So what should we be thinking about in order to move this type of discussion forward?

1. We need to compile the available information so that we can look at the big picture and know what’s missing

The Serengeti is a privileged system in terms of information availability. Still, a lot remains hidden or forgotten in someone’s office, waiting to be entered, analyzed, and, particularly, shared. Also, while much attention has been given to the biological side of the system, less is known about its social dynamics. For example, rigorous data on the potential socio-economic costs and benefits of building a road are still lacking while the predicted impacts of barriers to wildlife migration in the Serengeti have been explored in detail. Only by bringing together multiple types and sources of information we will be able to tackle these big questions that address full ecosystems, social-ecological dynamics and global change.

2. Development is here to stay

In developing countries, efforts are being placed into expanding and upgrading transport infrastructures, increasing access to health and education, creating jobs. With roughly 2.3 million people in the districts surrounding the Serengeti national park and a population growth rate of approximately 3%, conflicts over land and natural resources are expected to grow. The road proposal cannot be seen as an isolated event. For example, recent news suggest that an international airport might be built in the Serengeti and there have been calls for a fence to be built around the park to protect villagers’ crops from elephants. The world is undergoing rapid and drastic changes which conservation has to deal with. We can’t deny people’s rights to a better life and conservationists should increasingly be worried about finding sustainable ways to achieve those improvements.

3. Everyone has to compromise

On the one hand, if we protect biodiversity at all costs, local communities will probably remain impoverished. On the other hand, if we take a development-focused approach, it will be impossible to protect one of the most iconic protected areas of the world. Moreover, tourism is currently one of Tanzania’s main sources of revenue and impacts on wildlife populations in the Serengeti are expected to greatly affect tourist visits. Although the standard discussion about this road keeps being polarized, everyone has to compromise. Instead we should be focusing on defining acceptable levels for several criteria (e.g. wildlife population abundance, income generated from tourism, human well-being) and finding ways to achieve them, given all the other conditions. This will require having relatively flexible criteria levels and, importantly, keeping them open to discussion

4. We can make informed decisions despite uncertainty

The Serengeti road controversy raised questions about the uncertainty surrounding the expected ecological impacts and the relative importance of this threat when compared to others such as climate change. While uncertainty is often used as an excuse for decision makers to question science, I’d say that it is at particularly uncertain contexts that science needs to increasingly be used to inform management decisions. Accounting for multiple types and sources of information and carefully weighing the risks involved in each alternative strategy are key requirements for a robust and transparent approach to decision-making under uncertainty (e.g. using management strategy evaluation). This is when the importance of compiling and using all the available information comes to mind again.

5. The power (for good and bad) of charismatic wildlife and media attention

While the charisma of the Serengeti and its wildlife has been crucial for generating worldwide interest and concern about its conservation, we must be careful about the role of charisma as a driver (or barrier) of conservation interventions… particularly for the Serengeti, which everyone seems to know and care about. We must consider if charisma might be distorting conservation priorities or blocking a potentially needed compromise between conservation, development and tourism. In such cases, it is particularly important to be clear about the factors, criteria and processes being evaluated for planning the conservation of the Serengeti under uncertainty.

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