But like so many natural areas in today's world, the park is threatened by deforestation, poaching, and other concerns.
Primatologist Jane Goodall, renowned for her work with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, is now helping to apply lessons learned in the Gombe to the much larger Serengeti park. (Read "Being Jane Goodall" in National Geographic magazine.)
In July, her organization, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), in partnership with others, launched a project to ensure the future of the Serengeti's ecosystem, including its vast herds of wildebeests and zebras, and the lions that prey on them. (Related: "The Short Happy Life of the Serengeti Lion.")
Goodall, an Explorer-in-Residence Emeritus at National Geographic, talked to us about the beauty and importance of the Serengeti, and how JGI is working to protect and preserve the park for generations to come. (See an interactive experience on the Serengeti lion.)
Why is it important to save the Serengeti?
For me, the Serengeti is one of the seven wonders of the world. Nowhere have I felt more strongly the essence of the Africa of my childhood dreams. It is the last intact, fully functioning savanna wilderness ecosystem in the world. Vast herds of zebra and wildebeest migrate north from their calving grounds in the southern part of the ecosystem in February to the [Masai Mara National Reserve] of Kenya for the dry-season months of July and August. The largest herds of savanna elephants in Africa roam its grasslands.
The Serengeti—especially during this migration—gives one a sense of Africa when the world was young. The sheer immensity of the short-grass plains is awe-inspiring. To be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles, stretching as far as the eye can see—and the sounds and the smell—this is the essence of Africa. It stays in your heart forever. (Read about the great migrations in National Geographic.)
The park is also important economically—it generates tens of millions of tourist dollars annually—and most people have it on their "bucket list" as a place to see at least once in their lifetime. Tourists come to the Serengeti to witness the migration, but also to see the large numbers of predators that the wildebeest and zebra support, including lions, hyenas, cheetahs, and leopards.
What are the greatest threats to the Serengeti's survival?
They are numerous. Highly organized international criminals raid the park to harvest ivory from the elephants. Thousands of wildebeests, zebras, and antelopes in both Tanzania and Kenya are killed by local citizens [and put up for] sale at local markets. Other threats include deforestation, demand for grazing land, and over-aggressive expansion of tourism.
The Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) is increasing its patrols, but it faces a formidable task, attempting to monitor the vast area encompassed by the greater Serengeti ecosystem.
How are you planning to protect the park?
Two parallel initiatives are underway to stem the slaughter of elephants and to establish alternatives for local poachers. In partnership with TANAPA and assisted by a grant from the World Bank, this approach integrates technical and social components. It features advanced satellite-mapping technologies, coordinated by Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri), and community development and outreach, using methods pioneered by [JGI]. (See pictures of Jane Goodall over the years.)
Esri is mapping the Serengeti park and adjacent wildlife management areas using geographic information systems (GIS). These GIS maps will enable park authority staff to track the movement of the herds and the presence of ivory hunters and other poachers. TANAPA and Esri are also developing a pilot program to identify which aspects of the data flow are most crucial to ranger patrols as they monitor, [track, and capture] poachers. They are also working on systems to allow data gathered in the field to be transmitted directly to park authorities via mobile devices in real time.
Members of the surrounding communities will also benefit directly from geospatial mapping through improved land-use planning. For example, local farmers will be given handheld devices to download satellite data useful for agriculture, such as soil type and moisture. This information can help farmers know when—and what—to plant for maximum benefit. Although these farmers are already experts, having raised crops such as millet, sorghum, and coffee for generations, the new data will allow them to plant [crops] that are best suited to local microenvironments.
These new technologies are crucial to protect the park, but they are not sufficient. We also need to have the full support of the village communities bordering the Serengeti to ensure the park's long-term survival.
Besides the agricultural assistance provided to local farmers, we also aim to improve the general health and education of villagers and help them generate more income. All of these programs will work synergistically to relieve pressures on the park from poaching and deforestation. And we know they work because JGI developed and implemented this approach—named TACARE [pronounced "take care"]—in Gombe Stream National Park, where it has proven successful for more than a decade. (See more Tanzania pictures.)
How do you win over local communities? Aren't you likely to encounter resistance from villagers?
If we were to attempt to impose a plan, we would no doubt face great resistance. But that is not our approach.
When we visit a new community, the very first thing we do is to ask, "What is your greatest need?" Sometimes it is a health issue, or food security, or lack of education. Whatever it is, we respond to that. This flips the usual paradigm—the community now owns the plan. We then help villagers establish a committee to oversee all local projects. This cements the sense of ownership. Our only stipulation is that women must make up at least 50 percent of committee membership. These community committees then must reach consensus before they decide on any issue.
We first developed this approach as part of our work to protect and study chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream National Park, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. We found that local communities were having an impact on the park on many levels. For example, when food supplies ran low, local people would hunt some animals in the park for bush meat to consume or sell. They would clear-cut nearby hillside for firewood. In time, the hillsides would erode, washing away soil and, sometimes, whole sections of villages.
To counter this, JGI developed an integrated community-based program that combined conservation, income creation, health, and education. But local communities determined and controlled their own priorities. If, for example, a community reported that its most pressing needs were reducing infant mortality and childhood diseases, we'd supply training for midwives and introduce a simple regimen of childhood inoculations and medications.
We link family planning, which helps women to control the size of their families, to these health programs. The impact of this cannot be overemphasized. It frees women from a cycle of continual pregnancies, allowing them to provide greater care to their smaller families. Over time, smaller families can reduce pressure on available farmland. Smaller families and increased income also mean that more children can go to school, because these families have enough funds to cover fees. With each success, trust grows.
Sometimes we discover unsuspected links, such as one between sanitation and education. For example, we observed that girls dropped out of school at the approach of puberty. Although there were latrines, they were unsanitary and provided no privacy. With money from UNICEF, we provided separate, private toilets for girls. That simple step allowed girls to stay in school through the eighth grade.
We also initiated microcredit programs that helped women start small-scale enterprises such as corn and millet grinding, gathering honey for sale, and starting commercial tree nurseries. We incorporated rules that encouraged community-based responsibility for loan repayment, based on elements of an established loan strategy known as the Grameen Bank model. As loans are repaid—on time and in full—additional loans are made available to others in the community.
In terms of income, we helped establish tree nurseries for firewood and building materials. We encouraged farmers to choose [types] of coffee and palm oil that were well suited for local soils—and much more profitable for villagers. As incomes increased, people were able to purchase and raise poultry and pigs, relieving the pressure for bush meat.
All 37 villages surrounding the Gombe Stream National Park have been functioning well under this system for more than a decade. The program has improved the quality of life of village populations and changed how members of these communities view their relationship with the park. In addition, thousands of acres of hills surrounding the park have been reforested, creating both a buffer zone for the park and income for the farmers.
Are the lessons learned in the Gombe applicable to the Serengeti?
We are extremely confident that the programs we developed in the microenvironment of the Gombe can be scaled up and applied across the greater Serengeti. (Watch a video tribute to Jane Goodall.)
In the Serengeti, we will provide training for development agencies, Tanzanian government personnel, and non-governmental organizations. The Frankfurt Zoological Society, which has been a major supporter of TANAPA for many years, is already using elements of our TACARE approach in several communities bordering the park. Villagers will be able to share the data derived from Esri's geospatial mapping, and they will benefit from JGI's health and education programs. As in the Gombe, we will help farmers choose [types] of coffee, sorghum, and other crops that are better suited to local soil and moisture conditions; this will increase their food supply and their profits.
Our experience tells us that local communities can become allies in preservation rather than adversaries once they experience direct benefits—in terms of income, education, and health—from a thriving and protected park.
More than [U.S.] $1 billion a year in tourist dollars pours into the Tanzanian economy annually. These funds can be used, in part, to sustain and preserve the park. The alliance among the Tanzanian government, international agencies, tourist companies, and the Tanzanian villagers who live on the borders of the park can serve to protect and nurture this unique treasure.
The Serengeti is priceless. It is so important that it be there for our great-great-grandchildren—and their great-great-grandchildren—to enjoy, and to serve as a reminder of what the world was like before.