The total number of wildebeest left in all of southern Africa is estimated at about 2.5 million individuals, with just over half of those participating in the Serengeti/Maasai Mara migration that has captured the fascination and imagination of the world for decades. It is quite a spectacle, and it is the largest display of mobile mammal flesh anywhere on the planet.
Is the “Greatest Migration on Earth” really that impressive, though? Or is it just a symbol of the sad state we have gotten our planet into?
Let’s put it into perspective by traveling to the Great Plains of the United States in the 1700s. At that time there were an estimated 70 million bison on the plains. That is 28 times more bison than there are wildebeest in southern Africa. A single migratory herd of bison could contain as many as 4 million animals, covering the Plains as far as the eye could see.
By the mid-1800s, those massive herds had been reduced to less than one thousand animals through hunting and targeted eradication plans. Even now, after decades of conservation efforts, the largest wild herd of American bison is the 5,000 or so found in Yellowstone National Park. The total number of “wild” bison (existing on conservation lands rather than farms) is around 15,000 to 30,000. That is a far cry from 70 million.
According to the Save the Serengeti coalition, the proposed Serengeti Highway could potentially reduce the migratory wildebeest herd from 1.3 million to 200,000 in the not-so-distant future.
Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate here for a moment and ask “Who cares?” Do you ever hear people lamenting the loss of the great herds of American bison and the disappearance of that truly massive migration? Had you ever even heard about it before reading this post?
The introduction of the Serengeti Highway is really not so different from the introduction of the railroad to the Great Plains. The train brought access to the western frontier areas of the North American continent and arguably brought great prosperity through that access. So what if a few bison got eliminated along the way?
If the Serengeti Highway project goes forward and we lose the wildebeest migration, will people even remember it existed 50 years from now? Will anybody care?
Mark D. Jordahl – Kampala