Economics | White Paper

Economics | Q&A

 Economics of the Serengeti and
the Great Migration in East Africa  

Written by  John C. Cannon 10/24/2015
Spectacular biodiversity and geography have made tourism a lynchpin in Tanzania’s economy, recently supplanting gold as the country’s most lucrative sector (7). It’s home to much of the Serengeti plain, which extends into Kenya, where 1.3 million blue wildebeest, 200,000 plains zebra, and 400,000 Thomson’s gazelle make a 1,000-kilometer migration each year. More than a million tourists visited Tanzania in 2012, drawn by bucket-list sites such as Serengeti National Park and surrounding wildlife-rich areas such as Ngorongoro Crater (11).

Around 1 million Tanzanians owe their jobs to the tourism industry, either directly or indirectly, and it brings in almost $2 billion a year to the economy (4). However, Tanzania is still a developing economy: 95 percent of the population lived on less than $2 a day in 2010 (10).

Most Tanzanians ­­– 80 percent in fact – are involved in farming. Agriculture is responsible for 85 percent of exports, worth a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product. Tanzania’s population is also growing at a steady clip of 2.8 percent a year. By comparison, the number of people in United States and Canada each grow by a little more than 0.75 percent a year, and China’s growth rate is 0.44 percent. In Tanzania, that means 50 million people and counting put pressure on the land under cultivation to produce more food, increasing the temptation to expand agriculture into previously unfarmed areas (12).

Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and much of the surrounding land is protected as well. But the flora and fauna these areas support do face threats, beginning with the typically poor communities that surround Serengeti National Park. Incidentally, these communities have historically been overlooked by the tourism industry and haven’t begun to see its benefits until recently. So when their needs are at odds with the protected areas, conflicts arise.

The animals themselves can be a serious detriment to livelihoods. A study found that the average household in communities adjacent to Serengeti National Park loses almost 17 percent of its yearly income to animals (mostly baboons and elephants) going after their maize, sorghum and other crops (11). In retaliation, farmers sometimes kill the animals that destroy their crops.

Leaders have searched for ways to economically develop rural Tanzania, leading to a contentious battle over a proposed 53-kilometer (33-mile) highway that would run right through Serengeti National Park and the path of the Great Migration (9).

Proponents, including President Jakaya Kikwete, argued that a road would connect farmers to markets and boost their incomes, make it easier for tourists to visit the Serengeti, and deliver goods and services to marginalized communities. Local business people looked forward to increased traffic and commerce along the road, which is a traditional path for herders such as the Masai to move their cattle, goats and sheep (1,3,6,8).

On a macroeconomic level, the road would link Lake Victoria in the east, with its connections to the resource-rich Congo and newly discovered oil fields in Uganda, to a newly constructed $11-billion port in Bagamoyo on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast, increasing Tanzania’s economic stature and importance in the East African community (5).

But conservation groups and scientists, including a group comprising mostly American and European researchers, opposed the road, saying it threatened the foundation of tourism, an economic “cornerstone” of Tanzania. In a commentary in the journal Nature, the scientists cited studies indicating that the road could cause a drop in tourist interest and jeopardize the Serengeti’s UNESCO status.

They pointed out that several million large mammals crossing the road each year would undoubtedly result in deaths of both animals and people due to the increase in car accidents. They also say the location of the road bisects the populations of two recently reintroduced endangered animals, the African wild dog and the black rhino, perhaps limiting the interbreeding within each species group and imperiling their survival.

And they worry that a road would give poachers easy access to their quarry (10). A 1990 study estimated that poachers kill 200,000 animals per year in the Serengeti (13), and the current decimation of elephants for their ivory taking place on the African continent could bleed into safe havens like Serengeti National Park. One hundred thousand African elephants were killed by poachers between 2010 and 2012 (14), often because poachers can make enormous sums of money with a single kill. An elephant’s tusks are worth around $21,000, according to a 2013 study (15).

The road issue is particularly telling because it highlights the need for basic infrastructure in Tanzania, as in so many African countries. One solution that the authors of the Nature commentary propose is moving the road south of the migration route. While the road would be longer, they write that it would have the added benefit of connecting nearly 2 million more people (10).

In 2014 the East Africa Court of Justice halted plans for the original highway because of the “irreversible” disruptions it would cause. However, opponents fear that too many loopholes exist, and that the Tanzanian government will get their wish for some sort of commercial road to be built through the park (2,9).

The value of a live elephant to ecotourism over the course of its lifetime is 76 times higher – more than $1.6 million (15), which supports conservationists’ arguments for not just the intrinsic but the hard cash value of preserving wildlife and their habitats. The challenge now is to bring those benefits to all Tanzanians. Safari outfits are hiring locals as guides, and some communities have set up their own ecotourism operations, which in some cases pump tens of thousands of dollars into local economies.


1. “ Serengeti Road Plan Offers Prospects and Fears.” The New York Times, 2010.
2. “ East African Court Blocks Paved Serengeti Highway.” The New York Times, 2014.
3. “ Serengeti road divides biologists: Will a road across the northern tier of Serengeti National Park ruin it?” Science Daily, 2013.
4. “ Fighting the paving of paradise.” Earth Island Journal, 2012.
5. “ East African Transport Race Heats Up.” Serengeti Watch,  2013.
6. “ A New Threat in the Serengeti to the World’s Greatest Animal Migration.”, 2015.
7. “ Tourism beats gold in earnings.” The Citizen, 2013.
8. “ Worries over new roads in Tanzania's Serengeti.” BBC News, 2014.
9. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania., 2012.
10. “ Road will ruin Serengeti.” Nature, 2010.
11. “ The impact of crop raiding by wild animals in communities surrounding the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.” International Journal of Biodiversity and Conservation, 2014.
12. “Tanzania tourist arrivals reach 1 million mark.”, 2013.
13. The World Factbook – CIA. 2015.
14. “ 100,000 Elephants Killed by Poachers in Just Three Years, Landmark Analysis Finds.” National Geographic, 2014.
15. “ Dead or Alive? Valuing an Elephant.” The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, 2013.