Animal populations plummeting in Kenya. Also, road construction in Nepal’s Annapurna Conservation Area.

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the August 2011 issue.
Wildebeests in the Serengeti — Tanzania. Photo: Tykol

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 426th issue of your monthly overseas travel magazine, where all subscribers are encouraged to share their experiences and opinions.

Before I get into the details of the travel news below, I would like to thank ITN Assistant Editor Mary Beltran and make it known that this column, as it is each month, is made possible only because of the massive amounts of research she does.

Mary scours the Internet news services and presents me with a great number of stories to choose from, after which she looks up answers to the many questions I have on particular items.

We each have our strengths, as do the other members of our staff. Regarding our collaboration on this column, Mary enjoys scouring the Web and I enjoy reorganizing and polishing copy. As you’ll see, a lot of work went into this month’s column, and I just wanted to acknowledge that the bulk of the credit goes to her.

In June, responding to the influx of migrants in Europe and the many refugees fleeing the political crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, leaders of the member nations of the European Union agreed to review and revise the rules governing the Schengen Agreement of 1985.

Currently, in the Schengen Zone, citizens of 22 participating EU states and of non-EU members Iceland, Norway and Sweden may pass freely across each others’ borders without visas. But a rise in border crime and illegal immigration has caused concerns among and friction between several nations.

France, Italy and Denmark strongly support a review of the agreement. Proposed changes will be discussed at a meeting in September.

Also at the June summit, Croatia was advised that it would be admitted into the EU in July 2013 if all further requirements are met. Croatia will be the 28th member nation of the European Union.

I mentioned, in the June issue, that the Tanzanian government was planning to build a two-lane public road through a corner of Serengeti National Park, connecting communities near Lake Victoria with more-populated Arusha.

Well, in June the government announced that the current gravel road on that route would not be expanded and that, with funding from the World Bank, an alternate route south of the park would be used for the trade highway. The diversion will make the planned 400-kilometer road from Arusha to northwestern Tanzania much longer.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, conservationist groups worldwide and many governments all had decried the plan for a highway across the park.

The area figures in the annual migration of about 1.3 million wildebeests and hundreds of thousands of zebras — considered the largest migratory system on Earth and one of the wonders of the natural world — and scientists warned that the highway could cause the animals’ numbers to drop by a third.

Vehicle-animal collisions would have been unavoidable, almost certainly resulting in fencing, which would have impacted the herbivores’ movements. In addition to environmental degradation and the introduction of invasive plant species and new diseases, increased vehicle traffic would lead to more poaching, as well.

A drop in the number of wildebeests would result in fewer predators, such as lions and cheetahs, which attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year (a migration, of sorts, itself, and an important source of income for the local economy).

While the Serengeti now will not be listed as an endangered World Heritage Site, conservationists point out that, ultimately, more development will spread from the nearby new highway anyway.

Proving the fragility of the ecosystem is a study published in May in the British Journal of Zoology about the neighboring Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya.

It was reported, “Populations of almost all wildlife species have declined to a third or less of their former abundance both in the protected Masai Mara National Reserve and in the adjoining pastoral ranches.”

The study reviewed 33 years of data on large species of wildlife and found that the numbers of impalas, warthogs, giraffes, topis and Coke’s hartebeests have declined by over 70%. The zebra population has declined by 75%, and the wildebeest migration now has 64% fewer animals than it did in the 1980s.

Of the species studied, only elands, Grant’s gazelles and ostriches showed signs of population recovery.

The primary causes cited for the population crash were 1) a sharp increase of illegal domestic livestock grazing (which increased by more than 1,100%), 2) the growth of farms with fenced croplands, impeding the flow of migrations, and 3) continued poaching.

The shift of the Maasai people away from their traditional nomadic life to ranching/farming as well as prolonged droughts in the area have led to more illegal use of grazing lands within the reserve.

Turning the globe…

The Himalayan trekking route around Nepal’s 2,945-square-mile Annapurna Conservation Area — home to Himalayan peaks, including Annapurna I, at 26,545 feet the 10th-highest mountain in the world — is undergoing major changes. Driveable roads, not just one-lane access trails of dirt or gravel, are being constructed to connect most of the villages along the approximately 175-mile-long Annapurna Circuit proper.

Along the conservation area’s southern border there has been a road for many years; the western border road (following the river Kali Gandaki) was built in 2004; the eastern border road (along the Marsyandi River) is almost finished, and a northern section, between the towns of Chome and Manang, is expected to be completed in 2013.

In the north-northwest, there will remain one section of the circular trekking route that will not be expanded to a road. This portion runs from Manang up and over the Thorong La pass, which tops out at 17,769 feet, down to Muktinath, where the trail meets the western Kali Gandaki road.

Because of the mountainous terrain, the new roads are being built right along the existing trails that have been used by trekkers.

The kingdom of Nepal opened its doors to outsiders around 1950, and the Annapurna Circuit has been a popular trekking route for decades with its incredible scenery plus many lodges and teahouses at village stopping points.

The full circuit takes at least 21 days, but lately many have chosen to walk a 10- to 12-day portion. Allowing trekkers to drive in and choose from several sections along the circuit, the new roads will make it possible to take treks of as few as four days in the area.

However, many trekkers and tour operators are expressing dismay because once-pristine vistas and quiet pathways along the route are gone. The footpaths now parallel the same routes as noisy trucks kicking up dust, and steel bridges and concrete aqueducts have been put in place at stream and river crossings. Several travel associations are searching for alternate trekking routes in the region.

Debates continue over the long-term effects of the new roads.

The Annapurna Conservation Area is home to about 120,000 Nepalese and currently attracts more than 60,000 visitors and trekkers each year. Although tourism is a major factor in the economics of the region, with guides, porters and innkeepers being supported by trekkers, most locals live subsistence lives based on farming and ranching. Rates of unemployment and poverty are high, and many men leave to work in other countries to support their families.

In addition to making the majestic Himalayas accessible to more types of visitors, the roads will allow Nepalese living in the area to get to medical facilities, schools and jobs more easily. They also will allow access to markets for locally grown produce and lower the cost of goods brought in. New hotels, restaurants and tourism facilities are likely to result, meaning new jobs for locals.

The rapid increase in the numbers of tourists in the last few decades has already caused environmental problems. Firewood is being depleted at an unsustainable rate, and tons of waste produced by trekkers must be burned, buried or carried down the mountains. (An average group of 15 people on a 10-day trek generates 15 kilos of nonbiodegradable and nonburnable trash.)

The new roads certainly will result in an influx of visitors… and big changes.

One last consideration — being able to drive up to the Himalayan plateau in just a couple of days, without allowing time to acclimate to the altitude, may result in some visitors’ experiencing altitude sickness.

And on the other side of the world…

In the Brazilian Amazon, an enormous, three-dam, hydroelectric complex, the Belo Monte project, received final approval from Brazil’s environmental agency in June 2011. Expected to be completed in 2015, the dam complex will be the third largest in the world, with an output of over 11,000 megawatts.

Opponents vowed to continue fighting to prevent the dams’ construction, which they say will flood more than 120,000 acres of rainforest in northeastern Brazil’s Xingu River Basin and force the relocation of more than 20,000 indigenous people.

The Brazilian government says the project is crucial to meet the nation’s increasing power demands.

Compared to the above items, the following, perhaps as it should, seems a petty complaint.

Spirit Airlines, a US-based airline that flies to 150 locations in the US, the Caribbean and Latin America, announced in June that it will begin charging passengers $5 to have airport personnel print a boarding pass at the counter area.

Passengers who print out their boarding passes off-site or at the airport kiosks will not have to pay a fee. Passengers at airports without kiosks will have the fee waived. However, beginning in June 2012 even the kiosks will charge $1 to print out a boarding pass.

This airline was also the first to charge ($20-$35) for any carry-on luggage that is not small enough to fit under the seat and must go into an overhead bin.

Abe Mirza of Hermosa Beach, California, sent the ITN staff this inspiring note: “My wife, Janice, and I have been subscribers to ITN magazine for a looooooong time (Janice tells me ‘about 10 years’). We have always enjoyed reading the articles and, in traveling to about 68 countries, have used the tours of a few of the advertisers.

“Thanks for being so consistent in providing such wonderful, no-nonsense travel information. It is very welcomed at our household. We further submit that we will remain loyal to you.”

And we were left speechless when Tova Wiley-Hornung of Seattle, Washington, shared this with us: “I’ve enjoyed reading your publication for many years, as my father, Thomas ‘Tom’ Wiley, was a subscriber. He passed away in April of 2007. At his funeral, we had a board with photographs and so forth and put a copy of ITN on the table, as that was a big part of his character: his travels. I have been to over 40 countries, myself, so I’m a chip off the old block, I guess you could say!”

Expressing further just how much this magazine touches people, Myrtle Jacobs of Goodyear, Arizona, sent in addresses of travelers to be sent sample copies and wrote, “I realize this is a very long list of names I am sending but want you to know we have sung praises for your useful, wonderful, ‘nonglitzy’ magazine to many.

“With its advice and news and suggestions and warnings, all the travelers we have shown our copies to and told about the free sample issue have said that they would like to get a copy in the mail. So thank you for sending these people your ‘good news.’

“My husband and I have read ITN for many years now and we can’t live or travel without it. God bless you all who put this info together.”

Boy, it’s nice to be appreciated.

Thanks to all of you who write in and keep this forum going. You never know who something you write will help.