Tanzania released an official letter last week stating that the road traversing Serengeti National Park will remain gravel, stay under Tanzania National Parks management and be used mainly for tourism and administrative functions as it is today.
In this apparent victory for wildlife conservation the Tanzania government declared:
"…the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park." (National Geographic News)
Too soon to Celebrate Wildlife Victory in Serengeti
The problem is that the official Tanzanian letter to the World Heritage Committee states that the road will not be paved, but remain gravel road.
According to Serengeti Watch there is currently no gravel road along the 53 km stretch referred to and the existing dirt road lies in an area designated as a Wilderness Zone, allowing no public access.
Furthermore the official statement does not explicitly exclude commercial use, stating only that the road will be used
“mainly for tourism and administrative purposes as it is currently.” (Serengeti Watch)
It seems inevitable that the dirt road running though the wilderness zone will be upgraded in the future to connect upgraded roads on either side of the Serengeti National Park.
National Geographic News reports,
“…it's questions, not toasts, that are being raised, and conservationists are divided as to whether it means the highway is truly canceled.”
The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) considers the Tanzanian statement as progress, but continues to stress that
“there are still many critical aspects of the ongoing development that need to be addressed”.
AWF CEO, Patrick Bergin, says this statement from the Tanzanian government provides
“the fundamentals of a formula that can resolve this dilemma between conservation and development,” … “However the details of implementation will be essential to its success.” (African Wildlife Foundation)
Conservation ecologist at Duke University, Stuart Pimm, in the National Geographic report on the Serengeti highway said that an expanded road, be it gravel or paved, will have devastating effects on the wildlife in Serengeti Park.
Earlier this year Tanzanian government plans to construct a 53-kilometer commercial highway bisecting Serengeti Park gave rise to international outcry, with scientists stating that the road would disrupt the Great Migration between Tanzania's Serengeti and the Masai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. The proposed double lane highway would cut across
“the annual migration route of 1.5m wildebeest, effectively destroying the life cycle of the species and bringing the ecosystem of the national park crashing down with it.”(Guardian.co.uk)
National Geographic's Serengeti Road Map.
Serengeti Highway - Step in the Right Direction
The Environmental News Network sees the official letter as a positive development writing:
"In what is being hailed as a victory for conservationists and the wildlife of the Serengeti, the Tanzanian government has cancelled plans for a controversial highway that would have dissected the Serengeti National Park."
If the Tanzanian government goes ahead with the proposed alternative route, south of Serengeti Park, there will be sure reason for celebrating success in saving the Serengeti. But for now the outcome still seems uncertain and reports that Tanzania has cancelled the Serengeti highway may be a bit optimistic.
Nevertheless this is progress as ENN reports that the Tanzanian Ministry of National Resources and Tourism stated that "The State Party confirms that the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park and therefore will not affect the migration and conservation values of the property," (ENN Serengeti Report).
The key development is according to a National Geographic Traveler magazine editor, Costas Christ, the move away from commercial use of the road through Serengeti Reserve.
Having lived in Africa for over a decade and done work on the Serengeti, Costas says that:
"Publicly stating that the road will no longer be for commercial use and that it will now remain under national park authority for administration and tourism use is a very significant change by the Tanzanian government."
Serengeti Highway Background
The proposed highway though Serengeti was intended to improve transport between poor communities surrounding the national park and Arusha city in Tanzania, as well as Lake Victoria and neighbouring countries in central Africa.
However some conservationists speculate that the road was actually intended to serve mining operations or make way for a railway in the future.
In March Reuters New Service reported that Tanzanian government rejected a World Bank offer to assist with financing an alternative route stating that:
"President Jakaya Kikwete has defended his government's plan, saying the project would not hurt the Serengeti."
This despite the fact that scientists warned that:
"stopping the herds from reaching their traditional dry-season feeding grounds to the north of the park would lead to wildlife population crashes." (Reuters)
Germany also offered the Tanzanian government financial assistance for alternative routes that would not cut through Serengeti National Park, but nothing appears to have come from the March proposal.
The Guardian said:
"Amid growing anger from conservationists, scientists, tourists and holiday companies, the German government said last week that it would put money into an alternative route, looking at building new roads in areas bordering the Serengeti on the eastern and western boundaries without crossing the actual park. Germany also indicated this weekend that it would favour financing an international feasibility study for a southern bypass around the national park. So far the Tanzanian government has made no response." (Guardian.co.uk)
Earlier last month the African Conservation Foundation also reported American opposition to the highway although they felt that the Tanzanian government was trying to address the matter appropriately.
"The Obama administration is urging the Tanzanian government to reconsider plans to build a road through the Serengeti wildlife reserve that environmentalists say will threaten the wildebeest migration into Kenya." (African Conservation Foundation)
Johnnie Carson, top US diplomat for Africa, stated that the Tanzanian government officials:
"know the value of the wildlife, the importance of the Serengeti... They have no desire to destroy that, but they also are looking for ways to stimulate economic development in other parts of the country." (African Conservation Foundation)
Help Save the Serengeti by joining Serengeti Watch or donating to this wildlife campaign to protect one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth - the Great Migration.