Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Serengeti Highway

Mention ‘African safari’ and most people think ‘Serengeti’. The setting for Disney’s Lion King and the most iconic savannah biome in the world is central to Tanzania’s cultural heritage and has been protected by its people for centuries. The integrity of the 1,476,300 hectare park is under threat, with plans to send a high-speed, commercial highway through its north-eastern territory, connecting the Lake Victoria area with Eastern Tanzania. Recently approved by Tanzania’s government, an Environment and Social Impact Assessment, to be completed by the end of 2010 will determine the overall viability of the project, and construction is due to begin in early 2012.

The approval has been long awaited by some; twenty years ago, submissions to build the road were rejected on the grounds that it would cause environmental degradation and, following recommendations from an EIA, the World Bank turned down funding.

Now, the 2012 highway is to be funded by the Tanzanian Government and the section from Serengeti to Musoma, expected to cost around £144 million, is part of a larger plan to link a proposed new port at Tanga to Musoma on Lake Victoria via Arusha and Lake Natron’s shores.

Supporters of the project say that the road is essential in meeting public and economic needs. Mr Deusdedit Kakoko, of the Tanzania Roads Agency, says that the current route connecting Lake Victoria and Eastern Tanzania requires drivers to travel 418km to the South, to avoid the UNESO World Heritage Site and Tanzania’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ms Shamsa Mwangunga, insists that that the road would not interfere with wildlife migration patterns or the wider Serengeti eco-system. Ms Mwangunga stated that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has already proved the feasibility of the project and added that “We’re all keen to preserve our natural resources…We’ll never compromise on that”.

The most pressing concern is that the road will disturb one of the biggest migration patterns in the world - the annual movement of 1.8 million wildebeest, as well as that of tens of thousands of antelope, elephant and zebra, between the Mara and Serengeti watering and grazing grounds.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society recently warned that if wildebeest are cut off from watering holes in dry season areas, their population could decline by around two thirds and potentially bring an end to ‘the greatest migration on earth’. The knock on effects of such a massive change would entirely alter the landscape of the Serengeti.

There are also fears that the route, which arcs from east to west across the north-eastern edge of the Serengeti, will massively damage the tourism industry on which Tanzania is so dependent. The high-speed route will also provide increased opportunity to poachers, who will have easy access to endangered species such as the black rhino – prized for its ivory horn.

Lying in one of the world’s Endemic Bird Areas, the park is home to around 500 species of birds, including 34 raptors, 6 vultures, and groups of over 20,000 water-birds. Cutting through a major flamingo breeding area, major international bird conservation groups, such as the RSPB, are amongst those campaigning against the construction. BirdLife International (a network of over 100 international conservation NGOs) have expressed fears over the impact the road will have on biodiversity, partly through road kill of mammals and scavengers. In addition, Birdlife uphold that Tanzania has an obligation to fulfil biological diversity commitments to the World Heritage Convention.

Campaigners do not deny the need for better transport routes but insist that slicing through this sensitive area of the park is not necessary. Dave Blanton, founder of The International Galapagos Tour Operators Association, is a major supporter of the coalition group ‘Save The Serengeti’, and emphasized that the campaign is not an ‘animals vs. people’ protest but one that favours an alternate route which would promote economic development whilst preserving Tanzania’s ‘greatest natural treasure’.

Upholding the cultural and political values of stewardship and sustainability, Save the Serengeti is an alliance of conservation groups who are campaigning hard to oppose the road. Despite government denial, they maintain that the proposed route cuts directly through a major wildebeest migration pathway and insist that a more economically and environmentally viable southern alternative route exists, which would skirt the reserve and avoid the immense damage of the northern route. Amongst others, their petition, was signed in June by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), whose president, Shannon Stowell expressed the association’s great concern and shares hopes for an alternative route to be considered.

To find out more, visit Save The Serengeti

Photo taken from www.savetheserengeti.org

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