Kenya has started negotiations with Tanzania to stop plans to build a highway through the Serengeti National Park, a project that would disrupt the annual wildebeest migration.
It is estimated that the road could also hurt Kenya’s tourism goal of generating Sh200 billion by 2012.
Tanzania has approved the building of the major commercial truck to link Arusha and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya through the park.
The proposed construction – set to begin next year – has also elicited sharp reactions from environment watchdogs, who say it would spoil the fragile ecosystem of Serengeti and the Maasai Mara.
Kenya is betting on the spirit of the East African Community and good neighbourliness to persuade Tanzania to stop the plan.
“We have instructed our Tanzanian High Commission to set the stage for negotiations and we hope to come up with an amicable solution,” said Forestry and Wildlife PS Mohammed Wa-Mwachai.
Dar-es-Salaam’s decision could be driven by the economic viability of the road as it will be linking two of its key towns – Arusha, near Kilimanjaro and Musoma on Lake Victoria.
“The highway will cost the government $480-million and is planned to link Arusha and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya through the Serengeti National Park,” a statement by Isidori Shirima, Arusha Regional Commissioner said.
The Tanzanian press have been quoted as reporting that the project was part of the Government plan to upgrade roads in its largest national parks as well as create a shortcut between southern and northern parts of the country.
The road cuts directly through the Serengeti wilderness, bisecting the wildebeest migration route – one of the 10 natural travel wonders of the world.
If completed, it will become the first major tarmac road cutting through an East African national park.
Conservationists maintain that the tarmac will be a threat to wildlife and could be disastrous to the migration that has been listed among the wonders of the world.
More than 100,000 tourists visit the Maasai Mara during the peak migration months between July and October and any interruption is likely to impact on Kenya’s fortunes.
“Wildebeest have a problem crossing roads which have heavy human and vehicle traffic, there is nothing elsewhere in the Serengeti with this high capacity for traffic,” said Mr Gideon Gathaara, the Conservation Secretary.
Conservationists argue that if wildebeest were to be cut off from these critical dry season areas, the population would likely decline from 1.3 million animals to about 200,000, an impact they say would affect the migration.
An online petition against the project which begun early last month has already gathered more than 5,000 signatures from around the world.
“We sincerely believe that the road will have disastrous effects on the entire ecosystem. The northern parts of the Serengeti and the adjacent Maasai Mara are critical for the wildebeest and zebra migration during the dry season, as it is the only permanent year-round water source for these herds,” said the petition.
The Frankfurt Zoological Society, which has been the main supporter of the Serengeti for the past 50 years, stated: “The entire Serengeti will change into a completely different landscape holding only a fraction of its species and lose its world-class tourism potential and its status as the world’s most famous national park.”
The construction of the road could also affect the movement of zebras, lions, hyenas, cheetahs and wild dogs that are constantly moving between the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti.
Advocates for the road claim the project will enhance the standard of living in the regions it connects, claiming they had been cut off from the main towns.
“We’re very concerned about this road, and are waiting for details while hoping the authorities have thoroughly investigated all possible alternatives,” said Jake Grieves-Cook, the head of the Kenya Tourist Board.
Tanzanian authorities are reported to have finalised design options, and construction is expected to start within 12 months.
The northern parts of the Serengeti and the adjacent Maasai Mara are critical for the wildebeest and zebra migration during the dry season, as it is the only permanent year-round water source for the herds.
Available statistics show that if wildebeest were to be cut off from these critical dry season areas, the population would likely decline from 1.3 million animals to about 200,000 – meaning a collapse to far less than a quarter of the current population and could herald the beginning of the end of the great migration.
The road is also against Unesco’s recommendations that no through roads should pass via any national park or world heritage sites.