Nairobi — The Tanzanian government’s plan to build a road linking Arusha and Musoma is being opposed by wildlife advocates in the United States and other developed countries who warn that the route will disrupt the wildebeest migration and thus badly damage Tanzania’s tourism-dependent economy.
A Facebook page posted under the heading “Stop the Serengeti Highway” has generated thousands of petition signatures in two weeks.
The campaign against the road has been further propelled by a New York Times blogger, Olivia Judson, who laments that the proposed road will smudge Tanzania’s “outstanding record of conservation.”
Expressing befuddlement as to why this route has been chosen, the Times blogger notes that President Jakaya Kikwete “is known for his interest in nature.”
Just last month, the president personally greeted six black rhinos flown into the Serengeti from South Africa as part of an effort to regenerate the species in Tanzania, Ms Judson notes.
The $480-million highway 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.
There has been a three-year protest by green activists, including the Tanzania National Parks Authority, against interference with the wildebeest migration route.
According to Mr Shirima, the government deemed the proposed 480km Arusha-Musoma tarmac road to be of great socioeconomic significance for Tanapa.
Of the project’s total cost, $260 million will cover the Arusha-Serengeti section and $220 million the Serengeti-Musoma segment.
Deusdedit Kakoko, the regional manager for Tanzania Roads Agency, said work will begin early 2012 while feasibility studies are to be completed by the end of this year.
Some activists alarmed by the road’s potential impact note that it enjoys the support of local communities through which it would pass.
And a few Times readers commenting on Ms Judson’s blog posting argue that the road is essential to Tanzania’s development and should not be opposed by well-off outsiders.
Traders and travellers from the heavily populated area to be served by the proposed road must currently loop more than 418Km to the south to skirt the protected Serengeti, an environmentalist website acknowledges.
Pascal Shelutete, spokesman for the Tanzanian National Parks Authority, was quoted in a recent UK Daily Telegraph story in defence of the project. “This new road will bring a great benefit to the economy of this cut-off part of the country, and ease the movement of people and goods,” Mr Shelutete said.
“No big project of this scale would be contemplated without a thorough feasibility study, and it has shown that there will be no impact on the migration.”
He noted that only an unpaved 40-mile stretch of the two-lane road’s 480km length will pass through the Serengeti.
But that may be enough to disrupt the annual movement of tens of thousands of wildebeest between the Mara and Serengeti watering grounds, wildlife advocates say.
The road will also open opportunities for poaching and increase the risk of transmitting diseases to wildebeest from livestock transported through the park, they argue.
The entire ecosystem of the Serengeti, which is of great economic as well as environmental importance to Tanzania, could suffer negative consequences if the wildebeest migration does not occur, the activists add.
The northern route newly approved by the government has previously been rejected on environmental grounds, the Times blogger points out.
“One of the most awe-inspiring sights on the planet may soon vanish, killed by a road,” she warns the paper’s readers.
Elsewhere, in Holland, Grant Hopcraft, an expert in wildebeest movements from the University of Groningen, said he was concerned about the prospect of cutting off one side of the migration from the other.
“There is the obvious concern of creating a physical barrier. Wildebeest have no problem crossing roads, but there is nothing elsewhere in the Serengeti with this high capacity for traffic,” he told the UK-based Daily Telegraph newspaper.
By the end of last week n online petition had started against the proposed road which had gathered over 2,000 signatures from around the world.
The Telegraph report said that the Masai Mara, which borders the Serengeti, could also be affected as 1.8 million wildebeest and 500,000 zebra — and the lions, hyenas, cheetahs and wild dogs that stalk them – are constantly moving between the two areas.
More than 100,000 tourists visit the Masai Mara during the peak migration months between July and October.
Critics say the new commercial highway will cut through key migration routes and could permanently change this natural wonder.
Tanzania’s government this month approved the new road linking the two towns, which will come as a considerable relief to traders and travellers.
But Kenyan tourist officials remain worried. “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.
Tanzania’s authorities are finalising design options, and it is expected that construction could start within 12 months.