Heads of three global environmental conservation organisations have officially appealed to President Jakaya Kikwete to re-examine his decision to construct a highway through the Serengeti National Park (Senapa), in a desperate attempt to save the world heritage site from losing its outstanding universal value.
The appeal was made in July by chief executive officers of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest and oldest global environmental network; and the World Commission on Protected Areas, the world’s foremost authority on protected areas.
They were joined by the head of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), an agency mandated to conserve the world’s heritage.
Another call came from the head of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), an international non-governmental organization working on issues related to conservation, research and restoration of the environment.
The heads’ appeal to President Kikwete come in the wake of plans by the government to construct the $480million (Sh372billion) road through Senapa.
The Serengeti is described as the last place on earth that represents how the world looked a million years ago.
The minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ms Shamsa Mwangunga, said recently that the government was obliged to fulfill a campaign promise, made by President Kikwete in 2005, that the fourth phase administration under CCM would complete construction of the 480-kilometre Arusha-Musoma road.
The proposed construction – set to begin next year – has also elicited sharp reactions from other environmental watchdogs, which say it would spoil the fragile ecosystem of the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara.
They said in their letters to President Kikwete that Senapa was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1981 by virtue of its exceptional importance for the conservation of biodiversity and the rare and endangered species it harbours, and the area’s annual wildebeest migration, widely recognized as one of the most impressive natural events in the world.
When contacted on Monday for comment, the permanent secretary in the ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, Dr Ladislaus Komba, said he was not aware of the letters.
In their joint letter to President Kikwete, the IUCN director general, Ms Julia Marton-Lefevre, and the chairman of the IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas, Mr Nikita Lopoukhine, said:
“Such a decision (to build the road across Serengeti) would risk Tanzania, a valued IUCN member, being perceived in the international arena as diminishing the immense global importance of protected areas at a time when the international community, through the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity, looks to governments to strengthen their commitments.”
They said the incursion of a road into this protected area would lead to irretrievable biodiversity loss, adding: “Your country’s national parks play a vital role in conserving biodiversity and therefore providing a solid foundation for the prosperity and health of your citizens.”
They said allowing a road to be constructed through the iconic World Heritage Site such as Senapa sets a very serious precedent and risks damaging Tanzania’s respected international reputation.
Ms Marton-Lefevre and Mr Lopoukhine said IUCN believed that the proposed changes were worrying, considering Tanzania’s progress in conservation over many decades.
They said the road would damage the integrity and conservation values of the Serengeti World Heritage Site by causing increased levels of poaching and trafficking of wildlife products, rising levels of air and water pollution and introducing and enabling the spread of invasive species.
“In addition, it is likely that increased traffic accidents, as a result of locating a road across a wildlife migration route, will result in the loss of both human and animal lives,” they observed.
“If the government does decide to proceed, we urge you to ensure that there is an independent and transparent Environmental Impact Assessment undertaken in a widely consultative manner to fully evaluate the potential impacts of the proposed road,” they suggested.
UNESCO director general, Ms Irina Bokova, said: “I wish, therefore, to appeal to you to re-examine the proposed north road alignment, taking into account the World Heritage status of the Serengeti National Park and the commitment made by the Government of Tanzania to conserve this property for current and future generations, in accordance with the 1972 World Heritage Convention.”
She said she was informed that a shorter alternative south road alignment could be considered, thereby avoiding the Serengeti World Heritage Site while providing clear economic advantages for local communities and connecting inhabited agricultural areas south of Serengeti to markets.
“Balancing development with the conservation and heritage is one of the main challenges of governments all over the world. This responsibility is even greater for countries that are custodians of World Heritage sites,” said the UNESCO boss.
In their joint letter, the WWF International vice-president Emeritus, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, the WWF International president Yolanda Kakabadse and the WWF International director general, Mr James P. Leape, said the international reputation and admiration of Senapa as one of the most iconic parks on earth is echoed in the sentiment that “Serengeti shall never die”.
They expressed concern that the proposed commercial highway and resultant traffic would create a physical barrier through key migration routes and permanently sever the critical corridor for the annual wildebeest and zebra migration.
“This damage to wildebeest migration and wildlife movement in general has a significant conservation impact, which in turn would greatly affect the revenue to Tanzania generated by tourists who come to Serengeti specifically to witness this phenomenon,” they said.
They said the unique and spectacular annual migration of 1.4 million wildebeest and 500,000 zebra trailed by carnivores from Tanzania into Kenya crossing the Mara River has for decades attracted global tourism to Tanzania.
Currently tourism in Tanzania is one of the five highest income generating sectors with over 700,000 tourists a year, three quarters of whom visit the northern circuit, including the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s rooftop.
The WWF International top brass has proposed three road alternatives, pledging to offer technical assistance to the government of Tanzania in developing additional sustainable alternatives.
Among the proposed road is the one linking Waso in Loliondo in Ngorongoro District with Mto wa Mbu outside the Serengeti, which they said would stimulate development in the more populated areas.
Another proposal is a road linking Mugumu, the Serengeti District headquarters to the national and regional road network westward of Senapa, connecting the existing Mwanza-Musoma highway, which they said would still improve communication without dissecting Serengeti.
Another suggested road is the one passing southwards of the entire Serengeti and Ngorongoro conservation complex.
“WWF International takes this opportunity to renew to the government of the Republic of Tanzania and the Office of the President of the Republic of Tanzania the assurances of its highest consideration,” they said.
They said WWF International had invested millions of dollars in supporting the development of key protected areas in Tanzania, most notably the Ruaha National Park, the Udzungwa Mountains National Park, the Mafia Island Marine Park and the Selous Game Reserve.