Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park facing ‘collapse’ due to highway plans

by Sep 21, 2010Conservation Threats, Serengeti

One of world’s last great wildlife sanctuaries, the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, would be destroyed by plans to build a highway through it, experts have warned.

The proposed 31-mile two-lane commercial highway would lead to the “collapse” of the largest remaining mass-migration system on Earth, biologists say.

A group of 27 biodiversity experts say the road, which slashes right across the annual migratory route taken by 1.3 million wildebeest as part of the last great mass movements of animals, would also cause “environmental disaster”.

Scientists say the wildebeest play a vital role in a fragile ecosystem, maintaining the vitality of Serengeti’s grasslands and sustaining threatened predators such as lions, cheetahs and wild dogs.

Tanzania’s government earlier this year approved the new road linking two key towns in the country’s northwest – Arusha, near Mount Kilimanjaro, and Musoma on Lake Victoria.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed in June that the proposed road would cut a broad swathe 31 miles long through the northern part of the 5,698-square-mile National Park, close to the border with Kenya.

The alternative route invoked by the experts would be around 155 miles farther south, below the Ngorongoro Conservation Area. Tanzania’s authorities are finalising design options, and it is expected that construction could start within 12 months.

But the experts, writing in a commentary published by the science journal Nature, urged the Tanzanian government halt the work and seek an alternative route that runs further south from the UN-listed haven.

In other parks, such as Canada’s Banff National Park, Etosha National Park in Namibia and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana, fences and roads on migratory routes have triggered a collapse in the ecosystem.

“The road will cause an environmental disaster,” the experts wrote.

“Simulations suggest that if wildebeest access to the Mara river in Kenya is blocked, the population will fall to less than 300,000.

“This would lead to more grass fires, which would further diminish the quality of grazing by volatising minerals, and the ecosystem could flip into being a source of atmospheric CO2.”

They added: “The proposed road could lead to the collapse of the largest remaining migratory system on Earth – a system that drives Tanzania’s tourism trade and supports thousands of people,” conclude the authors.

“Such a collapse would be exceedingly regrettable for a country that has consistently been a world leader in conservation.”

The idea linking Tanzania’s coast to Lake Victoria and Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo has been around for two decades.

But with Tanzania due to stage elections next month, the scheme has gained in priority because of increasing foreign interest in exploiting the mineral wealth of central Africa.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) has already expressed its “utmost concern” about the proposal.

The RSPB in the UK, the US-based Wildlife Conservation Society, and the Zoological Society of London are also all against the plans.

More than 100,000 tourists visit the Masai Mara during the peak migration months between July and October.

A spokesman for the Tanzanian government was unavailable for comment.