Tourist vehicle in the midst of the wildebeest migration, February 2008. (Photo by Warmikani)
"A million wildebeest... each one driven by the same ancient rhythm, fulfilling its instinctive role in the inescapable cycle of life: a frenzied three-week bout of territorial conquests and mating; survival of the fittest as 40km (25 mile) long columns plunge through crocodile-infested waters on the annual exodus north..."
In these words, the Tanzania National Parks website describes the annual migration of wildebeest north across Serengeti National Park, joined by 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson's gazelle.
Conservationists and ecologists are mobilizing to fight the highway. The African Wildlife Foundation and the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania both oppose the road. They support an alternative route to the south that would bypass the park and that they say would serve many more Tanzanian towns and villages.
President Jakaya Kikwete announces the highway will be constructed. July 31, 2010. (Video image courtesy Office of the President)
On July 31, Tanzania's President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete announced that the planned highway would move forward. President Kikwete made the announcement in his regular end of the month address, the last one before the general elections in October.
Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Shamsa Mwangunga told "The Citizen" newspaper on July 3 that the government is obliged to fulfil a campaign promise, made by President Kikwete in 2005, that his administration would complete construction of the Arusha-Musoma road.
Mwangunga said construction of the road would not disturb the popular annual wildlife migration as campaigners claim.
President Kikwete's announcement came two days after the UNESCO World Heritage Committee discussed the highway at its annual meeting, held this year in Brazil. The Tanzanian delegation told them that nothing was decided, that an environmental impact study would be done. But no environmental impact assessment has been done nor is one planned.
Fifty-three kilometers of the planned 480 kilometer highway would cross the northern section of the park - a critical area for the wildebeest, which use it as a refuge for much of the year and migrate north into Kenya's Masai Mara Reserve.
Conservationists warn that heavy truck traffic will result in loss of wildlife and human life through accidents; fragmentation of habitat and alteration of water and soil systems; increased introduction of animal disease and alien plant life and increased wildlife poaching by organized gangs.
The red line shows the highway route bisecting Serengeti National Park as planned by the Tanzanian government. (Maps courtesy African Wildlife Foundation)
In an email seeking support from other environmental NGOs to stop the highway, the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania said, "Every able person should join in condemning this destructive proposal which undermines hard gains and conservation achievements of sustaining this natural and cultural gift to humanity."
"There is no alternate to the Serengeti but there are many alternative areas for building an effective road system," the society wrote. "We therefore call for common sense to prevail so as not to allow the construction of the road through the narrow northern part of the Serengeti National Park!! The road should be routed through the alternate southern end of the Park."
Here the red line shows the preferred conservation route. The purple line indicates an additional road to the south of the park.
Travel industry experts have warned that the resulting changes in the Serengeti and the migration would damage Tanzania's image and harm its tourist industry, jeopardizing millions of shillings in foreign exchange.
Survey markers are already in place along the government's planned route, but if highway construction were to be started, travel industry experts say visitors would likely boycott Tanzania.
In Germany, the Frankfurt Zoological Society warns, "The planned commercial road will become a major link between East African ports like Mombasa, Dar es Salaam or Tanga and the fast developing Central African countries. With trade growth rates rising immensely in Africa, transport will significantly increase within the next few years causing hundreds of heavy trucks to cross the Serengeti every day."
"The road bisects an area with the highest concentration of large mammals in the world, making it evident that fencing would be needed to avoid damage to vehicles and loss of human lives caused by accidents with wildlife. Such fencing would truly mean the end of the migration as wildebeest, zebras, eland and elephant could no longer reach their only water source during the dry season, the Mara River, and thus would die at the fence-line," warn FZS Executive Director Dr. Christof Schenck and Dr. Markus Borner, director of the FZS Africa Programme.
"Botswana has already lost its wildebeest and zebra migration due to such fences. And in Canada, the elk migration in Banff National Park was also compromised because of a dissecting road," say the FZS officials. "These areas are not isolated examples, roads have caused similar destruction in many pristine wilderness areas across the globe."
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