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Conservation issues in Tanzania

  • What’s happening in Tanzania? This is a question making the rounds in East African conservation circles.
  • Why is a nation that has so much invested in wild lands and wild animals pursuing projects that researchers say will not only gravely harm some of the nation’s world-famous wildlife and ecosystems, but also undercut its economically-important tourism industry?

From the Serengeti to the Eastern Arc montane forests

The following is an article written especially for the Joint ATBC-SCB Africa conference to introduce attendees to some of the recent conservation news from Tanzania. The content comes from a number of different articles published on, which has closely followed events in Tanzania over the past year.


What’s happening in Tanzania? This is a question making the rounds in East African conservation circles. Why is a nation that has so much invested in wild lands and wild animals pursuing projects that researchers say will not only gravely harm some of the nation’s world-famous wildlife and ecosystems, but also undercut its economically-important tourism industry?

Tanzania’s biggest conservation issue, at least according to foreign media, is the proposed road bisecting Serengeti National Park, which scientists, conservationists, the UN, and foreign governments alike have condemned. But there are other concerns among conservationists, including the fast-tracking of soda ash mining in the world’s most important breeding ground for lesser flamingos, and the recent announcement to nullify an application for UNESCO World Heritage Status for a portion of Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains, a threatened tropical forest area rich in species found no-where else. According to President Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania is simply trying to provide for its poorest citizens (such as communities near the Serengeti and the Eastern Arc Mountains) while pursuing western-style industrial development.

“We have to develop to an industrialized country and to get there we should think through, plan and put strategies in place. Unlike other countries which are forced to import raw materials, our country has all the raw materials necessary for developing our industries,” Kikwete said recently in response to the push to mine soda ash in Lake Natron.

 Tanzania's 4th President, Jakaya Kikwete (center), with US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo by: US government.
Tanzania’s 4th President, Jakaya Kikwete (center), with US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo by: US government.

But Kikwete’s critics contend that he is trading Tanzania’s most precious natural heritages—and some of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth—for an industrial slough that will enrich a few, mostly foreigners, but leave Tanzania, and its citizens, bereft.

“Kikwete’s spiteful attitude towards the World Heritage site and his strange determination to drive a road through Serengeti make him look increasingly old-fashioned and vindictive,” Andrew Dobson, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, told Dobson has conducted numerous studies in the Serengeti, including recent ones on the impact of the proposed roads.

There are reports that the Chinese are involved in Tanzania’s plans, pushing the Serengeti road—and willing to fund it—in order to create a massive thoroughfare for mined minerals to be brought cheaply from the interior to the coast and then shipped to China to continue its breakneck growth. But these rumors to date are unsubstantiated, and the only ones who can answer such questions are those in the top levels of Tanzanian government.

In the end, the projects may be more about local politics than anything else.

“The issue is complex and links closely to current national politics and the pressures the president is under from some elements within his own party, from a developing opposition, and from the national and international environment sector,” a source working in conservation in Tanzania told “Political promises have been made about roads, mining and hydroelectric power. Whilst there are very legitimate environmental concerns about all of them, and more economically viable alternatives have been found for the [Serengeti] road, a presidential U-turn may be considered by some as a sign of weakness. This makes an exit strategy complicated.”

The Serengeti Road

The issue that has gained the most press internationally is the proposed road that would bisect the Serengeti National Park. Home to the world’s largest migration of land animals—two million wildebeest, antelope, and zebra migrate annually across this vast grassland—many view the Serengeti plains as one of the most astounding wildlife areas on Earth, and it is certainly among the most famous.

The Tanzanian government’s plan would construct a road through the entirety of the northern end of the park, but the government has given assurances that the road will not diminish the park’s wildlife.

African savanna elephants in the Serengeti. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
African savanna elephants in the Serengeti. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“The Serengeti is a jewel of our nation as well as for the international community. […] We will do nothing to hurt the Serengeti and we would like the international community to know this,” Kikwete recently said.

However, scientists, and even Kikwete’s own government studies, disagree. According to them in time the road will effectively diminish, perhaps even destroy, the Serengeti migration.

“The road is devastating as it will never remain a single road—it’s presence will lead to increased traffic, degazetting of areas to either side of the road and thus increased poaching, increased collisions between wildlife and vehicles that will lead for calls for the road to be fenced. This will eventually stop the migration and the wildebeest and zebra populations will decline by 40 to 70%,” explains Dobson, who recently worked on a study looking at how the road will impact the annual migration.

“This will have significant impact on tourism, fire frequency will increase, and the Serengeti will flip from one of the world’s most significant carbon sinks, into a source of carbon. This will completely nullify Tanzania’s potential to benefit from future schemes for carbon credits.”

A leaked study by the Tanzanian government essentially agrees with Dobson’s and many others’ concerns.

“The migration may be limited by the high level of traffic that will disrupt [it]… This is a major concern that has caused a lot of publicity for the [Serengeti] road project,” reads the study. “It is argued that only will the wildebeest be affected but the animals that prey on them will also be impacted if the migration is disrupted”.

In other words, not only will wildebeest, zebra, and antelope suffer from the road project, but the predators that depend on them: lions, leopard, hyenas, cheetahs, and Nile crocodiles will also face significant declines.

By 2015, the report predicts, 800 vehicles per day will cross the proposed 30 mile (50 kilometer) stretch of the park. By 2035, the number of vehicles per day is expected to rise to 3,000, or well over a million a year. However, was told privately by some environmentalists that even these estimates were considerably conservative.

In an attempt to diffuse the criticism Kikwete has pointed out that the road will not be paved in the park.

“No tarmac road will be built through the Serengeti. We will only build a road around the park to ease very serious transport challenges facing the poorer communities around the park,” Kikwete said in a statement.

However, co-founder of the conservation group Serengeti Watch, Dave Blanton, told the Canadian Press that given the amount of traffic expected the road could not stay unpaved for long.

“They have clear plans for a major commercial route between Lake Victoria and the Indian Ocean. I think common sense would say with that volume of traffic there is no way you could have a dirt road on top of that soil. Paving and fencing is the future. No one doubts that.”

Renowned conservationist Richard Leakey agrees. Last year he stated that while the road may not initially stop wildebeest, zebra, and antelope from making their annual journal, eventually—when traffic rises and demand leads to paving and more development—the road will “kill the migration”.

The leaked government report also warns that the road will hurt endangered species, including rhinos and the oribi antelope.

“There has been a re-introduction of rhinos in the project area and these sensitive animals will be subject to traffic and poaching,” the report reads, adding, “the shy oribi is also found in the eastern corridor and this antelope would be disturbed with the increased traffic.”

Also according to the government report, the road may have a negative impact on Tanzania’s neighbor to the north, Kenya, which is home to the northern part of the Serengeti’s plains the Masaai Mara.

“A reduction in the migration of the Serengeti would lead to impacts on the Masaai Mara and bordering wildlife areas,” reads the report, adding that Tanzania’s road would have “consequent impacts” on Kenya’s tourism industry.

Adds William Laurance, a leading researcher on tropical roads at James Cook University in Australia, “Roads like this often open up a pandora’s box of unanticipated and unwanted activities, such as poaching, illegal encroachment, secondary roads, and barrier effects on sensitive wildlife, which ten to avoid halo zones around roads and traffic. It’s quite ludicrous to suggest a major road like this would have little impact on a world-class ecosystem like the Serengeti.”

An alternative route has been identified that would circumvent the Serengeti around the south, preserving the ecosystem. While the alternative route would serve more Tanzanian communities than the Serengeti road, the Tanzanian government says it will not budge, with Kikwete arguing that the southern route would not serve the communities in the northern Serengeti who currently have to travel for hours daily for water and electricity. At this point the World Bank and the German government became involved: the World Bank offered to fund the alternative route, while the German government has offered to build local community roads for the people of the northern Serengeti.

These propositions have added pressure on the Tanzanian government to change its plans, since the World Bank and the German government appear to have addressed their concerns. Yet to date the Tanzanian government has not backed down, leaving many perplexed, including, says Dobson, local Tanzanians.

“Many people in Tanzania prefer the alternative plans and are proud of Tanzania’s role as a leading country for conservation of large natural areas. They increasingly worry that President Kikwete is not behaving in away that reflect the values for which they voted for him to be elected as president. They are very concerned that people in government who might speak out, are remaining silent and worry they are being threatened.”

Recently local opposition has been rising against the road in Tanzania. In March of this year the Tanzanian Association of Tour Operators (Tato) came out against the project. Tato, described as powerful local lobby group by the Tanzanian media, stated that the road would negatively impact tourism. Next a coalition of local NGOs working in wildlife, forestry, and fisheries dubbed MANET; sent out a press release and statement stating that they too were against the Serengeti road.

“Ultimately it is essential that decisions about the road be made by Tanzanians,” says Dobson, “but the government and media are responsible for ensuring everybody has the correct information on which to base this decision. The increasing local action against the road simply reflects more local Tanzanian people understanding the situation and expressing their concern that the government had previously misled them about the situation.”

Given the international and scientific outcry, Dave Blanton says that the whole proposal has left critics baffled.

“Why is this so important to them? Nobody seems to understand because it doesn’t add up. They could do the southern road and accomplish basically the same thing. It really depends on that hidden motive, that huge unknown factor leading them on. Whether there’s some big economic incentive or geopolitical scheme involved we just don’t know.”

Nullifying UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Eastern Arc Mountains

Beyond the Serengeti, Tanzania has recently taken steps to downgrade conservation efforts in other parts of the country. After Tanzania’s Serengeti road plans became public, the UN condemned them, which it had the right to do, since the Serengeti National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Following the criticism Kikwete announced he was planning on nullifying an application to add the Udzungwa and Uluguru Mountains as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, stating that local people required the tropical montane forest habitat for economic reasons.

 Tropical montane forest in Tanzania. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Tropical montane forest in Tanzania. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

“We cannot ask for UNESCO’s permission in everything we do. There are things
that we can decide ourselves,” the president stated about the move.

There are four criteria for a nature site to make it on the UNESCO Heritage Site and a site need only meet one of the four. However, conservationist Katarzyna Nowak with Princeton University, who has studied forest elephants in the area, says that the Udzungwa and Uluguru Mountains—a part of the Eastern Arc Mountains—meet all four criteria: an area of exceptional natural beauty, significant geologic importance, an example of important evolutionary processes, and containing important endangered species or wild lands.

Nowak explains that the biodiversity of the Eastern Arc Mountains helps make Tanzania the most biodiverse country in Africa, even beating countries in the Congo Basin.

The Eastern Arc Mountains “are one of the most biodiverse sites in the world with large numbers of endemic and threatened genera and species,” says Nowak, “around 3,500 plant species of which at least 450 species and 40 genera are endemic [found no-where else in the world], over 70 amphibian species of which 50 are endemic, over 50 reptile species with over 30 endemics, many of which are chameleons, over 120 bird species with over 21 endemic species and 2 endemic genera including the Udzungwa forest partridge and rufous-winged sunbird, and over 100 mammal species of which 12 are endemic.”

Some special mammals in the region include three monkeys found no-where else in the world: Udzungwa red colobus (Procolobus gordonorum) and the Sanje mangabey (Cercocebus sanjei), both classifed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, and the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji), which is classified as Critically Endangered. The kipunji is especially bizarre. Only discovered by researchers in 2003, it was the first new monkey species to be discovered in Africa in 20 years. It was also the first new monkey genus in the world since 1923.

Then there was the discovery of the grey-faced sengi, or elephant shrew, in 2006, which just happens to be the largest elephant shrew in the world.

These forests were recently named number 10 in Conservation International’s Top 10 Most Threatened Forest Hotspots, since only 11% of Africa’s Eastern montane forests survive, and remnants are currently threatened by encroaching agriculture and bushmeat hunting.

So, there is little question that the Eastern Arc Mountain site deserves World Heritage status, but what about Kikwete’s point that such status would only further impoverish local communities?

“Is there evidence that UNESCO Heritage status has hurt local livelihoods (or kept out poachers for that matter?) in other heritage sites in Tanzania, such as the Selous Game Reserve or Serengeti National Park?,” asks Nowak, “[…] Management decisions at the site-level (for example, the upcoming TANAPA-led ban on firewood collection by women in the Udzungwa Mountains National Park) will have more bearing on local communities and their attitudes toward the park than would Heritage Site status!”

In May ten NGOS, both local and international, asked the president to reconsider the nullification, according to the local paper, The Citizen.

The executive director of Tanzania Forest Conservation Group (TFCG), Charles Meshack, told The Citizen that the president may have misunderstood the role of the pending UNESCO World Heritage sites in the Eastern Arc Mountains.

“The nominated site is restricted to areas that are already reserved under Tanzanian law and does not include any village land, general land or forest reserves,” Meshack said, adding that the application process was in its fourteenth year and the only remaining step before acceptance was an external review.

Andrew Dobson says that World Heritage Status would actually aid local communities economically.

“The increase in tourism […] may well have major benefits to people living in the vicinity. If World Heritage Status were conferred by UNESCO on these sites, it would further raise Tanzania status as one of the world’s best examples of a country that appreciates its natural capitol,” Dobson says, adding that “President Kikwete could reaffirm his status as one of Africa’s most forward looking and progressive leaders. Someone who other African countries could look to as a role model and for leadership.”

However, another conservationist, the source quoted earlier, said Kikwete could have good political reasons to nullify the application.

“Two of the country’s main UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Serengeti and Selous are facing serious challenges in their management. And the Lake Natron Ramsar site also,” the conservationist said. “Whether or not designation as a World Heritage Site has real value is a moot point. In this instance, it is understandable the president has shied away from it. He is already under considerable international pressure over the management of two World Heritage Sites. Adding another one, in his eyes, merely sets him up for more negative press.”

Such a view suggests that local politics could trump efforts to conserve one of the world’s most important and imperiled environments.

Flamingos and Soda Ash

A third issue may set up Kikwete for more negative press regarding the management of another of the region’s great spectacles. Scientists say plans to mine in the world’s most important flamingo breeding ground threatens the biological wonder of hundreds of thousands of flamingos filling up shallow lakes in the Great Rift Valley throughout East Africa.

Astoundingly, over half of the world’s lesser flamingos (between 65-75%) are born in a single lake in northern Tanzania: Lake Natron. This shallow salt lake provides optimal habitat for flamingos and their chicks as the caustic environment keeps mammal predators at bay. But conservationists worry that plans to mine soda ash—also known as sodium carbonate, which is used in making glass, chemicals, and detergents—would disrupt the sensitive birds’ breeding grounds, threatening the species and putting a damper on East Africa’s tourism industry.

Lake Natron as viewed from satellites. Image by: NASA.
Lake Natron as viewed from satellites. Image by: NASA.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete recently resurrected the plan to mine in Lake Natron after it was abandoned in 2008 due to concerns from Tanzania’s National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) that mining would impact the birds’ breeding success.

“There is no need for further delay,” Kikwete said, “because experience shows that the excavation can continue without any disturbance to the ecosystem there, environmental activists want people to believe that the move will wipe out the flamingo population, which is not true.”

But Tanzanian isn’t planning on simply re-considering the $450 million mine—which would be constructed by an Indian company, Tata Chemicals—they want its approval ‘fast-tracked’. In fact, the local paper The East African reports that Tanzania’s Minister for Industry and Trade, Cyril Chami, has recently stated that even if a current Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) finds against construction of a soda ash factory, the government will build it anyway.

To protect the flamingos, Kikwete has promised the factory will not be built on the lake itself, but 70 kilometers away. Soda ash would then be moved from the lake to the factory via pipelines, which the president assures would save flamingos from disturbance. However, conservationists are skeptical.

“The disruption on the surface of the lake by workers and pipes will prevent most of the breeding and reduce the success rate,” Neil Baker told Having lived in Tanzanian for 30 years, Baker is the author of Important Bird Areas in Tanzania.

According to Baker, the sensitive lesser flamingo “depends on successful large-scale breeding events at Lake Natron to augment the population,” making the lake the “only significant” breeding site for these birds in East Africa and the most important in the world. On average good breeding events happen every five years or so.

Matt Aeberhard, director of Disney Nature’s film The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos, which is set at Lake Natron, told that even when a year goes by without a big breeding event, Lake Natron still provides important habitat for “significant” small breeding events.

Although numbering around two million, the lesser flamingo has been classified as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List, because it has seen ‘moderately rapid reductions’ in its population.

“It is most probably already in decline due to large-scale die offs and a series of poor breeding seasons,” says Baker. “But, and this is important, we do not know as no one counts these birds on a regular basis. ”

And this is the crux of the problem for conservationists: researchers suspect mining activities would critically disrupt breeding, but lack the research necessary to know for certain. While the forthcoming Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) may shed some light on the issue, the government has already signaled the mine will go ahead no matter the study’s findings.

What really keeps ornithologists up at night is water. Aeberhard says flamingos will not breed at Lake Natron if the natural water cycle is upset. The birds breed either in shallow waters during the dry season or following a heavy rain in the wet season. The level of water has to be balanced: too much and the mud flats on which the flamingos nest are flooded, too little and the surface become desiccated. Once fledged, chicks will perish if they don’t have quick access to water.

“Any large scale mining at Natron that might disturb the natural hydrological balance at the lake is likely to cause issues, particularly if it involves extraction of large amounts of water from the lake,” explains Aeberhar, adding that “it could also be argued that mining might actually increase breeding opportunities too, because it is possible that mining could create greater amounts of wet soda area than what might occur naturally in any given year.”

Given the dearth of studies on Lake Nation, scientists simply don’t know how the birds will react.

“Clearly there can be no ‘wise use’ of a ‘resource’ without knowledge, and we still have no knowledge of Lake Natron and the flamingos from serious time based studies conducted by professional ornithologists and scientists at the lake over a number of years,” says Aeberhard.

One thing that is clear is that soda ash mining is incredibly water intensive. If the water needed to process the minerals is taken from the lake’s wetlands—and not shipped in—it could devastate the ecosystem.

However, President Kikwete, who has set a goal of nearly doubling Tanzania’s industrial sector by 2025, says it’s in the country’s best interests to mine the lake.

“What matters here is the application of sophisticated technology which is not harmful to flamingo’s breeding. At times I wonder whether those who are opposing this move are really patriotic, because it seems as if they are agents of some people we don’t know,” President Kikwete said, who commonly paints those who oppose his plans as unpatriotic or meddling foreigners.

Kikwete argues that Tanzania may go ahead without fear at Lake Natron, because Kenya to the north is already mining soda ash at another shallow salt lake—Lake Magadi—that is still frequented by flamingos. But there are significant differences between Magadi and Natron.

“There are no major rivers (so no mud) flowing in to Lake Magadi, the brine is of a higher quality than at Natron and easier to mine,” explains Baker. Sodium carbonate is also plentiful at Lake Magadi. “At current extraction rates there are still thousands of years of resource remaining.”

But, while flamingos can often be found feeding in Lake Magadi, they almost never breed there.

“Within human memory flamingoes have only bred once at Lake Magadi,” says Baker, “in early 1963 they were forced to abandon lake Natron due to flooding and in desperation moved north to Magadi. [The lake] is not isolated enough from mammalian predators and suffers from far too much human disturbance to be a suitable site for these flamingos.”

For flamingos Lake Natron is the breeding ground, while Magadi and a series of other lakes in the Great Rift Valley are used primarily for feeding. Disruptions at Magadi is not likely to decimate the flamingo population, whereas Lake Natron is another story.

“We cannot continue to mourn about our country being poor while our minerals are lying untapped,” Kikwete argues.

But conservationists contend that such mining should not be rushed and, if nothing else, more research is needed to shed light on concerns. Aeberhard says other economic development projects could also be explored.

“[It] surprises me that the Tanzanian government hasn’t acknowledged the potential for exploring bio-technology at the lake (unique salt loving bacteria etc.). Particularly when the potential for high-tech industry to eliminate poverty in a country might be considered greater than [mining].”

At stake here is more than just flamingos: tourism throughout East Africa would be injured if the bird vanishes; and mining could imperil a number of other bird populations that make the wetlands surrounding Lake Natron their home. In addition, there are the local people who have largely been left out of the debate.

Lake Natron has been dubbed an international Ramsar wetland site, which means any changes undertaken at the lake, especially those that could impact the environment, should be communicated to Ramsar authorities.

“Obviously it is the Tanzanian government’s prerogative to decide on the fate of Lake Natron,” says Aeberhard, “[but] clearly a ‘fast track’ development of Lake Natron cannot be in the best interest of Tanzania, and it certainly cannot be in the best interest of the lake and the cultural traditions of its people (the Maasai of Natron) who will have this development forced upon them without having any say in its form or development.”

To what end?

No one should believe, even his critics, that Kikwete’s job is easy or straightforward. He has to balance high expectations with on-the-ground realities, deal with recent problems such as rising commodity prices and energy shortages, and attempt to build infrastructure for a nation that still contains many hugely impoverished communities. That’s not all: Tanzania, like many East African nations, has faced terrible droughts in the past few years that have crippled its agriculture sector. It continues to battle an AIDS crisis and struggles to provide education to all its citizens. In conservation areas, Kikwete is facing a rash of poaching and serious management issues. Poaching has become so severe that he has recently announced the army will be sent in to some parks.

Female lion guards a wildebeest kill in Tanzania. A leaked government study warns that a proposed road project would hurt the Serengeti’s big predator species. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

Katarzyna Nowak described Kikwete as “pro-development”, and it’s no secret he has been aggressively pushing for a massive expansion in mining and drilling by foreign companies. In his eyes, exploiting these resources could be a game-changer for Tanzania. However, in the eyes of critics he is imperiling Tanzania’s world-renowned ecosystems by playing risky games with companies.

“The controversial Serengeti highway is clearly the main transportation link for those [industrial] interests. As with the flamingo breeding grounds, so the migration of the great herds of wildebeest and zebras will have to make way for powerful industrial and financial interest groups in the good books of President Kikwete,” writes Thome.

Critics say such deals could result in a ‘resource-curse’, whereby Tanzania loses much of its natural resources with little enrichment to its people. This is a story that has played out a number of times in other developing countries: natural resources are sold off, a few made wealthy, but the environment is wasted and the people who depend on it are left more impoverished than ever.

In an effort to mimic western development, will this history be repeated in Tanzania?

All forest data from FAO (2010); population data from IMF (2011)

Total forest cover 1990 2000 2005 2010
Area (ha) 41,495,000 37,462,000 35,445,000 33,428,000
% of land mass 46.8% 42.3% 40.0% 37.7%
Annual deforestation 1990-2000 2000-2005 2005-2010
Area (ha) (403,300) (403,400) (403,400)
% of forest cover -1.1% -1.1% -1.2%
Area (ha) 150,000 200,000 230,000 240,000
% of forest cover 0.4% 0.5% 0.6% 0.7%
Primary forest
Not reported Not reported Not reported Not reported
Carbon stock in
living forest biomass
million metric tons 2,505 2,262 2,139 2,019
Removals (1000 cu m)
Industrial roundwood 2,294 2,653 2,661
Woodfuel 21,552 23,984 24,970
25,470,000 33,600,000 36,766,356 41,892,895

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