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Serengeti road cancelled

UPDATE: Tanzania has announced it will be going ahead with a gravel road through the Serengeti. For more information: Unpaved road through Serengeti to progress and Richard Leakey: ‘selfish’ critics choose wrong fight in Serengeti road.

In what is a victory for environmentalists, scientists, tourism, and the largest land migration on Earth, the Tanzanian government has cancelled a commercial road that would have cut through the northern portion of the Serengeti National Park. According to scientists the road would have severed the migration route of 1.5 million wildebeest and a half million other antelope and zebra, in turn impacting the entire ecosystem of the Serengeti plains.

“The State Party confirms that the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park and therefore will not affect the migration and conservation values of the Property,” reads a statement from the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. A paved road, however, will be constructed close to the park boundaries: ending at Mugumu on the western side (12 kilometers from the park’s border) and Loliondo on the eastern side (57.6 kilometers from the border), allowing a slim buffer of habitat around the park. It is uncertain whether a gravel road will be constructed through the park, but if it is it will remain under the park authority TANAPA and will be used for tourists and administration says the statement.

According to a recent scientific study, direct impacts from the road would have cut the wildebeest herd down by over one-third (over half a million animals) with indirect impacts, such as poaching, fences, and new development, exacerbating the situation.

“[The road’s cancellation] is a wise and insightful decision by the Tanzanian Government,” Andrew Dobson, who was one of the authors on the study, told “It will ensure the long-term persistence of the Serengeti ecosystem and its world famous wildebeest migration, while also providing infrastructure to the people who live to the East of the Serengeti. It allows Tanzania to show great leadership to other African nations, by illustrating that the way to economic success in the 21st Century is to balance natural resource conservation with economic development.”

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

A leaked government environmental impact study largely agreed with Dobson’s study, finding that the road would ‘limit’ the Serengeti migration and hurt predator populations (lions, hyenas, cheetahs, leopards, crocodiles, etc.) due to a declining prey base.

By 2015, the government report predicted that 800 vehicles per day would 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. Conservationists and researchers in the area told that these were conservative figures.

For over a year conservationists warned that the road would eventually kill the iconic migration, crippling Tanzania’s tourism industry and ending one of the last great wildlife spectacles on the planet. Wildlife NGOs fought fiercely against the road, including crafting images of wildebeest being mowed down by semi-trucks.

But concern regarding the road came from more than just environmentalists. The US and German governments, as well as the UN, voiced opposition to the road plans. The World Bank offered to pay for an alternative route circumventing the park, while the German government offered to pay for local roads for cut-off people in the northern Serengeti region. Connecting far-flung local populations was the Tanzanian government’s line on the need for the road, however many suspected that the road was being aggressively pushed as part of an industrial corridor to bring raw materials from the African interior quickly and cheaply to the coast. In the statement on the road cancellation, Tanzania says it is considering the alternative southern route.

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

“A battle has been won, but the struggle to save the Serengeti goes on. Roads will still be constructed up to the edges of the park. The pressures on the Serengeti, including a commercial corridor to Uganda, still exist. The highway across the Serengeti has been proposed three times now, and can be raised again. But yes, let’s congratulate ourselves on the work we’ve done,” reads a statement from the NGO Serengeti Watch.

Environmentalists have been increasingly concerned by government plans in Tanzania. While the Serengeti road has received the most coverage, Tanzania has also recently announced plans to mine soda ash in the world’s most important lesser flamingo breeding ground, Lake Natron. The plans were abandoned in 2008 due to concerns that it would disrupt the flamingo’s breeding, but were recently resurrected and put on the fast-track. Over half of the world’s lesser flamingos (65-75%) breed on the single lake.

However, Dr. Dobson says now is the time to credit the Tanzanian government for safe-guarding the Serengeti ecosystem.

“President Kikwete and Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ezekial Maige, deserve the nation’s and the world’s praise for making a wise and forward looking decision at a time when they were under pressure from multiple national and international sources to make a very difficult decision,” Dobson said. “They have shown great leadership that points the way to the future for all African nations.”

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