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Tanzania: Highway threatens Serengeti migration

World's greatest wildlife spectacle jeopardized by plans to build road.

Internationally known wildlife biologist Richard Estes said the price of a road through the Serengeti is too high: “There’s not only the hazards of animals being killed by vehicles, which is serious, but more dangerous is the unplanned development that will follow — the building of towns and strip development — which is increasing human influence and access. The poaching is already serious and this will make it a whole lot easier.”

Estes said there used to be a several great game migrations throughout Africa, and all have been effectively destroyed by economic development and roads.

“You have this world heritage site, it’s irreplaceable, it’s the last one there is. Why mess with it?” he said.

The plans for the road seem to have a lot to do with Tanzania’s general election in October. Opposition leaders claim that Kikwete’s ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), is touting the highway in order to ensure extra votes at a vulnerable time.

Godbless Lema, an opposition candidate for parliament, said the ruling party is weak in the western regions that would be serviced by the planned highway.

“The president will get the west anything they want for the sake of votes,” Lema said. He expressed the worry that if the Serengeti is harmed, Tanzania will lose a priceless asset to the tourism industry.  “While there’s an alternative to the road, there’s no alternative to the Serengeti,” Lema said.

Many of the predictions about the destruction of the wildebeest migration are based on the scenario of a high-speed asphalt highway through the Serengeti park. Early reports indicated that the Serengeti section of the highway would be paved, but Kikwete recently assured critics that the 30-mile section would be gravel with a low speed limit.

But critics say the road would still threaten the wildlife because it would not be controlled by the Serengeti National Parks authority. “If that road is de-gazetted from the Serengeti, there would be no limitation on traffic at night and fencing could happen without the national park having a say in it,” said Dennis Rentsch, a community liaison for the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

Wildlife conservationists are anxiously awaiting the results of a feasibility study due out in January. For now, there is a great deal of uncertainty about exactly how the road will be built, fueling some of the more dire scenarios.

“Those criticizing the road construction know nothing about what we’ve planned,” said Shamsa Mwangunga, minister for natural resources and tourism, to Tanzania’s The Citizen. This is true enough, since the government has refused to make its plans public until the feasibility study is complete.

However, even Dennis Rentsch — whose organization, the Frankfurt Zoologial Society, opposes the highway — cautions against foreigners being overly critical of Tanzania's policies.

"I personally have a bit more faith in the Tanzanian government than some of the international community," Rentsch said. "Often, in my experience, when the government really sits down and looks at an issue from both sides, they reach an outcome that is really in the best interest."

Jesse Dukes traveled to Tanzania with a grant from the Nation Institute's Investigative Fund.