Call to Save the Serengeti May Still Be Heard, But Time Is Running Out
What began with science-based opposition by AWF and other conservation groups has grown into a grassroots movement playing out across social media outlets and echoed by global influencers such as the World Bank, UNESCO, and most recently, the Government of Germany.
This diverse coalition of scientists and conservationists, economists and development experts has coalesced around a singular message: the construction of a road through Serengeti National Park would gravely threaten the last great migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and erode one of the most pristine landscapes on earth. It would also establish a damaging precedent that Africa's ecological and wildlife assets hold little long-term economic value.
Acknowledging that good conservation planning must be aligned with economic development, AWF has urged the Government of Tanzania to reject the road proposal, and has offered alternative route recommendations that would achieve similar commercial goals without degrading the park (see alternative highway routes posed by AWF experts).
"Conservation and development are not in conflict. They can and must go together," says AWF CEO Patrick Bergin.
Learning of the road proposal last June, AWF issued a formal letter of opposition to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete setting forth a scientifically and commercially sound alternative plan. Although a small minority of commentators has argued that the ecological significance of the Serengeti ecosystem is being overstated, such statements have been easily refuted. Supporting over 2 million large ungulates, Serengeti National Park contains one of the last intact refuges for migratory wildlife on the planet and is home to one of the world's largest lion populations. By some estimates, more than $500 million in tourism revenue and 200,000 jobs would be lost if the road is built through the park.
Claims that the environmental impact of the road would be minimal have also been disproved. Indeed, an environmental impact assessment released by Tanzanian officials in February 2011 cites the increased risk of pollution from the effects of fuel, oil, and asphalt; greater likelihood of vehicular accidents and wildlife poaching, especially of the mostly sedentary and endangered rhino; and issues of water scarcity related to the road's construction.
The report's traffic volume estimates have also alarmed conservationists: by 2015 more than 800 vehicles a day would travel the Serengeti route; by 2035, that number would be 3,000 vehicles a day. The effects of the road could also reach far beyond the park's borders. "A reduction in the migration in the Serengeti would lead to impacts on the Maasai Mara and bordering wildlife areas, with consequent impacts on tourism and the Kenyan economy," the report states.
"If you consider the sheer volume of traffic alone--separate from the effects of construction activity and barriers like rails and markers--it is impossible to conclude that there would be no deleterious effects on the ecosystem, the wildlife, and the people who rely on tourism for their livelihoods," says AWF's Director of Land Conservation Kathleen Fitzgerald.
In addition to pollution, habitat fragmentation, and the introduction of invasive plants and disease vectors, conservationists say that vehicular collisions and increased poaching would rout wildlife populations. Research and experience have also shown that the physical barrier of roads and the added traffic and human intrusion they support inevitably put an end to large-scale wildlife migrations.
The Road Not Taken?
Insistence by the Tanzanian government that the road be built has left some observers perplexed. Proposed alternative routes that circumvent the park would connect major cities, a goal touted by Tanzanian officials, without carrying environmental risk. And while construction of one of the alternative roads would be more expensive, the World Bank has offered to help finance an alternative southern route that would circumvent the park. More recently, the Government of Germany has said it will finance a study on the road spurs that would connect areas bordering the Serengeti National Park on the eastern and western boundaries without crossing the park. The German government also indicated it would consider jointly financing an international feasibility study for a southern bypass route around the national park.
Despite the global call to abandon the Serengeti road proposal, the Tanzanian government has shown no signs of retreating from the planned route, a stance that has prompted activists to designate March 19 Save the Serengeti Day.
If the road moves forward it could cost Tanzania dearly both in terms of lost economic revenue from tourism and damage to its reputation as a world leader in conservation.
"In terms of potential environmental deterioration, the damage to the park by the north road could be severe enough as to prompt inscription of the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger," UNESCO says in its official statement on the Serengeti Road proposal.
Although events of the past several months have left most conservationists discouraged, AWF believes the call to save the Serengeti may still be heard. "The fact that prominent global development agencies are willing to step up, and that people all over the world have opposed this intrusion into a pristine wildlife area, leaves room for optimism, not only for the Serengeti but for the other great landscapes AWF and others seek to protect," says AWF President Helen Gichohi. "AWF supporters can be assured that we will continue to urge the Tanzanian government to reverse their decision."
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