Planned highway in Tanzania's Serengeti criticized for effect on wildebeest, zebra migration

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Tanzania's Serengeti is a vast plain dotted with acacia trees and watering holes, where wildebeest and zebra gather in huge herds for annual migrations.

But conservationists warned Wednesday that one of the world's natural wonders will be scarred and the ancient migratory patterns destroyed if Tanzania's government carries through with a plan to build a highway through the park.

The Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London called on Tanzania to reconsider the plan.

"The Serengeti is the site of one of the last great ungulate (hoofed) migrations left on Earth, the pre-eminent symbol of wild nature for millions of visitors and TV viewers, and a hugely important source of income for the people of Tanzania through ecotourism," said James Deutsch, executive director of the WCS's Africa Program.

"To threaten this natural marvel with a road would be a tragedy," Deutsch said.

Tanzania plans to build a 420-kilometer (260-mile) road between Arusha, near Mount Kilimanjaro, and Musoma, on Lake Victoria, in 2012. The route would bisect the northern Serengeti, potentially jeopardizing the 2 million wildebeests and zebra who migrate in search for water from the southern Serengeti north into Kenya's adjacent Masai Mara reserve.

Tanzania's government says the road is needed to connect the country's west with commercial activity on the eastern coast. The president has vowed to move forward with its construction.

A spokesman for Tanzania National Parks, Pascal Shelutete, said the road won't be built until feasibility studies have been done.

"All the precautions will be taken care of. The government is aware of the importance of this portion of the road," Shelutete said. "The project won't take off until all the kinds of studies are carried out to see what will be the positive and negative impact of it."

But Tanzanian media have previously quoted officials as saying such feasibility studies have already been completed and that the road project is on track.

Critics say a new highway could just as easily be built through the southern parts of the park and not harm the migratory route.

The northern road could provide easier access for poachers, and conservationists predict a "catastrophic decrease" in wildebeests and zebras, both from a stunted migration and animals being hit by vehicles.

"Once that starts to happen officials are going to want to put a fence up, and once you have a fence you stop the migration completely," said Sarah Christie, a conservationist at the Zoological Society of London.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society sounded an alarm against the road earlier this year, saying its construction would have "disastrous effects" on the region's ecosystem.

A Kenya Wildlife Service spokeswoman, Kentice Tikilo, said the road would negatively affect Kenya's Masai Mara, which sits directly above the Serengeti. Animals move back and forth over the border between the two parks. If the road is built and the animal populations dwindle, Masai Mara stands to lose animals and consequently fewer tourists will want to visit.

"At the end of the day we want to be sure conservation wins, whether it's on the Tanzania side or the Kenya side," Tikilo said. "We are all conservationists and we want to be sure we preserve our heritage."


On the Internet: