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Environment

Germany pressures Tanzania to change Serengeti road plans

Tanzania is facing mounting pressure to drop plans for a road that would cut the Serengeti in two. Germany and the World Bank have offered to find alternatives, as the fate of the park's wildlife hangs in the balance.

An image of the Serengeti park

The Serengeti is home to one of nature's most awesome annual spectacles

Originally, it was environmental groups and scientists who were vocal in their opposition to Tanzania's proposal to build a highway through the vast Serengeti national park - home to the biggest animal migration found on earth.

Now, heavyweights like the German government and the World Bank are making it clear that they also oppose the plans, which threaten to disrupt the annual migration of more than one million wildebeest, plus thousands of zebras, gazelles and other herbivores.

Divisive road

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel stands before a map of the planned road through the Serengeti park

The road would cut through a critical northern portion of the park

Tanzania wants to build the 480-kilometer-long highway, 54 kilometers of which would cut straight through the Serengeti's northern tip, to link the east of the country with Lake Victoria.

The Tanzanian government says the road is essential for the economic development of the region, especially for those marginalized communities bordering the northern part of the Serengeti.

Tanzania is one of the poorest countries on earth.

German Development Minister Dirk Niebel announced in February that Germany was prepared to finance a study looking at alternative ways to connect these Serengeti border villages to the existing road network without cutting through the park.

Niebel also reaffirmed Germany's willingness to jointly finance an international feasibility study for an alternative route circumventing the park via the south.

"In return, we expect a moratorium on building a road through the Serengeti until the alternatives have been assessed," Niebel said at a press conference in Frankfurt.

"This would be a clear signal of a mutual effort to save the Serengeti."

Niebel said the Tanzanian government had "reacted positively" to the offer, yet President Jakaya Kikwete has not yet responded to it publicly.

A herd of wildebeest cross a river in the Serengeti park

Hundreds of thousands of migrating animals cross the Serengeti every year

Alternatives rebuffed

Earlier in February, Kikwete poured cold water on a World Bank proposal to help finance a southern route favored by conservationists, saying in a statement that it "would not solve transport challenges of communities living on the northern side of the park."

"There is neither justification nor explanation for not building this important (northern) road," Kikwete said.

The justification, say conservationists, is the tremendous threat it poses to the Serengeti's wildlife population.

Tanzania's own environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 800 vehicles per day could travel the proposed northern route by 2015, increasing to 3,000 a day by 2035.

Such traffic volumes mean the road will "change the whole Serengeti system," said biologist Christof Schenck, head of the Frankfurt Zoological Society, which has a research station in the park.

Wildebeest and other herbivores, followed by packs of predators such as lions, leopards and cheetahs, migrate to the north of the Serengeti and over the border into Kenya because this area still has water when lands to the south have dried out.

Though rich in water, the soil is poor in the north, making grass scarce. As soon as the rains start, the animals return south to graze on the area's rich grassy plains, covering around 3,000 kilometers in their annual circular migration.

Two cheetahs

Top predators are also at risk because they depend on animals like wildebeest for food

Millions of animals could perish

"When we think not of tens of thousands but hundreds of thousands and millions of animals, it is quite obvious to everybody that you can't maintain a road without a fence and if you put a fence there, the migration has to stop," Schenck said.

Without access to the northern water supplies, warns Schenck, only those animals that the ecosystem can support all year round will survive.

"So we think that several hundred thousands, if not a million wildebeest will die if the road is built."

In addition, scientists like Schenck are worried that the highway will lead to the more invasive plants (tires on cars and truck soften carry seeds), more disease and more poaching.

Workers have already begun laying marker posts along the route of the highway.

The road's opponents also argue that the Tanzanian government could be shooting itself in the foot – if the animal migrations stop, so too will the flow of tourists to the Serengeti who provide desperately needed income to Tanzania.

Tourism is Tanzania's second largest economic sector, providing some 620,000 jobs and 8 percent of gross domestic product. Much of this is thanks to the Serengeti, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year.

"(The road) will have a terrific impact on tourism through this area, and this is something that has to be realized, said Norbert Veit, a tour operator specializing in Tanzania.

"Clients of ours, of course, have heard about this new project, and they are extremely disappointed that such a plan is being considered at all."

Author: Kate Hairsine
Editor: Nathan Witkop

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