Tanzania has dropped plans to build a highway through the Serengeti that would have hindered the migration of millions of animals. Conservationists celebrate a victory for nature, but fear that the threat is not over.
The migration of wild animals in the Serengeti remains secure for now
Environmentalists and animal lovers are cautiously welcoming a compromise over plans to build a road project through Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.
However, the door remains open for a devastating disruption of one of the planet's great animal migrations, warns an NGO dedicated to monitoring the site.
At a meeting in Paris last month, the United Nations world heritage body, UNESCO, said Tanzania had come reconsider its plans to build a highway between Arusha and Musoma, on the banks of Lake Victoria.
The original plans would have seen some 53 kilometers of highway cut through the north of the UNESCO-listed Serengeti Park.
Environmentalists warned that this would have severely impacted millions of animals, including wildebeest and zebras that migrate annually from Serengeti into the Masai Mara in Kenya.
According to latest plans, roads outside the wildlife sanctuary will be paved, but those inside and leading to the Serengeti will not.
"The project is still there without a shadow of a doubt. But the road will be unpaved, so there will be no tarmac road or highway traversing through the Serengeti National Park," said Tanzania's Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Ezekiel Maige.
A balance of interests
Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest migrate from the Serengeti into Kenya every year
The proposed road was part of the government's efforts to promote economic development in the country.
Tanzania has increased its budget for infrastructure for the coming year by 85 percent to 2.78 trillion Tanzanian shillings (1.2 billion euros).
The government has argued that the country isn't doing enough for its people relative to what it does for its wildlife. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world
"We understand that there is a lot of resistance from environmentalists, but we have to balance between people's development, especially efficient transportation and conservation issues," Maige said.
Environmentalists say the natural spectacle is a major draw for tourists, and they are campaigning for alternative routes.
They have been gaining increasing support, too, from the likes of scientists, the World Bank and the German government.
Germany to help with alternatives
German Development Minister Dirk Niebel said he was pleased with the Tanzanian government's willingness to look at different solutions.
Niebel has commissioned the government-owned development bank, the German Reconstruction Credit Institute (KfW), to develop plans for alternative routes.
According to Niebel, these plans aim to preserve the unique ecosystem of the Serengeti and advance the region's economic development.
Paving the way for the future?
Germany has offered to help fund alternatives routes for a road
Serengeti Watch, a nonprofit organization opposed to a commercial highway across the Serengeti, acknowledged that the situation had improved, but said that the threat was far from over.
The group's co-founder, David Blanton, is uncomfortable with government assurances that the segments of the road within the park's north will remain gravel.
"At present, it hardly qualifies as gravel under any conventional understanding of the term. Whether this now gives room for upgrading the road to a true, all-weather, high quality gravel road is the big question," Blanton told Deutsche Welle.
Blanton added that since the road through the park would connect two tarmac roads on either side of the Serengeti, "the connection of the two will forever be a threat".
Serengeti Watch fears that commercial traffic could gradually grow and with it, pressure to build a fence to protect the road.
Fences to protect roads have ended migrations elsewhere, environmentalists warn, killing off the animals that need to move for water.
Serengeti Watch also fears that increased settlement on the edges of the national park might eventually choke off and fragment the wildlife migration zone.
Conservationists praise step in the right direction
The Zoological Society Frankfurt (ZGF) has published a report analyzing the different options of a road through the Serengeti versus two alternative roads running south of the park.
The conservation society's spokesperson Sigrid Keiser welcomed the Tanzanian government's decision to leave the stretch of the road running through the national park unpaved.
"It doesn't mean the Serengeti is saved for all times, but it's all about positive reinforcement to stress that the decision taken is going in the right direction," Sigrid Keiser said.
Keiser said it was now important that all international partners pulled in the same direction and fulfilled their pledges to fund alternative solutions.
She added that distributor roads should also remain unpaved, in addition to the stretches of road within the park.
The Serengeti has been declared a World Heritage site
Keiser said it was also important to leave the Tanzania National Park Authority (TANAPA) in charge of the new road and not the Tanzania National Road Agency (TANROADS).
She expected TANAPA to enforce speed limits and other appropriate rules, such as no driving at night-time.
According to Keiser, all these measures should make the gravel road less attractive to motorists and thus reduce commercial traffic in the Serengeti.
Push for alternatives continues
Serengeti Watch is continuing to hold out for an alternative route.
"The most important thing is for the government to adopt the alternate southern route around the Serengeti. The southern route is much preferable for maximum social and economic development," Blanton said.
Proponents of an alternative southern route claim it would be cheaper, shorter and link more agricultural markets.
The government disputes this. In February, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete rejected the idea, saying it would not meet the needs of communities living on the north side of the park.
Author: Gönna Ketels (AFP, Reuters)
Editor: Nathan Witkop