Researchers and conservationists around the world have been reacting with dismay to news that the Tanzanian government will forge ahead with plans to build a highway bisecting Serengeti National Park. But now the government says it will leave an existing dirt road within the park "untouched" while improving roads on either side of the fragile park that lead to the passage.
The park is renowned as a rare and precious conservation success and is home to spectacular yearly mass migrations of grazing animals that support legions of predators. The highway would reportedly cut directly across the grazers' route between the southern plains, where protein-rich grass beckons during the wet season, and the northern woodlands, where the animals seek refuge during the dry season. Concerns are that a major road will irreparably fragment habitat, deliver poachers directly to the park's interior, and turn thundering herds into so much roadkill.
But Premiere Kibanga, press assistant to Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, says now those fears are based on a big misunderstanding about the nature of the road inside the park. She described the apparent shift in policy in response to questions about a hard-to-decipher press release issued last week. Kibanga said reports that the government plans to build a new paved road through Serengeti National Park are inaccurate. She said a dirt road has traversed the northern portion of the park for many years, and the 54-kilometer portion of it inside the park will remain in its present rough state.
Kibanga said the government intends to pave sections of the road outside the park, one from the western park gate west to the town of Musoma, the other from the eastern park gate southeast to the town of Arusha. "Inside the park, it's going to be left untouched," Kibanga said.
"It's not a new plan. That's what the president has been saying all the time."
The controversy has raised thorny issues, since the project is intended to bring economic development to a marginalized area within a poverty-stricken nation. Most opposition has come from international groups or individuals who live outside Tanzania. "The people outside the park need development and the road is going to be built for them," Kibanga said.
"It sounds as if the government is beginning to create a loophole," Andrew Dobson, a Princeton University ecologist who has opposed the road project in the past, wrote in an e-mail. Communities to the east could certainly use a better road, he agreed, but it shouldn't go right up to the park. "Hugely improving the road on both sides of the path would lead to an increase in traffic across a currently unused area," he wrote. Instead, Dobson and others have been advocating the construction of an alternative road beyond the park's southern border that they say would go easier on wildlife and benefit more Tanzanians.
Wildlife ecologist Randall Boone of Colorado State University, who studies wildebeest, was more positive about the development. "If they're not looking to build an interstate right through the middle of the park, that's good news," he said.
With four colleagues, Dobson co-authored a new paper, published last week in the journal PLoS One, based on a detailed computer model examining how a worst-case road-development scenario might affect the Serengeti's most iconic migratory grazer, the wildebeest (also known as the gnu). Assuming the road inside the park is paved and eventually fenced, as has happened elsewhere, the paper predicts the 1.2 million-strong wildebeest population would be split into two and its numbers slashed by one-third. Such a drop in gnu numbers could affect the entire Serengeti, since the animals are a staple for predators and industrious ecosystem engineers, said Ricardo Holdo, a community ecologist at the University of Missouri, Columbia, who was the lead author. "Building a barrier that cuts across the Serengeti essentially decouples the system."
While praising the research overall, Boone expressed skepticism that a road through the park would ever become an absolute barrier to traveling animals.
The New York Times had a useful video on the road in a story in October last year: