NAIROBI // One million hunch-backed wildebeest are now trekking across the amber Serengeti plains of northern Tanzania and southern Kenya. The migration, considered one of the world's greatest ecological wonders, happens every year between July and September. The shaggy, gnarly-looking wildebeest head north each year during the dry season looking for greener pastures. Along the way, the massive chain of animals must cross rivers teeming with fattened crocodiles that sit back and wait for meal after meal to plunge into their domain.
Tourists from all over the world also flock to the Serengeti to watch the migration, their heads popping out of open-roofed minibuses, cameras and binoculars at the ready. Hotels and safari operators in Kenya and Tanzania charge up to three times more during the migration and are still fully booked. "The migration is when we do our best business," said Julius Mwenzi, a safari guide in Tanzania. "It is like Christmas for us."
But a Tanzanian government plan to build a highway through the Serengeti could dampen the festive atmosphere in the world-class game park. The government calls it progress. Environmentalists and tour operators, however, say the road will devastate the wildlife and disappoint tourists who pay big bucks to watch the migration. "Every able person should join in condemning this destructive proposal which undermines hard gains and conservation achievements of sustaining this natural and cultural gift to humanity," the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania said in a statement last month. "There is no alternative to the Serengeti, but there are many alternative areas for building an effective road system."
The 480km road would link the underdeveloped towns along the Lake Victoria shore with commercial centres of Arusha and Dar es Salaam, the capital on the Indian Ocean coast. The road is part of a campaign promise by the Tanzanian president, Jakaya Kikwete, to bring development to the far-flung regions that have traditionally been ignored by the central government. The project is in the planning stages and construction is expected to begin in early 2012. The government says that only an unpaved 40km stretch of the tarmac highway will pass through Serengeti National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and it will not disrupt the wildebeest migration.
"Those criticising the road construction know nothing about what we've planned," Shamsa Mwangunga, the minister for natural resources and tourism, told the Tanzanian Citizen newspaper. "We're all keen to preserve our natural resources. We'll never compromise on that." The government response is not sufficient for environmentalists, who have teamed with the tourism industry in Tanzania to form a coalition to block construction of the road. The Save the Serengeti coalition wants the road to be routed south, around the park.
"This threat to the Serengeti, a major commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park, is of great concern to us and many of our members," said Shannon Stowell, president of the Adventure Travel Trade Association, a US-based industry lobby. "We're hoping for an alternative plan that can still serve commercial needs but recognises that this is an irreversible and destructive change to one of the world's most valuable wildlife destinations."
Although the Tanzanian government hopes the new road will stimulate the economy, tourism officials warn that it could have the opposite effect. Tourism generates about US$1.7 billion (Dh6.2bn) each year for the country and provides 624,000 Tanzanians with jobs, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. More than $500 million in tourism revenue and 200,000 jobs would be lost in eight years if the government builds the road through the park, Save the Serengeti claims. The coalition has gathered almost 4,000 signatures from tourism industry leaders worldwide.
The Frankfurt Zoological Society, a German conservation group that has been the main financial supporter of the Serengeti for the past 50 years, said in a statement that the road would permanently alter the ecosystem of the park, which is also home to herds of elephant and buffalo, zebras, cheetahs and 3,000 lions. "The entire Serengeti will change into a completely different landscape holding only a fraction of its species and losing its world-class tourism potential and its status as the world's most famous national park," the organisation said. "It is an immense backlash against the goodwill and conservation achievements of Tanzania."
For now, tourism operators are enjoying this year's tourism season. "Business is good this year," Mr Mwenzi, the tour guide, said. "We hope the government doesn't put the road through the park. That would spoil the environment and spoil our business." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org