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Court Bars Paved Serengeti Highway, But Concerns Remain

Tanzania still plans to upgrade existing dirt track to gravel, which could lead to increased traffic through the park

Last month, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled against the Tanzanian government’s plans to build a paved commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park calling the proposal “unlawful.”  This is a victory for sure, but big questions still remain about the fate of unique ecosystem.

Dirt road in the middle of the SeregetiPhoto by Roberto Maldeno A dirt road in the Serengeti. Scientists have warned that constructing a paved road through this unique ecosystem would devastate the iconic World Heritage Site.

The ruling is limited in that it only banned a northern, asphalt (bitumen) road from the park. Tanzania still plans to upgrade the existing seasonal dirt track to gravel, even though it lies in a designated wilderness zone where public traffic is not allowed. But for now, the ruling has stopped a project that Serengeti Watch and scientists warned would devastate an iconic World Heritage Site and its annual wildebeest migration.

The court’s ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed in 2010 by the African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), a Kenya-based nonprofit. Serengeti Watch, an Earth Island project that I founded, provided legal funding for the lawsuit. (The intergovernmental court settles disputes between the republics of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.)

"This was not a win for ANAW, not for our lawyer, Saitabao Ole Kanchory, not for Serengeti Watch, not for our expert witness John Kuloba, but for the millions of animals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem,” ANAW's executive director Jophat Ngonyo, said after the court announced its ruling. “It is a win for nature and God's creation. Nature has won today."

The Serengeti ecosystem includes Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, and adjacent reserves such as Loliondo, Maswa, Ikorongo, and Grumeti. The nearly 10,000 square-mile protected area is about three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The park’s most famous feature is the Great Migration — the largest land mammal migration on Earth. Each year more than 2 million animals – wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and other herbivores – make a long journey from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to the Masai Mara in search of water and fresh grasses and then return in a yearly cycle that’s been going on for thousands of years. The Serengeti is one of the very few reserves left on Earth that protects and contains such a complete ecosystem.

It was to protect this unique ecosystem that ANAW filed a lawsuit against the government of Tanzania’s proposal to build a 33- mile commercial highway across the northern section of the national park. The highway — which would connect towns on the shore of Lake Victoria through the Serengeti ecosystem to Arusha on the east —  would replace an existing dirt track. According to a Tanzanian government study, the new highway would carry up to 800 commercial vehicles a day by 2015, with increasing numbers thereafter.

the migrationPhoto by Nikki McLeodEach year more than 2 million animals – wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, and other herbivores – make a long journey through the Serengeti in search of water and fresh grasses. This annual cycle has been going on for thousands of years.

Opening a paved highway to the general public would cause irreversible damage to the Serengeti. Scientists have warned that the highway would bisect a narrow section of the Serengeti ecosystem that is critical to the annual wildebeest migration. “The migration itself could easily collapse, with a devastating effect on all wildlife, the grasslands, and the entire ecosystem,” they wrote in a petition to asking the Tanzanian government to abandon plans for the road.

The highway poses other threats too. It would open the region to settlements on the fringes of the park and could become an avenue for poaching. It would also impact the tourism industry in the region. Tourism earns Tanzania about $1.8 billion a year and employs an estimated 1 million people directly and indirectly. Most of the tourists come to visit the Serengeti region.

The suit also contended that the government of Tanzania was in violation of various international treaties. Chief among these, a UNESCO treaty declaring the Serengeti a "World Heritage Property" of "outstanding universal value."

The court agreed with the plaintiff’s argument that the highway would have irreversible negative impacts. It affirmed that construction of the highway would be a violation of the East African Community Treaty.  In doing so, it cited Tanzania's own Environmental Impact Study and relied heavily on statements issued by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.  

But as I said earlier, while the court decision bars the paved highway originally proposed by the Tanzanian government, many important issues are left unanswered. 

Although the case sought to prevent any upgrading, the court did not specifically bar this. Tanzania now says it will instead upgrade the existing dirt track — which is in a zone designated as a “Wilderness Area” reserved for park vehicles and walking safaris — to an all-weather gravel road. And although the court has said that roads in the Serengeti should be "reserved for tourists and park personnel and not the general public," its injunction did not specify this. Tanzania still has the ability to open roads for the public, including for commercial use. In fact, Tanzanian government officials have recently emphasized their intention to build a highway that would inevitably cross the park.

The ruling also doesn’t address the issue of roads outside the park. The entire Serengeti ecosystem includes areas within the Serengeti National Park and adjoining areas outside it. Wildlife migration takes place in both areas. There are plans for paved roads in migration areas outside the park that will impact the migration. More on that here.

Many observers warn that the gravel road will inevitably become a highway carrying more commercial traffic. There will be increasing pressure to connect the paved roads on either side of the park with a commercial link through the park. Well-known Kenyan conservationist Richard Leakey, for one, says that the highway is "inevitable."

However, we are still urging that no improvements be made to the dirt track.

For more information email:

Dave Blanton
Dave Blanton is cofounder of Serengeti Watch, an Earth Island Institute project

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