'Serengeti Highway' threatens E.Africa's great migration

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A project to build a road gashing through Tanzania's Serengeti park could put pay to one of the planet's greatest natural spectacles: the annual great wildebeest migration.

Millions of herbivores migrate from the Serengeti to Kenya's adjacent Maasai Mara each year, but the construction due to begin next year of a tarmacked road could see the migration stopped in its tracks by queues of steaming lorries.

The Serengeti Highway is supposed to link Musoma, on the banks of Lake Victoria, to Arusha, cutting through a swathe of park into which giant herds of wildebeests bottleneck every summer to seek Kenya's pastures.

Conservationists warn the road will disfigure the park and kill the migration while the project's proponents argue it is high time the state started caring for its people as much as it does for wildlife.

President Jakaya Kikwete, well on course to be re-elected on Sunday, made the road a campaign pledge in 2005 and has reiterated his support this year.

The two wildlife reserves, separated by the Mara river, form one ecosystem and are home to a migration which happens nowhere else in the world on the same scale, and was voted in 2008 one of the "new seven wonders of the world".

"We're in a situation where politicians are highjacking an ecosystem, an icon," Mike Rainy, one of the scientists spearheading the campaign against the road, told AFP

"We would worry about global climatic change, change in the rainfall pattern, horticulture, other human uses of the water. We would think that would be the threat. That was our concern until the annoucement of this highway."

In July and August each year hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles charge through the crocodile-infested Mara river to seek Kenya's pastures in a massive stampede.

Rainy, who has worked in Kenya for half a century, says the highway could spell the end of the ecosystem in a relatively short space of time.

"With the new road, we're talking a minimum of 400 lorries a day," he said.

Trucks would hit animals, human traffic would introduce domestic diseases and the road would provide an easy escape for poachers.

"It would be a filter on being able to move to water. And when that happens, 75 percent of the system will shrink and collapse. And it could take place very quickly, two to five years."

Environmentalists have launched internet and media campaigns and 27 scientists co-signed an article in Nature magazine opposing the project.

The authorities have tried to steer the debate back towards the need for development in one of the remotest corners of Tanzania, which is larger than France and Germany put together

"This is about development. The environmentalists are more interested in animals than in human beings," argued Edward Lowassa, the MP for the nearby constituency of Monduli.

"Tanzania has done a lot for wildlife, more than many others countries in Africa," said Lowassa, a former prime minister who had to resign in 2008 over graft allegations.

He reckons the road will bring economic development to the Maasai people living in abject poverty on the wide plains east of the park.

But Rainy sees the Serengeti as the country's most valuable asset.

He said Tanzania was shooting itself in the foot and said building the road was as egregious a mistake as if Egypt decided to bulldoze the pyramids to build another shopping mall.

Ironically, the Serengeti Highway's intended users are not always its most enthusiastic supporters.

"There are security problems," said Mohamed Farah, who drives a juggernaut of a truck across the region, including between Arusha and Lake Victoria.

"In the park, there are no regular police patrols, no police stations, no hospitals... We lorry drivers get problems on the road."

The very thought of a 40-tonne articulated lorry rumbling across the grassy plains of the Serengeti is heresy to Mike Rainy.

"How can we be so shortsighted to risk losing that. Without the great Serengeti-Mara, the world is infinitely poorer."

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