The Victoria Falls, one of Africa's most popular tourist destinations and most precious ecological sites, are under threat from plans to build a giant holiday complex nearby, environmentalists have warned.
Zambia's wildlife authorities have given permission to a consortium of Zambian and foreign investors to build two hotels, a golf course and hundreds of holiday chalets in a park next to the waterfalls.
But environmental groups in the southern African country said yesterday that the development risked destroying the park and putting the status of the falls as a world heritage site at risk.
An official from the World Heritage Centre, the UN body responsible for choosing the sites, said that a team would visit the falls later this month to examine reports of "uncontrolled and unplanned urban developments" affecting the site.
Lazare Eloundou Assomo, the Africa specialist at the World Heritage Centre, said depending on the seriousness of the mission's findings, the UN organisation could place the Victoria Falls on the world heritage endangered sites list.
"There are reports that the issue of uncontrolled and unplanned urban development is affecting the integrity of the world heritage property. The site may be threatened," he said. The falls, which are known in Zambia as Mosi-oa-Tunya, the "smoke that thunders", are about a mile wide and 420 feet high, making them the largest falls in the world - far bigger than the Niagara falls in North America. Victoria Falls is along the Zambia/Zimbabwe border on the Zambezi river, one of Africa's longest.
As the economy in neighbouring Zimbabwe has collapsed, Zambia has attempted to capitalise by marketing itself as the true home of the Victoria Falls.
The government hopes to bring in one million tourists every year by 2010, generating more than $500m (£260m) - quite a large sum for a country where 68 per cent of the population live on less than $1 (52p) a day.
The latest development, by a firm called Legacy Holdings, would see the construction of two luxury hotels, a golf course and 450 chalets on the edge of the Zambezi river, close to Victoria Falls.
The company claims that the project would create a total of 2,000 new jobs, attract 150,000 additional tourists to the area and provide Zambia with $170m (£90m) more per year in foreign exchange.
But such development, environmentalists warn, could put the ecology of the park beside the Falls, which includes rare black rhinos, at risk. Peter Sinkamba, a local environmental campaigner, accused the Zambian government of failing to carry out a proper study into the potential for ecological damage. He claimed that Zambian law had not been followed. "The whole project has been done in reverse," he said.
Environmental groups have threatened to ask the courts to block the project if the government allows it to proceed. Mr Assomo added: "World heritage sites have a value that must be protected. If the values are threatened by urban development it could be placed on the endangered list."
A spokesman for the Zambian government was unavailable for comment yesterday.Reuse content