Wildebeest migration at risk from Serengeti airport plan

Stewart Edward White had walked for hundreds of miles, trekking south from Nairobi. An American hunter in 1913, exploring parts of Africa where no outsider had ever ventured. White had seen only "burnt out country".

"Then," he recorded in his diary, "I saw green trees of the river, walked two miles more and found myself in paradise."

White had discovered the Serengeti, a vast savannah, home to wildebeest and zebras, lions and buffalos. To the Masai who lived there it was known as the 'endless plain' or 'the place where the land moves on forever'. It is a land that has barely changed in more than a million years.

Soon though, it could all look very different. The Tanzanian government has approved plans to build new roads, an airport and a handful of hotels in an attempt to drastically increase the number of tourists visiting the Serengeti National Park.

Environmental groups, including the country's national parks authority, have expressed their concerns over the plans, arguing that the new infrastructure could do lasting damage to one of the world's most stunning reserves. It could also disrupt the one of nature's greatest wonders - the wildebeest migration.

Both sides cite the Masai Mara, just over the northern border with Kenya, to back their arguments. The government points to the huge amount of tourism revenue it brings Kenya, while environmentalists argue the Mara has been damaged by mass tourism and insist the Serengeti should not go the same way.

The Mara has nearly 5,000 hotel beds - compared to fewer than 1,000 in the Serengeti. Helped by strong transport links - Nairobi has one of the busiest airports in Africa, with daily flights to London, Paris and Amsterdam - Kenya has managed to turn the Mara into one of the country's biggest earners.

Earlier this year viewers of an American morning television show voted the Masai Mara one of the new seven wonders of the world. Kenya's tourism chiefs have capitalised on the publicity and it is impossible to book a room less than three months in advance.

But Sam Munye of Tourism Concern Kenya said the tourist boom has come at a price. Soaring visitor numbers to the Mara have severely damaged the park's infrastructure, with roads crumbling, forcing drivers to go off-road, damaging the grassland.

"In the Masai Mara we have airstrips and lodges and it has become very congested," said Mr Munye. "Mass tourism has been affecting our wildlife.

"If they want hotels they should build them outside the park so the animals have freedom of movement. The Masai Mara is terrible right now. They should not repeat what we in Kenya have done." Currently the Serengeti is served by two airstrips, one in the national park itself, the other on the outskirts. But both are small and the majority of tourists have to drive eight hours from Arusha airport through the Rift Valley and Ngorongoro Crater to reach the park, which has just nine permanent lodges as opposed to 25 in the Mara.

Tanzania's prime minister, Edward Lowassa, told parliament that plans to build new hotels, roads and an international airport would go ahead, despite the opposition.

He told parliament: "Our hotels in these areas have only 940 rooms, while the area on the Kenyan side, which is six times smaller, has 4,700 rooms. And when we want to invest, we are told we shouldn't build any hotels."

One of the luxury lodges already under construction is likely to be bought by the Kempisnki hotel group. "There is a very, very strong interest," said Puneet Singh, a spokesman for Kempinski. Mr Singh insisted Kempinski would not be involved in a project that damaged the environment. "The Serengeti is one of a kind. We always use practices that are very environmentally friendly. It is part and parcel of the way we do business."

Opposition to the projects has been led by the director general of the Tanzania National Parks Authority, Gerald Bigurube. He warned government officials the developments could hamper the movement of animals from the Masai Mara into the Serengeti.

He said: "To maintain biodiversity and ecosystem functions in both the short and long-term it is necessary to maintain habitat connectivity so that individual animals can move freely across the landscape."

If animals could not move freely it would severely affect migration. More than a million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras make the journey south through the Masai Mara into Serengeti National Park every year, following the rains.

Mr Bugurube's views were echoed by the Franfurt Zoological Society, closely involved in protecting the Serengeti for more than 50 years. Its spokeswoman, Dagmar Andres, said a rise in tourists would severely damage the Serengeti's ecosystem. She said: "They will have all the problems you have in the Masai Mara with all these hotels and all this traffic."

Ms Andres saidTanzania had focused on high-class tourism, which hasa far lower environmental impact and provides twice theKenyan revenue per person.

Zoologists met Tanzanian ministers last week to ask the government to reconsider. Ms Andres said: "We hope there is a reasonable solution. We hope the Serengeti will remain as it is."

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