Controversy over the construction of a two-lane road through the Serengeti National Park has deepened after Kenya and Tanzania issued conflicting statements on the status of the project.
While Nairobi said the two countries were discussing the fate of the project, Dar-es-Salaam said construction would go on as planned, dashing hopes of a possible re-route.
President Jakaya Kikwete was quoted at the weekend in the media saying the project would improve transportation and boost economic activity for Tanzania and sought to assure groups opposing it that wildlife would be safe.
“All precautions have been taken to make sure that the wildlife is not affected,” President Kikwete said.
However, Kenya said it was negotiating with the Tanzanian government with the intention of persuading its neighbour to divert the road, maintaining the statements by the Tanzanian head of State would not jeopardise the talks taking place in Tanzania.
“Negotiations are still under way and we expect to come up with an agreement in two weeks time,” said Mr Gideon Gathaara, a Ministry of Wildlife official, who heads the Kenyan team.
The planned road cuts across the annual migratory route taken by 1.3 million wildebeest, part of the 10 natural travel wonders of the world.
Environmentalists say the tarmac road would hurt Kenya’s tourism goal of generating Sh200 billion by 2012, destabilise the ecosystem of the Serengeti and Maasai Mara and interfere with the wildebeest migration.
Biodiversity experts recently warned in the science journal Nature that the proposed Serengeti highway would destroy one of the world’s remaining great wildlife sanctuaries, urging Dar to find an alternative route that runs far south of the UN-listed site.
Dar-es-Salaam’s decision is driven by the economic viability of the road as it will be linking two of its key towns — Arusha, near Kilimanjaro and Musoma on Lake Victoria.
“What I can assure the activists is that the Serengeti shall not die and the proposed road has many social and economic advantages to the people in Mara and Arusha regions,” President Kikwete said.
He has defended the project, saying the stretch taken by migrating animals will be gravelled rather than paved with the aim of reducing speed.
Tanzania has approved the $480-million road expected to link Arusha and the Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya. Construction is set to begin next year.
The wildebeest play a vital role in a fragile ecosystem, maintaining the vitality of Serengeti’s grasslands and sustaining threatened predators such as lions, cheetahs and wild dogs, conservationists said.
More than 100,000 tourists visit the Maasai Mara during the migration months between July and October and any interruption is likely to hurt Kenya’s fortunes.
“Wildebeest have a problem crossing roads which have heavy human and vehicle traffic, there is nothing elsewhere in the Serengeti with this high capacity for traffic,” said Mr Gathaara.