NAIROBI––The East African Court of Justice on June 20, 2014 ruled against a Tanzanian government scheme to build a 34-mile stretch of paved highway through Serengeti National Park. The route might have blocked the annual migration of more than a million wildebeest, and might even more likely have become the most heavily trafficked poached corridor in East Africa while any animals with tusks or horns remained within a rifle shot of the right-of-way.
While the road to hell is allegedly paved with good intentions, the proposed route from Arusha to Musoma on Lake Victoria may now be built anyway, and not be paved at all Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete indicated in the days after the the East African Court of Justice verdict was rendered.
The notion of building the road but not paving it has already been offered several times as a concession to environmental concerns. But building the road without paving it has seen by critics of the roadbuilding plan as a hint that perhaps it was never meant to do more than provide temporary access to resources, until they were poached and plundered out.
“I think common sense would say with [the volume of traffic the Arusha to Musoma highway was expected to handle] there is no way you could have a dirt road. Paving and fencing is the future,” predicted Serengeti Watch cofounder Dave Blanton to Canadian Press when Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete in February 2011 announced that the road would be built in 2012.
Kikwete pledged that the road would “cut travel times for area residents, many of whom lack basic services such as tap water and electricity,” reported Sarah McGregor for Bloomberg News.
Why build it?
But the African Network for Animal Welfare recognized the potential for the road to provide quick in-and-out access not only to wildlife in the Serengeti, a United Nations-recognized World Heritage Site, but also to the adjoining Masai Mara National Park, just across the Kenyan border.
While organizations including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society and the London-based Zoological Society of London issued statements of concern, ANAW appealed to the East African Court of Justice, the judicial arm of a five-nation trade consortium. The member nations––Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda––have all experienced runaway poaching in connection with expansions of their highway grids. The Serengeti and Masai Mara offer some of the region’s most abundant populations of lions, leopards, cheetahs, zebras, giraffes, and black rhinoceros, and still have wild elephants.
Whether the Kikwete regime will honor the East African Court of Justice ruling remains to be seen. Ignoring it, however, could have political consequences for Tanzanian relations with all nations bordering Tanzania to the north and West.
The proposed Arusha-to-Musoma highway route can be built without going through the Serengeti. “The World Bank has offered to help fund an alternative route, according to the German-based Nature & Biodiversity Conservation Union,” reported Jeremy Hance of the science web news periodical Mongabay.com in January 2011. Tanzania was a German colony from 1885 to 1946. Founded in 1899, the Nature & Biodiversity Conservation Union has had involvement in Tanzania from inception.
The East Africa Court of Justice verdict was issued one day before Nairobi hosted the week-long, first-ever United Nations Environmental Assembly. The event featured the release of a U.N. Environmental Program report that the Somali militia al-Shabab sells from $38 million to $56 million per year worth of charcoal from trees destroyed by illegal logging.
“Other militia groups––including the Lord’s Resistance Army, which U.S. troops are trying to help hunt down in central Africa––make between $4 million and $12 million a year by trafficking elephant ivory,” reported Jason Straziuso of Associated Press. “John Scanlon, the secretary general of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, said experts believe that speculators are stockpiling ivory in the belief that elephants will one day become extinct and the price of ivory will rise,” Staziuso added.
Said Scanlon, “There has been a clear change in the nature of wildlife crime in the last three four five years. It’s happening on an industrial scale now.”
Rhino were “obstacle”
A confidential Tanzanian government Environmental & Social Impact Assessment Draft Report on the proposed Serengeti highway appeared to invite poaching by identifying the May 2010 reintroduction of five black rhinos to Serengeti as a potential obstacle to building the highway. The 600-page report from the Tanzania National Roads Agency was leaked to the anti-Serengeti highway organization Serengeti Watch and posted to the Serengeti Watch web site.
Between 500 and 700 rhinos occupied the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem in northern Tanzania and southern Kenya circa 1970, constituting the East African Diceros bicornis michaeli subspecies. Five of the Serengeti rhinos were sold to South Africa during the 1980s. While the Serengeti-Mara population was poached out of existence, those sent to South Africa produced 61 living descendants. Thirty-two of those descendants were eventually sent to Tanzania for reintroduction, beginning with the five that the Environmental & Social Impact Assessment Draft Report mentioned.
On December 10, 2010 one of those first five rhinos to be reintroduced was poached. Three suspects were reportedly held for questioning, but under Kikwete, whose party has ruled since 1961, wildlife criminals and law enforcement have been at times difficult to tell apart.
In addition, summarized Sven Torfinn of The New York Times, “Kikwete’s party has been widely accused of siphoning millions of dollars out of the treasury by awarding contracts to ghost companies.” Causing problematic rhino to disappear would be a comparatively simple matter.
But, under international scrutiny, the Kikwete government increased security for the surviving rhinos and continued with the reintroduction. By January 2012 the Serengetic rhino population had reportedly increased to 27––apparently the survivors of the reintroduced group.
In February 2014 the Tanzanian Parliamentary Committee of Land, Natural Resources and Environment reported that public officials had found a way other than poaching to profit from the rhino reintroduction.
“Overseas friends in conservation have been aiding Tanzania to re-stock and protect the country’s disappearing species of rhinoceros, but wildlife partners who ferry the rare animals back here are being subjected to pay duty on each rhino,” committee chair James Lembeli told the Arusha Times.
As well as “taxing” the rhinos themselves, Lembeli continued, “At the moment nearly 10 vehicles and anti-poaching equipment are stuck at the Dar-es-Salaam port because the customs people are demanding billions in form of VAT and other duties, while the country keeps loosing rhinos, elephants and other species to poachers.”
Crime and corruption aside, the Serengeti highway was expected to harm wildlife, even if it did not become a poaching and trafficking corridor.
“The [wildebeest] migration may be limited by the high level of traffic,” the Tanzania National Roads Agency acknowledged in the executive summary of the 2011 report. The highway was “expected to have 800 vehicles per day in 2015,” TANROADS said, “rising to 3,000 vehicles per day by 2035…It is argued that only the wildebeest will be affected, but the animals who prey on them will also be affected if the migration is disrupted.
TANROADS also mentioned concern for wild dogs and oribi antelope.
John Fryxell, a biology professor at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, estimated that the effects of building the Serengeti highway could cut the migrating wildebeest herd by 35%: more than half a million animals.