Worries over new roads in Tanzania's Serengeti

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Media captionAs Lucy Hooker reports, there are worries over the building of new roads in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park

For many, Tanzania's Serengeti National Park is the essence of Africa, a wide, sweeping savannah ruled by lions, buffalo and zebra, barely interrupted by human presence.

Except of course for the herds of camera-toting tourists in jeeps, huddled around viewing points, with their zoom lenses protruding in perfect alignment.

Not to mention the light aircraft that swoop in to land at the local airport, conveniently located at the heart of Tanzania's most famous wildlife reserve.

In fact the Serengeti is a miracle of cohabitation, where nature tolerates man's presence.

But increasingly, the pressures of the modern world are threatening its delicate natural balance and the Tanzanian government wants to improve the roads around the park.

'The road is very rough'

For villagers living in the communities surrounding the Serengeti, there is no issue more pressing than the state of the roads.

Image caption The poor state of the roads makes travel difficult, says Upendo Orgenes Kiula

Upendo Orgenes Kiula makes a living selling drinks and snacks to bus passengers on the road to Loliondo, on the eastern side of the Serengeti.

The trouble is the bus does not run up and down the road as often as she would like.

You can see why - it is a sloping path of rocks and dusty gullies.

"The road is very rough," says Upendo.

If Upendo wants to visit her mother in the village a couple of hundred kilometres north of here, it takes all day to drive there.

And if it rains she has to pull over and sleep in her car overnight until the mud subsides.

"If you plan to travel somewhere, you just can't get there and back on time," she says.

Image caption The Serengeti's roads take a toll on vehicles using them

For the most isolated communities, the poor roads mean that trips to the hospital, to secondary school or to transport goods are expensive, arduous and sometimes impossible.

Image caption Tanzania is now improving routes in the region

Roads and wildebeest

Tanzania's government has now finally started work on upgrading the roads here.

Five years ago the government announced a programme of road improvement.

Above all it wanted to provide a highway running from Lake Victoria to Tanzania's coast. Currently lakeside communities travel north through Kenya to reach the coast.

But environmentalists objected.

The route cuts across the Serengeti, bisecting the path that the huge wildebeest herds take in their annual migration between Kenya and Tanzania, from northern watering holes to their southern grazing pastures.

And if the wildebeest are cut off from the Serengeti, environmentalists fear the park's delicate ecosystem would collapse.

"If we remove the wildebeest migration as it is from the system, the Serengeti will never be the same again," says Markus Borner, founder of the campaign against the planned highway.

His organisation, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, has its headquarters in the centre of the Serengeti.

So the government has promised the section across the national park will remain a slower, gravel road.

Alternative routes

Image copyright Frankfurt Zoological Society
Image caption The new roads risk disrupting the Serengeti's ecosystem, says Markus Borner

But Markus and other environmentalists are still worried.

"The problem is the roads will be tarmacked very close to the park boundary in the east and very close to the park boundary in the west.

"If two good roads come so close together, the pressure to build a highway will come again," he says.

Several solutions have been proposed, including building a bridge over the Rift Valley, so that the wildebeest can migrate safely underneath.

Another suggestion is to close the road when the wildebeest are on the move, although that is hard to predict.

Dr Borner's solution is that an alternative, longer route be constructed to take traffic around the south of the park.

Image caption Tourists flock to the Serengeti to see its wildlife
Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some argue even more could come if the roads were better
Image caption Others argue the roads would affect its unspoilt wilderness
Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption And would threaten the route the wildebeest take each year

The government is now considering this option.

But it will require money. And haste.

Work has already started upgrading roads around the park.

But Dr Borner says it is crucial that the southern route is established first, before drivers get into the habit of taking the more direct route across the park.

Risks and rewards

As for the tourist industry, there are mixed feelings.

Some fear the unspoilt wildness of the Serengeti will be undermined as better roads, even just to the borders of the park, are likely to attract more independent tourists.

Image caption Local traders say better roads would boost their businesses
Image caption Tanzania's challenge is to improve access, without undermining the reason tourists visit the Serengeti in the first place

But others see only positives.

"If the road were paved the rich tourists would drive," says tour guide Elias Shayo, rather than fly.

"Then the locals would have a wider chance to benefit because they would buy art and craft and food."

His costs would be lower too.

Image caption The Serengeti's wildlife may have to get used to increased traffic

'The economy will be boosted'

"In this business over three-quarters of the money we make goes on repairing vehicles," says Elias.

"By paving the main road the economy will be boosted and the money generated will go back to the community, rather than going back to Japan to buy spare parts."

Currently, the Serengeti remains largely the preserve of wealthy foreign tourists.

Paving some of the roads could open up the park, not just to more fee-paying foreigners, but to Tanzanians who want to visit their country's most-prized natural asset.

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