Many conservationists have been united in animosity toward Tanzania's plan to build the so-called Serengeti Highway. The road, after all, would divide Serengeti National Park, threatening one of the world's last great large-mammal migrations.
It seems natural, then, that many celebrated late last week after reports of the highway's cancellation seeded a flurry of optimistic headlines: "Serengeti Highway Canned: Victory for Animals!", "Breaking News: Serengeti Highway Halted," "Victory for environmentalists. ... "
But after a closer look at the official Tanzanian statement behind the reports, it's questions, not toasts, that are being raised, and conservationists are divided as to whether it means the highway is truly canceled.
A Road Through "Everybody's Image of Africa"
Tanzania sparked an international uproar last summer when it announced plans to move forward with the construction of a 33-mile (53-kilometer) stretch of commercial highway that would cut through Serengeti National Park and potentially disrupt the annual migration of more than a million wildebeest traveling in search of grass and water (see a map of proposed route and wildebeest migration).
A UN World Heritage site, the park—the world's largest protected grassland and savannah ecosystem—is also home to zebra herds and predators such as lions, cheetahs, and hyenas, as well as more than 450 bird species.
"It's not all of Africa. It's not even most of Africa ... But it's everybody's image of Africa," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at Duke University who is also a contributor to the National Geographic News Watch blog. (Read Pimm's 2010 commentary "The Serengeti Road to Disaster.")
Officially, the road was supposed to boost Tanzania's economy by linking isolated, impoverished Serengeti villages outside the park with the Tanzanian city of Arusha, to the east, and the shores of Lake Victoria and other central African nations, to the west.
Some conservationists, though, have speculated that the real motive for the road is to accommodate mining interests or to lay the groundwork for a railway.
Tanzania's official letter—released last week and addressed to UN's World Heritage Centre in Paris—appeared to backtrack on the government's original position, promising that "the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park."
Some media and conservation organizations interpreted the letter as a declaration that the commercial road plan had been canceled and a sign that Tanzania is willing to move forward with a proposed alternative: the construction of a road outside the southern boundary of the park, which would not impede the wildebeest migration. (Related: "Ten Thousand Wildebeest Drown in Migration 'Pileup.'")
The letter (PDF) states that the "53 km section [of road] traversing Serengeti National Park will remain gravel road and continue to be managed by TANAPA"—Tanzania National Parks—"mainly for tourism and administrative purposes as it is currently."
Many conservationists say the message is confusing.
On the one hand, the "road will not dissect the Park." On the other, the letter says the road "traversing" the park will remain gravel.
Some have speculated that the "traversing" road is a reference to a currently existing, poor-quality access road that runs east-west in the park. That road is currently off-limits to commercial vehicles, except with special permission. Furthermore, some experts have pointed out, the current road is mainly dirt, so there's no way it could "remain gravel."
It may be that the government plans to upgrade or widen this access road for park purposes, but the letter is not clear on this point.
Attempts to contact the Tanzanian government by National Geographic News for clarification about the road were not successful.
(Commentary: "Is the Serengeti Highway Really Cancelled?")
"Not Popping the Champagne Cork Yet"
Safari-travel entrepreneur Anne Kent Taylor said she was "euphoric" when she first heard about the letter. Once she read it for herself, though, her enthusiasm dampened.
"The main word of concern is 'traversing,'" said Taylor, founder of Montana-based A.K. Taylor International, which arranges private Serengeti trips.
"A wider east-to-west road that transverses the Park is surely going to affect migration. ... It is a positive step that they are saying it will be managed for tourism not commercial use. But in reality, this will be difficult to enforce once a higher-capacity road is built," Taylor said.
Duke's Pimm agreed. "Many in the conservation community are not popping the champagne cork just yet," he said. "This is not enough."
Gravel or paved, an expanded road that bisects the park will be devastating to Serengeti wildlife, he added.
"A road by any other name is still going to be a disaster," Pimm said. "I think this is sophistry. ... They're still going to build a road."
Serengeti Authorities "Deserve Credit"
Christof Schenck of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Germany agreed that "interpretation [of the letter] is difficult" but said Tanzania should be commended for its decision to allow TANAPA to manage all roads within the Park. (A previous version of the plan had called for the road to lose its protected status and to be maintained by Tanzania's road-transport authority.)
This is the best way, the zoologist said, to help ensure the road will be used mainly for tourism and park administration, and not for commercial purposes.
The deemphasis of commercial travel is a key point, said Costas Christ, an editor at large for National Geographic Traveler magazine who lived in Africa for more than a decade and worked on the Serengeti.
"Publicly stating that the road will no longer be for commercial use and that it will now remain under national park authority for administration and tourism use is a very significant change by the Tanzanian government.
"They deserve credit for that," Christ said in an email.
The letter "will help to hold Tanzania's feet to the fire in the ongoing court of international public opinion," he added, "and stand in writing as an official record requiring Tanzania to strict adherence to World Heritage site regulations for the Serengeti."
According to World Heritage site selection criteria, "the protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are ... important considerations."
Likewise, Zoologist Markus Borner, a colleague of Schenk at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, Markus says the Tanzanian government's latest move shows a commitment to protecting the park, and that the international community must now do its part.
"The ball is in our court now," Borner said in a statement.
"Only if and when the south road [outside the park] has been built will we have a permanent solution. Tanzania needs assistance with this project. The donor community has now to play its role to make sure this can happen."
Serengeti Highway Inevitable?
Conservationist David Blanton fears, however, sees any expansion of the road—paved or not, and under Park authority or not—as a prelude to calamity.
"There will be demand for use of that road in the future," said Blanton, co-director of the nonprofit Serengeti Watch, based in Ithaca, New York. "And once it does get truck traffic, the soil there won't support it and [the road] will have to be paved."
If that happens and the wildebeest migration is affected, it could prove disastrous for Tanzania's economy.
Duke's Pimm said, "If they destroy the migration, nobody is going to put up with poor infrastructure to see the same species of animals that they can see in other countries."
Serengeti National Park, Blanton said, is a test case for other natural wonders around the world, such as the Galápagos Islands and the rain forests of Costa Rica, which are facing similar challenges in trying to balance economic development with conservation. (See pictures of Galápagos animals.)
"Because it's the Serengeti, it's an icon and a model for how we handle priceless heritages like this all over the world," Blanton said.
"If we can't protect the Serengeti, what can we protect?"