Serengeti dodges the bullet

Good news over the weekend. The trunk road that the Tanzanian government proposed to push through the northern part of the world famous Serengeti National Park will not now go ahead as originally planned.

Serengeti_map

The road that wasn’t and the wildebeest migration (map by FZS).

I had refrained from commenting on this whilst it was a live issue for two reasons: (a) because I didn’t understand the details and heard enough contrasting tales about it that I felt it would be inappropriate to comment, and (b) lest I inadvertently make things worse. Alas, some wildlife ecologists did not feel able to bite their tongue:

"[President] Kikwete’s spiteful attitude towards the World Heritage site and his strange determination to drive a road through Serengeti make him look increasingly old-fashioned and vindictive." (Prof Andrew Dobson, quoted here)

Now I personally much like the practice in science to call a spade a spade, but I fail to detect what is scientific about describing the President of a country you want to change direction as spiteful, old-fashioned and vindictive. Putting my best scientific hat on, I might describe that as stupid. From what I understand, the underlying motivations for the proposed road were all political, involving different factions within Tanzania’s ruling party, so a political savvy response was required, not something that smacked of neo-colonialism in an ex-colony where sensitivities, are, not surprisingly, sensitive!

What behind-the-scenes lobbying went on, I do not know, but it seems to have been rather more effective than Dobson’s bone-headed intervention. Unfortunately, that is not the end of it. I hear from reliable sources that the whole episode has left a rather sour taste in the mouth of President Kikwete. (Who’d have guessed it?) A president who was reportedly once an enthusiastic supporter of conservation is now far from well-disposed to the sector. One immediate consequence: Kikwete demanded the last minute withdrawal of an application for World Heritage Site for the forests in Tanzania’s Eastern Arc Mountains (a global biodiversity hotspot), an application that had been 14 years in the making (see here).

If it really was a case of exchanging a paper park designation for an actual road then it would seem to be an all round good deal, but I’m not aware of anyone who has suggested this was a ‘trade’, and a more carefully designed campaign might have headed off the road without losing the WHS application.

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