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Serengeti on road to ruin, scientists warn

By Matthew Knight for CNN
Conservationists say a proposed new road through the Serengeti National Park will disrupt migratory patterns of wildebeests.
Conservationists say a proposed new road through the Serengeti National Park will disrupt migratory patterns of wildebeests.
  • Serengeti under threat from proposed trade road slated to bisect the northern section
  • Group of 27 scientists say road will hamper migration of 1.3 million wildebeests
  • Arusha-Musoma highway will cause "environmental disaster" scientists predict
  • Tanzania's Serengeti National Park is one of the world's great natural wonders

London, England (CNN) -- Plans to build a highway through Tanzania's Serengeti National Park will destroy one of the world's last great wildlife sanctuaries, a group of conservation experts has warned.

Writing in the journal Nature, 27 scientists have called for a re-think on a proposed 50 kilometer (31 mile) road which they say will cause "environmental disaster."

Under plans approved by the Tanzanian government earlier this year, the trade route would bisect a northern part of the park, forming part of the 170 kilometer-long Arusha-Musoma highway slated to run from the Tanzanian coast to Lake Victoria, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Construction is expected to begin in 2012.

In "Road will ruin Serengeti," lead author Andrew Dobson, professor at the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, says laying a track across the park would disrupt the annual migratory patterns of tens of thousands of zebras and gazelles, and 1.3 million wildebeest.

Using computer simulations the scientists estimate that if the wildebeests' access to the Mara river in Kenya is blocked their numbers "will fall to less than 300,000."

The ecosystem could flip into being a source of atmospheric CO2
--Scientists writing in 'Nature'

"This would lead to more grass fires, which would further diminish the quality of grazing by volatizing minerals, and the ecosystem could flip into being a source of atmospheric CO2," the scientists said.

In addition to simulations, the scientists also cite the experience of other park ecosystems where large mammal migration has been hindered by roads and fences.

In Canada's Banff National Park in Canada, "habitat fragmentation" has led to the "collapse of at least six of the last 24 terrestrial migratory species left in the world."

In Africa, the ecosystems of Etosha National Park in Namibia and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in Botswana have collapsed to "a less diverse and less productive state," the scientists said.

Scientists say a different route running south of the Serengeti should be considered to preserve the 1.2 million hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This alternative route could utilize an existing network of gravel roads and would only be 50 kilometers longer than the proposed northern route, the scientists said.

While they acknowledge that Tanzania needs improved infrastructure to facilitate economic development, they argue that the road would damage wildlife tourism -- "a cornerstone" of the country's economy which was worth an estimated $824 million in 2005.

The Nature article adds weight to the growing pressure on the Tanzanian government to reconsider its position regarding the road.

Last month, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Zoological Society of London voiced their concerns and campaigns against the highway are gaining support on social networking sites Facebook ("Stop the Serengeti Highway") and Twitter ("SaveSerengeti").

Earlier this year, Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete tried to placate opponents of the project by announcing that the section of new road running through the Serengeti would not be tarmacked.

"I am also a conservation ally and I assure you I'm not going to allow something that will ruin the ecosystem to be built," President Kikwete said in an address to the nation in July.