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Road to Tanzania's economic future or wildlife's highway to hell? Add to ...

On the Serengeti plains this month, the animals are gathering for the start of the great migration. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebras stretch across the horizon, in vast herds, as far as the eye can see. It is one of Africa's most extraordinary sights, and it has existed almost unchanged for millions of years.

In their epic journey of thousands of kilometres, from northern Tanzania to southern Kenya and back again, the herds gallop across remote gravel roads, dodging the occasional tourist jeep. But could they manage to venture across a busy commercial road, with the constant roar of truck traffic? Or would it spell the death of the planet's greatest migration, and potentially the entire Serengeti ecosystem?

Tanzania's planned $480-million highway through the Serengeti wilderness has shocked and worried many environmentalists around the world. One group of scientists has predicted that the wildebeest population would plummet from 1.3 million today to less than 300,000. Tens of thousands would die of thirst, unable to cross the highway to reach the wet lands. This in turn would endanger thousands of other animals in the migratory system, from lions and cheetahs to hawks and eagles, causing an "environmental disaster," the scientists say.

Yet while foreign ecologists sound the alarm, the story in Tanzania is very different. What seems so clear from overseas is much more complex on the ground. Many Tanzanians believe that they have already surrendered too much of their land and their economy for the preservation of wildlife - and they are not willing to remain poor forever.

In the towns and villages on the western edge of the Serengeti National Park, everyone is acutely aware of their history: how their ancestors were evicted from their traditional lands to make room for wildlife conservation, leaving them impoverished and dispossessed. They are tired of their sacrifice, and they see the road as the key to their economic future.

"Since the colonial days, the people have been pushed around," says Stephen Makacha, a 70-year-old wildlife expert who has spent most of his life in the Serengeti.

"The colonial government forced them to move, and they were never compensated," he says. "They sacrificed their motherland and got nothing. Why can't they have a better life now? It's a human right. Are we ruled by the international community, or by ourselves?"

Mr. Makacha, a founder of the Ikona wildlife management area in the Serengeti district, has been an environmentalist for 50 years, including years of work sponsored by the Frankfurt Zoological Society - one of the leading voices against the Serengeti highway project today. Yet he supports the highway, calling it "a blessing" for villages that are isolated by bumpy and potholed dirt roads.

He is angered by the recurring talk of a potential tourist boycott of Tanzania if the highway goes ahead. "Why do they threaten us? We have given up our land - they should listen to us, not threaten us."

The pro-highway faction has issued its own threat: a warning that wildlife poaching will escalate if the foreign environmentalists succeed in blocking the highway project. Animals from the Serengeti are already encroaching on crops and livestock in nearby villages, and the patience of the farmers is not limitless, the highway supporters say.

"Wildlife conservation is dependent on the goodwill of the people here," says Francis Shomet, an agricultural development expert in the Serengeti district. "If this road is not built, it will further antagonize people who are already bitter. The cost of the wildlife is much greater than anyone imagines. And our cost of living is one of the highest in Tanzania because of the difficulty of getting supplies."

He suggests a high-tech solution: the highway could be built underground, in a tunnel, for the entire length of its 54-kilometre route across the Serengeti, so the animals could migrate above it. This, however, would be hugely expensive, and there is no sign the government will consider it.

In the district capital, Mugumu, most businesses support the highway because it would cut their costs and boost their profits. Paul Magoiga, a beverage wholesaler, predicts that his sales would jump by 50 per cent because the highway would reduce his distribution costs. The highway would bolster the tourism industry and other business sectors, so that young people won't need to poach animals to survive, he says.

Many experts disagree. They warn that the highway will accelerate poaching by making it easier for illegal hunters to reach the wildlife. It will also spread animal diseases and invasive plant species, while encouraging disruptive human activities, they say.

Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete refuses to back down from his strong support for the highway, which he has promised to the villagers near the park. The highway will be gravel, rather than tarmac, for the stretch inside the park, he said. "We will do nothing to hurt the Serengeti," he told a World Bank official who suggested an alternative route to the south of the park.

But critics note that the highway will be paved outside the park, encouraging trucks to drive rapidly to the edge of the park. Current regulations prohibit trucks from driving through the park after sunset, or from driving faster than 50 kilometres an hour - but those rules could be changed. "Our fear is that the government will be pressured to change the regulations," said Damian Thobias, co-ordinator of the Serengeti Development Research and Environmental Conservation Centre.

Even if the highway is not paved, an environmental study predicts that within 25 years trucks will be travelling down the highway at a rate of one every 30 seconds. This could destroy a migration route that has existed for millions of years, environmentalists say.

John Kisiroti, a village game scout who guards against poaching around Robanda village on the western edge of Serengeti park, is worried that the highway will destroy the tourism that creates jobs for the villagers. "There's nothing good about this highway," he said.

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