The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled against the construction of a paved commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park. The ruling was limited, in that only a northern, asphalt (bitumen) road was banned from the park. It stopped a project that conservation organizations and scientists warned would devastate an iconic World Heritage Site and its annual wildebeest migration. But it fell short of banning an upgraded gravel road through the park and left a door open for further threats.
The court agreed with the African Network for Animal Welfare’s argument that the highway would have irreversible negative impacts. It affirmed that construction of the highway would be a violation of the East African Community Treaty. In doing so, it cited Tanzania’s own Environmental Impact Study and relied heavily on statements issued by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.
The final decision read:
“A permanent injunction is hereby issued restraining the Respondent from operationalising its initial proposal or proposed action of constructing or maintaining a road of bitumen standard across the Serengeti National Park subject to its right to undertake such other programmes or initiate policies in the future which would not have a negative impact on the environment and ecosystem in the Serengeti National Park.”
After the verdict, ANAW’s Executive Director, Jophat Ngonyo, said:
“This was not a win for ANAW, not for our lawyer, Saitabao Ole Kanchory, not for Serengeti Watch, not for our expert witness John Kuloba, but for the millions of animals in the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. It is a win for nature and God’s creation. Nature has won today.”
Although the decision bars the paved highway originally proposed by the Tanzanian government, many important issues are left unanswered:
Upgraded road still planned:
Although the case sought to prevent any upgrading, the court did not specifically bar this. The government of Tanzania says it will
instead upgrade the existing dirt track to an all-weather gravel road. The track is in a zone designated as a Wilderness Area reserved for park vehicles and walking safaris.
The government of Tanzania says that this is currently gravel, but Serengeti Watch has documented every mile of it, with photos on Google Earth, showing that it is a seasonal dirt track.
Roads for public use not addressed:
Although the EACJ said that roads in the Serengeti should be “reserved for tourists and park personnel and not the general public, “ it’s injunction did not specify this. Tanzania still has the ability to open roads for the public, including commercial use.
Roads outside of the park not addressed:
The entire Serengeti ecosystem includes areas within the Serengeti National Park and areas outside. Wildlife migration takes place in both areas. There are plans for paved roads in migration areas outside the park that will impact the migration. The court case did not address this. See: http://www.savetheserengeti.org/issues/highway/stop-the-serengeti-highway/
An uncertain future:
An important step would be the building of an alternative southern route around the Serengeti. The government of Tanzania has at least approved a feasibility study of this now. But many observers warn that the gravel road will inevitably become a highway carrying more commercial traffic. There will be increasing pressure to connect the paved roads on either side of the park with a commercial link through the park. In the end, it is the volume of traffic and its ultimate effect on the migration, not the road surface per se, that makes the impact. Richard Leakey, for one, believes that the highway is “inevitable.”