East African Court of Justice nullifies Serengeti superhighway

The East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled against the Tanzanian government’s plan to construct a bitumen commercial highway across the Serengeti National Park. It was to be a 54km (33 mile) commercial highway across the northern section of the national park. The court ruled on Friday June 20, 2014 declaring the construction of the Natta-Mugumu-Loliondo ‘unlawful’.

The ruling was read by Deputy Principal Judge Justice Isaac Lenaola on behalf of a bench which included Principal Judge Justice Jean Bosco Butesi and Judge Justice John Mkwawa.

The Deputy Principal Judge Justice said that, “The proposed action by the Respondent (United Republic of Tanzania) to construct a road of bitumen standard across the Serengeti National Park is unlawful and infringes Articles 5 (3)(c),8(1)(c),111(2) and 114(1) of the Treaty (of the East African Community).”

The African Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), a Kenya-based NGO and other scientists through the Serengeti Watch filled a case on December 10, 2010. The case was filed the Tanzania government to protect the unique ecosystem. They warned that the road would devastate the World Heritage Site and its annual wildebeest migration. It is often times referred to as the great annual migration of the wildebeest. Winning the case might have been a victory for the conservationists and environmentalists, but numerous questions remain unanswered for the ecosystem.

After the ruling, ANAW’s Executive Director, Josphat Ngonyo said that, “Serengeti-Mara ecosystem is a shared resource, not just by Kenya and Tanzania, but also for the rest of the East African community and the world at large.”

Annual Wildebeest Migration
The Great Wildebeest Migration is the largest land mammal migration on Earth. It is a movement of approximately 1.5 million wildebeest throughout the Serengeti and Masai Mara ecosystems. Over 400,000 zebra and 200,000 gazelles accompany them along the way. Each year over 2 million animals make the longest journey from the eastern plains through central Serengeti and northward to the Masai Mara in search of water and fresh grasses and then return in a yearly cycle. It has been going on for thousands of years. The Serengeti is one of the very few reserves left on Earth that protects and contains such a complete ecosystem.

The annual wildebeest migration
The annual wildebeest migration
The road through Serengeti. Photo by Roberto Maldeno
The road through Serengeti. Photo by Roberto Maldeno

The need to construct the road
The decision to construct the super highway was to fulfil a promise made by the Tanzanian President, Jakaya Kikwete during his last presidential campaign. The road was intended to foster socio-economic growth of about 1.2 million people in the adjacent communities and reduce transport costs.

The proposed road was also intended to be a commercial highway across the northern section of the national park. The highway was to connect towns on the shore of Lake Victoria through the Serengeti ecosystem to Arusha on the east. It would also replace an existing dirt road track. The study carried out by the Tanzanian government had indicated that the new highway would carry up to 800 commercial vehicles a day by 2015 and it would increase thereafter.

The scientists warned that constructing the highway to the general public would cause irrevocable damage to the Serengeti. They also warned that the highway would bisect a narrow section of the Serengeti ecosystem which is critical to the annual wildebeest migration with great effect on all wildlife, the grasslands, and the entire ecosystem.

The court’s ruling approved with the plaintiff’s argument that the highway would have irreversible negative impacts and affirmed that the construction would violate the East African Community Treaty. The ruling cited Tanzania’s own Environmental Impact Study. It also based heavily on statements issued by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

The Serengeti ecosystem includes Kenya’s Masai Mara Reserve, the Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area, and adjacent reserves such as the Loliondo, Maswa, Ikorongo, and Grumeti. It is nearly 10,000 square-mile protected areas.

The migration season
As early as December the Migration starts from Ndutu region to Ngorongoro. This area has the short grass plains rich in nutritious grasses. It provides the herds with best conditions to raise their newborn.

The mid February is calving season. Just about 8,000 wildebeest are born every day for roughly 3 weeks.

From April to May, the herds migrate north as splits occur when some wildebeest head directly up across the central Serengeti and the mega herd starts to push out to the Serengeti’s Western Corridor.

The central splinter herds continue north to the Mara with the very first herds crossing the Mara River in late June and early July. The mega herd is concentrated by the Grumeti River by the end of May and beginning of June.