Protests over US firm’s plan for Serengeti

Monday June 4 2007

Lobbyists are up in arms over a proposal by an American company to the Tanzanian government to build an international airport in the game reserve. MIKE MANDE reports

Kenya and Tanzania are opposing a controversial project that aims to turn the Serengeti and Maasai Mara game reserves into ordinary national parks.

A US investor — Grumet Reserves Ltd — plans to build an international airport at Mugumu in Serengeti district of Mara region and a road highway linking Mara and Arusha regions through the Serengeti National Park.

The simmering row began in March 2006, when the then Tanzanian Minister for Infrastructure Development, Basil Mramba and Robbert Dugger, chairman of Grumet Reserves Ltd, signed a memorandum of understanding over the use of millions of dollars from the Millennium Challenge Corporation for the two Serengeti projects. Mr Mramba is currently the Minister for Industry, Trade and Marketing

However, the Tanzania National Parks Authority (Tanapa), local and international non-governmental organisations and Kenya oppose the project because of its ecological and physiological impact on the parks and animals.

Gerald Bigurube, director general of Tanapa, told The EastAfrican last week that development of human activities in Serengeti would restrict the movement of animals to Maasai Mara in Kenya and reduce gene flow, thereby impacting negatively on their population and species.

“To maintain biodiversity and ecosystem functions in both the short and long-term it is necessary to maintain habitat connectivity so that individual animals can move freely across the landscape,” he said, adding that the international airport, the highway and other linear developments within the park would reduce and eliminate animal movements and habitat connectivity.

Mr Bigurube said the Serengeti ecosystem is facing the problems that much of the world has already experienced — habitat reduction and fragmentation at a variety of spatial scales that has been widely acknowledged as a primary cause of the decline of many species worldwide such as that in the Mikumi National Park in Morogoro region.

He said experts from Grumet Reserves had already made their feasibility studies for the two projects without involving Tanapa. The project is supposed to “lift Tanzania onto a new and much higher path of growth and job creation.”

According to the memorandum of understanding, Grumet Reserves will build a highway from Musoma to Mto wa Mbu via Natta, Mugumu, Tabora B, Klein’s Camp and Loliondo through Serengeti National Park at a cost of $50 million.

The international airport at Mugumu would cost an estimated $13.4 million while relocation of the Tanapa headquarters from Fort Ikoma to Tabora B and its construction will cost of $5.3 million. The relocation of Robanda Village and its construction is expected to cost $8.7 million.

The 3.8 km runway at Mugumu will facilitate the landing and takeoff of jet aircraft from the US or elsewhere direct to the northern part of Serengeti National Park.

But zoologists say noise from aircraft will expose animals to “excessive stimulation of their nervous systems, leading to chronic stress, which is harmful to the healthy growth and reproductive fitness of animals.”

But Grumet Reserves says it is not involved in the construction of any road or airport in Serengeti.

Robert Dugger, chairman of Grumet Reserves told The EastAfrican from Washington that his company is “committed to restoring and preserving the environment of the wildebeest migration route through the Grumet, Ikoma and Ikongoro game areas.”

Mr Dugger said, “As part of our community development commitment, we studied a variety of regional economic development possibilities and decided to focus on water access and education.”

“We are not involved in any northern road or airport projects — these are government responsibilities. It is our understanding that the government has been studying such projects for several decades,” he said.

According to Mr Dugger, Grumeti Reserves Ltd is not a subsidiary or affiliate of Tudor Investment Corporation but a “fully independent philanthropic wildlife conservation and community development effort.”

Joe ole Kuwai, projects director of Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Tanzania Regional Office had told The EastAfrican from Serengeti last week that they had had discussions with the proprietor of Grumet Reserves — Paul Tudor Jones — over the issue and that he will be coming over to Tanzania in July for further discussion.

Mr Kuwai said that a zoological team of experts from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and Kenyan zoologists will this week meet the Tanzania Parliamentary Committee on Natural Resources and Environment over the proposed projects.

“The zoologists are opposing the project and they will be meeting Tanzanian parliamentarians to press for the halting of the projects,” he said, adding that they have asked the owner of Grumet Reserves Ltd to build a small airport at his hotel area.