Controversy has greeted a plan to build an international airport close to Serengeti, Tanzania’s flagship national park, with a Cabinet minister vowing that no plane will be allowed into the Unesco World Heritage Site under his watch.
Proponents argue that the proposed airport in Mugumu, 40 kilometres northwest of Serengeti, will handle large aircraft, resulting in hassle-free trips to the park by holidaymakers.
Indeed, it would save tourists a 300km road trip from Kilimanjaro International Airport (KIA) to the sprawling game sanctuary. The park is famous for its spectacular annual migration of more than 1.5 million white-bearded wildebeest and 250,000 zebra.
The $350 million facility is to be financed by Wall Street billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. The American tycoon runs a $16 million five-star lodge at Sasakwa Hill and the three wildlife-rich hunting blocks of Grumeti, Ikorongo and Ikoma, covering nearly 110,000 hectares, in western Serengeti.
Whereas the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) has given its approval to the airport, Tourism and Natural Resources Minister Lazaro Nyalandu has said it will forever negatively change the greatest wildlife migration on earth.
Last week, NEMC granted Serengeti district an Environmental Impact Assessment certificate after being satisfied that the construction of the facility will not negatively affect the environment. But Mr Nyalandu opposed the construction.
“They can build the airport but we are not going to let planes fly over Serengeti National Park because the noise during landing and take-off will affect the wildlife,” Mr Nyalandu told The EastAfrican.
“Conservation outweighs other interests because even investors and tourists are drawn by the flora and fauna available in Serengeti; otherwise, no one would be interested.”
Grumeti Community and Wildlife Conservation Fund general manager Graham Ledger promised to issue a statement on the matter later.
Serengeti district executive director Goody Pamba said construction will begin in a month as experts were putting final touches to the long overdue project.
“The project design is in the final stages and, hopefully, construction works will start in a month,” Ms Pamba said.
Arguing that the airport will stimulate the economy, she said the facility was expected to open up more investment prospects in tourism and hence help to create opportunities in Mugumu town, Serengeti district and the Mara Region as a whole.
Serengeti Member of Parliament Dr Stephen Kebwe, who is also a Deputy Minister for Health and Social Welfare, echoed Ms Pamba’s sentiments, saying he was pushing for the construction to start as soon as possible.
“I can assure you that the foundation stone for the airport will be laid soon,” he said.
Aviation analysts say the airport will pose serious competition for major gateways to the national park such as KIA and Arusha and Mwanza airfields.
However, opponents of the project say the noise of landing and take-off by large planes in Mugumu, which borders one of the park’s most congested areas both in terms of human and wildlife population, could in the long run damage wildlife migration patterns.
According to the Tanzania Association of Tour Operators CEO, Sirili Akko, the airport will attract unnecessary human activity near the already overwhelmed, fragile Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.
Among Wonders of the World
“I am of the opinion that we would do better to upgrade Mwanza Airport to international standards to handle the high-end tourists who want to sample the Serengeti attraction rather than build close to the park,” Mr Akko argued.
This area is critical to the annual wildebeest migration between Tanzania and Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve, which is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World.
Nine years ago, conservationists, in collaboration with Serengeti National Park officials, drew up a 10-year comprehensive general management plan (GMP) for the park.
Besides prohibiting expansion of human settlement and development in the wider ecosystem of Serengeti-Mara, it notes the extreme human impact in the northwest border of the legendary park, which had a population of 3,329,199 in 2011.
The population increase has fuelled poaching, with Tanzania National Parks director-general Allan Kijazi putting the number of wildebeest killed annually in western Serengeti at between 200 and 300.
A Unep and World Conservation Monitoring Centre report puts the number of animals killed annually in Serengeti at as high as 200,000.
Serengeti Watch says a facility such as the airport will require machinery, road infrastructure, jet fuel and a steady stream of equipment, spares and supplies to support it.
In its “Stop Serengeti International Airport” online campaign, the organisation says jumbo jets landing near the park will change the Serengeti “beyond recognition.”