The Serengeti ecosystem is being compromised by a corrupt Tanzanian government and greedy businessmen representing themselves as conservationists.

An international airport may be built in the Serengeti; a modern highway may connect the Mara with Grumeti; and ten more lodges and hotels might all be built, without any real public discourse or environmental analysis, and with the tacit blessing of worldwide conservation organizations benefitting from the ultimate winner in this scheme, American billionaire hedge fund trader, Paul Tudor Jones.

There has been a continuing debate for more than a decade as to whether the Serengeti should be more aggressively developed for tourism, particularly when compared to its rich and much more developed Kenyan neighbor to the north, the Maasai Mara.

But this honest debate is being trumped by devious and corrupt businessmen and politicians. It is revealing the greedy truths of so-called conservationists like Paul Tudor Jones (the Grumeti Reserves), testing the integrity of otherwise reputable wildlife organizations like the Frankfurt Zoological Society, and impugning the Tanzanian government’s commitment to conservation.

It’s an intricate web of deception and deceit, and like so much in bureaucratic Tanzania, urgent matters get bogged down in contrived public debate that’s little more than grandstanding, while behind the scenes powerful politicians move sinister plans that never had any intention of being influenced by the public.

The Story (Part One):

The Ngorongoro/Serengeti/Mara ecosystem is a contiguous wilderness that represents the core of East Africa’s protected big game. The total size is 9485 sq. miles, a little bit smaller than Maryland and little bit bigger than Vermont.

Tanzania’s Ngorongoro/Serengeti component is 8900 sq. miles or about 94% of that total area. The remaining portion, Kenya’s Maasai Mara, is only 585 sq. miles, about 1/20th the size of the Tanzania component.

But the Mara has more than 5 times the accommodation of the Ngorongoro/Serengeti, roughly 4700 beds compared to around 940. (These numbers according to Tanzania’s prime minister, Edward Lowassa, speaking to Parliament in August, 2007. I think they’re roughly accurate, but it’s symptomatic of this whole debate that no government agency in either Kenya or Tanzania has completed an official count, and no clarity as to whether these numbers include lodges which exist just outside park boundaries sustains the confusion.)

So the density of accommodation in the Mara (beds per sq. mile) is roughly 80 times greater than the density in the Serengeti/Ngorongoro.

The reason for this is both historical and environmental. Historically, Kenya developed much earlier and more quickly than Tanzania, and during this earlier development stage, was a much more stable country. That’s changed in the last few years, but the development began in the 1960s in Kenya. Following an economic collapse in Tanzania in the 1980s, the tourist industry there really didn’t start developing until the 1990s.

Kenya has a generational, 30-year advantage.

Environmentally, the Mara is the wettest place of all East African protected wildernesses. That means two important things: first, it attracts and sustains over the course of any cycle (such as a full year) the largest biomass. Second, it can sustain heavy tourist use – like off-road driving and septic waste management – because of the dynamic regeneration of the ecosystem afforded by heavy rains.

While the great wildebeest migration comes and goes into the Mara and other parts of this larger ecosystem, the remaining biomass of the Mara is pretty stable year-round. That’s not true of the Serengeti/Ngorongoro, which is much more seasonal: basically the first half of the year is wet, the last half, dry. So the Mara is the more stable ecosystem. This means its tourist attractions are more consistent year-round. It will obviously attract investors more easily.

(Now whether or not the current tourist density in the Mara is too much is a debate of its own, and I think it is. But the “environmental” arguments used by proponents to increase development of the Serengeti/Ngorongoro, based on the successes of the Mara’s heavy development, ignore these real environmental differences.)

Even though the Serengeti/Ngorongoro component is the lion’s share of the overall area, this 90-95% of the total area is a much more fragile and easily disturbed ecosystem than the Mara.

During the dry season, much of it’s a dustbowl, easily damaged by too much use. And that’s the whole rub of the problem. You can’t open the area just when it’s wet. In fact, tourists tend to come on seasons of their own making: holiday and summer periods, for example, which have little correlation with the state of the environment at the time.

So it’s a legitimate, honest debate that needs to be had. Is the Mara now overdeveloped? Is the Serengeti/Ngorongoro underdeveloped? But this debate seems secondary to a real putsch right now to develop the Serengeti hog-wild… pun intended.

Part Two:
White Angel really Dark Knight?

In one fell swoop at the beginning of this decade, the American billionaire hedge fund trader, Paul Tudor Jones, laid down a wad of cash and bought an area the same size as Kenya’s Mara that rested on the northern border of the Serengeti’s western corridor. The area had been a hunting reserve for years. He called it “Grumeti Reserves” and built three luxury lodges to provide the mighty and wealthy from around the world an exclusive retreat. There were anti-poaching patrols and anti-paparazzi patrols.

This was unprecedented. Neither Kenya or Tanzania had ever allowed a single developer to control so much area. Many people – especially at the time – believed Jones was an honest conservationist. I never did. For one thing, his “projects” managed to reach as far away from scrutiny as possible. The first was in the growingly disturbed country of Zimbabwe. This second one was in the fabulously corrupt country of Tanzania.

Although the public fanfare that preceded these two monstrosities headlined conservationist objectives, what was more important was the huge amounts of money he was giving to the conservation organizations working in the area, particularly the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the African Wildlife Foundation.

It reminds me of Senator Baucus’ principal campaign contributors.

It’s important to note that Jones is a hunter. And because these huge parcels of land are his, he can hunt on them, and does, even while marketing them for photography safaris. I don’t see anything wrong with hunting when done properly. But big game hunters on the major donor list of big conservationist organizations like AWF and the Frankfurt Zoo is the exception, not the rule.

When Jones tried some of his antics in a more transparent society, like the United States, he was called out. Jones systematically bought up land in Chesapeake Bay to build a 20-room mansion on a wetland of great importance to the area. In 1990, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Department fined him more than $2 million for tampering with the tidewaters of Chesapeake Bay, presumably to allow for mallard hunting year-round on his estate.

At least all the above was public, and available for all of us to argue about. What we’re coming to believe, now, is that there was also a lot of dealing under the table with the powers that held real control over Jones: Tanzanian politicians.

Part Three:
Tanzania’s Political Carrying-Capacity

In March, 2006, the then Tanzanian Minister for Infrastructure, Basil Mramba, signed a memorandum of understanding that gave the Grumeti Reserves exclusive use of millions of dollars from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (the MCC) to quickly and more extensively develop the Serengeti.

Hmm. Grumeti Reserves was a private corporation on private land. Just because it touched the Serengeti, didn’t mean it was the Serengeti.

The MCC was a Bush fiasco, another political attempt to paint selfish politicians in a better light. It was originally funded in 2003 with $4.8 billion to help eradicate poverty in the Third World. But by the end of 2007, only $155 million had been spent. (A similar fate occurred to Bush’ much heralded and little used Aids Initiative.)

By 2008 the fund was axed by Congress, in all but name.

All of this was good for the Serengeti, because the development plans couldn’t go forward. Meanwhile, Jones’ three lodges in the Grumeti Reserves were under-performing in spades. Jones tried everything possible to get things going: a block buster film that would be shot there, handing over management to the Singita Group of South Africa. Nothing worked, even while the rest of Tanzanian tourism was having its bloated heyday.

The Tanzanian Minister who signed the original agreement with Grumeti is now the Minister of Industry, Trade and Marketing, a much more important ministry. Late last year, Minister Mramba revealed that Jones was going to get private capital to do what the MCC could no longer do:

1) build an international airport at Mugumu in the Serengeti district, a 2.5 mile-long runway that could take jumbo jets at a cost of $13.4 million. This is very near Jones’ lodges;

2) build a modern highway linking Kenya’s (high tourist density) Mara into the Serengeti National Park at a cost of $50 million, right by Jones’ lodges;

3) relocation of the Tanzanian wildlife authority headquarters to nearer the new airport, at a cost of around $16 million, which includes the relocation of an existing village at Robanda.

$80 million is chump change to Jones. And if it were used for real conservation and studied Serengeti development, it would be a heaven’s ransom. But it’s not going to be for real conservation or studied Serengeti development. It’s going to build an asphalt path for the rich into Jones’ private retreat.

This is the first time that I’ve wished that U.S. Fish & Wildlife had jurisdiction in Tanzania.

Part 3:
Jones changes the tide, again.

Jones previously had tremendous support and enormous cooperation from the Serengeti’s main wilderness protector, the Frankfurt Zoological Society. But this time, they’ll have none of his scullduggery.

The Frankfurt Zoo has condemned the plans. Joe ole Kuwai, projects director of Frankfurt Zoological Society’s Tanzania Regional Office said, “Zoologists are opposing the project and [are]… to press for the halting of the projects.”

The Society’s main spokesperson, Dagmar Andres, added that a rise in tourists would severely damage the Serengeti’s very fragile ecosystem. She said: “They will have all the problems you have in the Masai Mara with all these hotels and all this traffic” without the Mara’s regenerative powers.

Unfortunately, conservation organizations just don’t have the clout of government. The first big new lodge in a decade, the Kempinski Bilila, opened for business this June. One of its principal investors is the president of Tanzania.

Minister Mramba has tendered more than ten other locations for new lodges in the Serengeti.

The most important opposition to all this development came from the Director General of the Tanzanian parks authority himself, Gerald Bigurube. Last year he told the East African Newspaper that development of human activities in Serengeti would restrict the movement of animals, reduce gene flow, and seriously impact the overall biomass.

On July 13, Bigurube was sacked. Charges were trumped up against him regarding payments for advertising programs marketing Tanzanian wildlife.

The distinct impression is that the bulldozer is already bulldozing.

Recent guests to the Grumeti Reserves.

On September 7, Grumeti Reserves hosted Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire and notorious owner of Britain’s Chelsea Football Club. He arrived in his own private 767, but since the runway hasn’t yet been built on the reserve, he had to land at Kilimanjaro Airport. Tanzania’s Deputy Minister for Industries and Commerce, Cyril Chami, welcomed him on the tarmac. Did he apologize for the Mugumu runway not yet being built?