Contrary to Serengeti Watch’s weekend retraction that the Serengeti Highway had been scrapped, it has been scrapped. SW now needs to be as clear as it’s demanding the Tanzanian government be.

Friday I joined the world, including SW in announcing the Serengeti highway had been scrapped. It has been, but a retraction by SW with an unusually scrupulous reading of the official Tanzanian government announcement does confuse the issue, and this is intentional by the government. Let’s try to work through this.

First, what happened Friday was a Tanzanian government letter sent to UNESCO dated Wednesday got into the media. After the first reading SW sent out an alert to their thousands of members that the highway had been scrapped.

I’m not sure of the actual sequence of reporting, if SW was the first to report this or how exactly SW got a copy of the letter, but within seconds of the SW announcement the world press was reporting it, including the BBC. Before Friday ended in Africa, in fact, foreign correspondents as reputable as the London Telegraph’s Mike Planz were reporting “Wildebeest migration safe after Serengeti road plans scrapped.

Agence France Presse reported Friday from Paris, where UNESCO is located and to whom the letter was addressed, that UNESCO had confirmed the “Tanzania has stated it will reconsider its North Road project.”

And Sunday, media throughout Africa and the world picked up an Agence France report that as a result of the “reconsideration” UNESCO’s World Heritage Site board of trustees had decided not to list the Serengeti as an endangered World Heritage Site.

Click below for the best resolution I can give you of the Tanzanian government letter to UNESCO.

SW considers the second paragraph of the letter dissimulating. The third paragraph, however, is pretty definitive:

Ezekiel Maige, Tanzanian’s Minister for Natural Resources & Tourism wrote, “…the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park…”

So, then, what is the “proposed road.”

Maige explains this in the second paragraph as a two-part road divided by the Serengeti itself. The eastern portion will be a new paved road to Loliondo, plus a 58k stretch from Loliondo to the Serengeti’s Klein’s Camp Gate, although that long 58k that will not be paved.

He then continues to remark that a 53k section traversing the Serengeti “will remain gravel road” and continue to be managed by park authorities and presumably, funds “as it currently is.” Where that road ends, at the western Tabora Gate of the park, there would then be a new (or renewed) 12k gravel road to the town of Mugumo, where a new paved road would continue to Lake Victoria.

Excerpted from Harvey Maps, London.

Now the confusion comes because SW doesn’t seem to think that this 53k gravel road through the park exists. After a day’s elation, SW sent out an alert to its supporters claiming “No gravel road exists across this 53 km stretch.”

I’ve driven it many times. See the map above. It’s a horrible road in places, disappears in others, but it has been a designated Serengeti track road for at least the last 50 years.

“WASO” is the actual town to which the new paved road will be built from Mto-wa-Mbu. Maige and others commonly refer to the “Loliondo Road” but Loliondo is the entire district. There is a small political and government headquarters named Loliondo 6.2k east of Waso, but Waso in the main urban center.

The 57.6k gravel road that will be newly built or newly reconstructed but which will remain gravel will be from Waso to the Serengeti’s eastern park gate at Klein’s Camp. 58k on gravel is at the best of times a two-hour trip. This is no thoroughfare.

Maige’s reference to the “existing road” from the eastern to the western side of the park, and which had been generally (not specifically) the blueprint for the originally announced “highway” is the arched track shown above as a broken line that begins a few kilometers south of the Klein’s Camp gate on the main road to Lobo, then moves northwest, then southwest through the neck of the Serengeti to the western gate at Tabora.

Maige then said the existing track from the park gate to the town of Mugumo will be improved, and at Mugumo the paved road will continue to Lake Victoria.

The arched track through the Serengeti is what SW claimed does not exist. Of course it does, and it appears on a number of the last issues of the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s maps of the park. The oldest one I have was published in June, 1970. A 2008 one is republished by Harvey Maps of London and is available for sale to the public.

To improve this existing track will require significant effort. There is nothing in Maige’s announcement to suggest there will be any further upgrading or building of bridges, or anything of the sort, on the 53k track that links Klein’s Camp Gate (east) with Tabora Gate (west). Frankly, I doubt they’ll do a thing.

The existing track just gives up the ghost in huge sections, and a number of new bridges (over the Balanganjwe and Mbalimbali to name two) would have to be built. No small or inexpensive task. It does not seem to jive with Maige’s claim of an “existing road” nor one that would be managed “as it is currently.”

As it is currently, a better Landcruiser than mine would be needed to make the entire journey. I suppose that park rangers on poaching patrol might manage along it, but that’s about it.

So this is the crux of the dissimulation, and I suppose it’s understandable that SW might suspect the government of trying to fool its way into retaining UNESCO World Heritage status while still planning to dissect the Serengeti. But frankly, I don’t even think Tanzanian politicians are that foolish.

Maige said definitively “the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti” and that’s what the world community and UNESCO is taking at face value.

In fact, were Tanzania to do so, I can imagine nothing but incredible ramifications to the country as a whole, and not just from UNESCO, but the World Bank and the U.S. which has just orchestrated new aid for the country.

Yes, you can argue Maige’s letter is clever dissimulation but in fact it would be considered outright lying to the NGOs and foreign donors on which the country depends for its very existence. There are just too many sentences in that letter that stand as evidence that “the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti.”

I think the letter is intended as much for local consumption as UNESCO. Like any good Tanzanian politician, Maige will never admit the government has changed its mind. And Tanzanian politicians’ track record of fooling Tanzanians more than outsiders is legend. It’s totally realistic to suppose what the government is doing, here, is leading unsuspecting local supporters of a faster link from Arusha to Lake Victoria down a nonexistent track.

If Tanzania really intended to build a new road, why write this letter in the first place? Do you really think Maige believed he could fool UNESCO, the World Bank and the United States with something like this?

That’s just too unbelievable.

Nothing is ever final in government or politics, whether it be Tanzania or here, and we have every reason to demand a greater clarification from Tanzania. But my money’s still on no new road through the park for the foreseeable future.