A $350 Million Airport Next Door to the Serengeti?

Photo by Matt Goddard
Photo by Matt Goddard

It appears to be all systems go for the proposed $350 million Serengeti airport, in spite of criticism of the project from Tanzania’s Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism and a prominent Serengeti conservation group.

Last week, Dr. Stephen Kebwe, who represents the Serengeti constituency in parliament, told East African Business Week that construction could start soon. He also said that Lazaro Nyalandu, Minister of Natural Resources and Tourism, “must have been misquoted” when he said the new airport would disturb the ecosystem of the Serengeti. Kebwe went on to say that that the “official government position is that the airport must be constructed.”

map showing the proposed location of the new Serengeti airport
The location of the new Serengeti airport. The red line leading to it across the Serengeti represents the proposed Serengeti highway. Courtesy of Serengeti Watch.

The airport, which is slated to be built near Mugumu township, northwest of the national park, is being financed by US billionaire Paul Tudor Jones. Jones owns luxury safari lodges about 15 miles from where the new airport will be located.

The plan for the new airport was met with widespread criticism when it was announced in 2007, after it became clear that it would be capable of handling big jet traffic from Europe. Even the Director General of Tanzania National Parks at the time publicly opposed the plan and the ostensible increase in tourism infrastructure that would have accompanied it. He was later removed from his post.

Since then, it appears that the original plan has been scaled back and the airport will have a gravel runway and will only accept light aircraft from neighboring countries.

Still, not everyone seems to be convinced that the new airport is a good idea. The non-profit Serengeti Watch says that the issue isn’t necessarily the size of the airport or the aircraft that will land there, but its location near an area designated as a restricted wilderness zone, which, it states, is critical to the annual migration of wildebeest between Tanzania and Kenya’s Maasai Mara.

On its website, Serengeti Watch states that the interests of an American tycoon are being allowed to trump the Serengeti National Park Management Plan.

This isn’t the first time Serengeti Watch has raised the alarm over plans for development in and around the park. The organization helped spark international outrage over the government’s plan to build a paved commercial highway through the Serengeti a few years back. That plan was put on hold, at least for now, after the East African Court of Justice ruled in June in favor of plaintiffs, who argued the road would have a devastating impact on wildlife, including the park’s world-famous wildebeest migration.