By Kizito Makoye
Dar es Salaam — After decades of struggling to help the wildlife of Serengeti National Park cope with Tanzania's increasingly intense droughts, the government is implementing a controversial plan to use Lake Victoria as an alternative water source for the animals.
The project - which aims to ensure the survival of millions of animals including the wildebeests and zebras that take part in the famous Great Migration every year - involves reviving a 36-square-kilometre wildlife corridor by extending the border of the park to Lake Victoria's Gulf of Speke.
However, guaranteeing animals safe passage to the second-largest freshwater lake in the world will mean evicting hundreds of families living on the land.
Government officials say moving around 8,000 people out of the Speke Game Controlled Area in Bunda district is essential to conserving the Serengeti's ecosystem in the face of worsening drought.
"This process is unavoidable due to the importance of the area to the Serengeti-Maasai Mara ecosystem," said a report from the Mara Regional Consultative Committee (RCC), a government body. "The cost to implement these decisions now is much smaller than [it would be after\ waiting for more years."
A member of the RCC confided to Thomson Reuters Foundation that the project's budget is an estimated $33 million.
The idea of protecting the corridor between Serengeti National Park and Lake Victoria is not a new one. Conservationists have long called for the government to change land-use policy in the area.
"There's no doubt this project could have a lot of benefits to wildlife," said Serengeti Chief Park Warden William Mwakilema.
Government reports suggest that poaching in the park is partly driven by surging demand for wild meat in densely populated areas surrounding the park.
The spread of cattle raising and farming also poses a threat to the area's wildlife, experts say, and the continuing stresses of trying to adapt to the effects of climate change could push residents to damage the park's ecosystem, through wood cutting, poaching or other activities.
The Tanzanian government insists its plan will be good for people are well as animals. Residents due for eviction from the villages of Serengeti, Nyatwari and Tamau have been promised land elsewhere in the district, while people living near the Gulf of Speke should benefit from a boost in tourist trade, officials say.
Serengeti National Park, which covers an area of 14,763 sq km, is one of Tanzania's most popular tourist destinations. The tourism industry is the largest foreign currency earner in the country, supporting over 27,000 jobs and generating 25 percent of Tanzania's foreign exchange.
Bank of Tanzania statistics show earnings from tourism hit $1.76 billion in 2013, and are continuing to rise.
Local residents, however, are critical of the government's relocation plan and instead propose the establishment of a joint wildlife management area in the Gulf of Speke that would help villagers learn how to live and work without negatively impacting the ecosystem.
Earlier attempts to expand the park's protected area have been met with resistance. In March 2013, protestors forced the government to abandon a plan to prohibit Maasai herders from grazing their cattle on a large tract of land in Loliondo village, Arusha region, which had been identified as a crucial breeding ground for migrating wildebeest.
Many people predict more protests over the latest expansion plan. "We already have too many national parks. Do we live for animals or do animals live for us?" asked Mwami Nyamaka, a resident of Nyatwari village.
Bunda District Council's chairman Joseph Malimbe brushed off the government's offer of alternative land, saying his district does not have enough spare land to accommodate evictees.
"Let us leave them where they are," he said.
Rights groups and lawyers warn that before the government starts the project, it has to strike the correct balance between the rights of the people and the need to expand the national park.
Speaking with Thomson Reuters Foundation, Onesmo Ole Ngurumwa, an expert on African pastoralism who leads the Tanzania Human Rights Defenders Coalition, said people and animals deserve equal treatment. He said the government has often ignored the welfare of its citizens in favor of wildlife.
"I don't dispute any plan to conserve nature and wildlife," he said. "But we know from past experiences that evictions sometimes take place before people are given proper notice or the compensation due to them."
The key to the success of Tanzania's new conservation project, experts say, is to make sure that saving the animals doesn't leave people suffering. "People's lives cannot be sacrificed in favour of wildlife," said Ole Ngurumwa. "We will reach a time when we have to choose between serving human beings or animals."
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He reports on climate change and governance issues.