Wildlife, Livelihoods and Tourism under Threat in Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

7 August 2018

The Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania is one of the most spectacular, undisturbed natural wonders on the planet. Named after explorer and author Frederick Courtney Selous, this UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering 50,000 square kilometers, represents one of the largest uninhabited wildernesses in Africa.

© Michael Poliza

It is home to elephants, lions, giraffes, cheetahs and the critically endangered black rhino, as well as 12 percent of the remaining endangered African wild dogs. With more than 440 bird species, the Selous is also a great place for bird watching. The most eye-catching habitats in this reserve are the islands, channels, sandbanks plus lagoons, together with the mighty Rufiji river.

The majestic beauty of the Selous has been captured and immortalized by many writers, photographers and experts, including the late Peter Matthiessen, whose 1982 book, Sand Rivers, narrates a fascinating Selous foot safari; American photographer Robert Ross’ coffee table book The Selous in Africa – A Long Way From Anywhere (2015), shows the large mega-fauna and the fantastic wildlife and dramatic landscapes in nearly 400 breathtaking images; and the book, Wild Heart of Africa (2017), edited by Rolf D. Baldus, with contributions from over twenty Selous experts who have helped make the Selous the greatest game reserve in Africa, shares over a century of work in the reserve.

Home to some of Africa's best walking, boat safaris and fly camping trips, the Selous has the greatest diversity of safari activities of all the Tanzanian safari protected areas. But the Selous’ wildlife and tourism are under threat, as well as thousands of livelihoods. Since 2014, the Selous Game Reserve has been on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger, primarily because of elephant poaching. In less than 40 years, the Selous elephant population numbers plummeted from 109,000 to 15,217. Since its placement on the UNESCO’s In Danger List, the Tanzanian government has worked hard to halt elephant poaching and observations from the field suggest that the number of poaching incidents has significantly reduced since the peak in 2013.

A planned hydropower dam is imposing an even more devastating impact. Tanzania has an electricity problem. To meet its future demand, Tanzania needs to increase its electricity supply by 14-times and the Tanzanian government is planning to build a huge hydropower dam in Stiegler’s Gorge on the Rufiji River, right in the heart of the Selous to achieve this. It is estimated that a fully functioning dam would generate 2,100MW, doubling Tanzania’s power generation.

Information about the hydropower project is scarce; however, the recent government tender includes the construction of a 134-meter-high dam (427 feet), stretching 700 meters across the Stiegler Gorge. This would create a 1,350 square kilometer (521 square mile) lake. The lake will change the ecology of the region by flooding key wildlife habitat in the heart of the Selous, including that of the endangered black rhino. This infrastructure will no doubt encourage human activities that are detrimental to wildlife populations, such as poaching.

According to a 2017 WWF report, the indirect risks are potentially more significant as the dam will change the flow of the river, its sediment and organic matter downstream. Without normal flood events, farmland downstream would lose its fertility; the Rufiji delta, the largest mangrove forest in East Africa, would shrink; and this will lead to increased seawater intrusion into the mangrove forest. Moreover, the loss of organic matter that feeds riverine and marine life would significantly impact the
fish, shrimp and prawn fisheries, as well as the coral reefs in the Rufiji-Mafia-Kilwa Marine Ramsar Site. This would negatively affect around 200,000 people’s livelihoods.

The proposed dam could also impact one of Tanzania's biggest sources of income: tourism. The country's natural attractions draw over a million tourists each year. In 2014, travel and tourism contributed almost US$5 billion to Tanzania’s GDP. By 2025, revenue from tourism is projected to increase by over 90 per cent, and tourism will likely be the number one contributing sector to Tanzania’s GDP. The Selous alone generates more than 5 million euros (US$6 million) a year. But because the dam would be built in the Selous’ most spectacular area, it could lose its conservation value impacting established and projected tourist investments.

Selous is also well-located as a tourism gateway to the south of the country, which has so far been largely neglected by tourists – something the government wants to change. It recently invested in new airplanes and is receiving a $150 USD million infrastructure loan from the World Bank to boost tourism in southern Tanzania, including the Selous Game Reserve. But if the potential for tourism in the Selous is destroyed, tourism for the southern half of the country could also be damaged.

While this project is still under preparation, the Tanzanian government has already issued a tender to clear 1,436km 2 of vegetation inside the Selous. This tender aims to sell an estimated 2,657,842 trees in the predicted area covered by Stiegler's Gorge reservoir, leading to the destruction of a large swathe of the most ecologically important part of the reserve.

On May of this year, the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee published a draft decision in which it expressed its grave concerns about Tanzania’s decision to develop the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project and the tendering of logging rights within the World Heritage site.

Conservation organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), as well as the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC), have raised concerns and urge the Tanzanian government to stop the planned logging and other Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project related activities until the completion of a Strategic Environmental Assessment and its review by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Fortunately, Tanzania is endowed with vast solar, wind and geothermal resources to generate a low-cost and secure energy supply. Leveraging these resources, Tanzania can meet its rapidly increasing demand, with the balance coming from the country’s abundant natural gas supplies.

Finding a solution to Tanzania’s urgent energy needs while avoiding the destruction of the Selous and putting it on a path toward fulfilling its sustainable development potential is not only possible, but urgently needed. Benson O. Kibonde, who served as chief warden of the Selous Game Reserve for 17 years says it best: “God bless Tanzania, God bless the Selous”.

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