By Fumbuka Ng'wanakilala
DAR ES SALAAM (Reuters) - Tanzania will build an unpaved road through the Serengeti National Park and game rangers will control traffic to avoid disturbing the annual migration of wildebeest.
"The Serengeti road project has not been abandoned ... we have just revised it. I don't know where all this confusion comes from," Natural Resources and Tourism Minister Ezekiel Maige told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The U.N. world heritage body UNESCO said this week Tanzania would reconsider the planned road which aims to ease transport problems facing poor communities surrounding the park but has been criticized by conservation bodies.
The initial plan to build an asphalt road has now been dropped.
"The project is still there without a shadow of a doubt. But the road will be unpaved, so there will be no tarmac road or highway traversing through the Serengeti National Park," said Maige.
Maige said rangers from the state-run Tanzania National Parks Authority (TANAPA) would set up checkpoints and control the flow of traffic through a 53-km section of the road cutting across the wilderness area.
"The road will be closely supervised. TANAPA will put up gates and carry out regular patrols to ensure no harm comes to the wildlife population as a result of vehicles that will be allowed to pass through the road," he said.
"The road passing through the Serengeti will remain under the ownership and control of TANAPA. The ownership of the road will not be transferred to the government's highway roads agency."
Roads outside the national park will be paved, but roads leading to the park and those inside the wildlife sanctuary will not be. Conservationists say the road through the northern edge of the Serengeti would hinder the annual migration of two million wildebeest, one of the world's top wildlife spectacles.
UNESCO has urged the international community to provide support to Tanzania, which relies heavily on tourism, for an alternative route, running south of Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.
The World Bank said in March it had offered Tanzania an alternative to stop the Serengeti road project.
The Serengeti member of parliament, Kebwe Stephen Kebwe, backed the road project because it would open up the region.
"The wildlife migration pattern has been there for years ... a 52-kilometre stretch of road, even if unpaved, will not affect anything. The 300,000 residents of Serengeti are eagerly waiting this road," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.
He was speaking from Dodoma in central Tanzania where he is attending a parliamentary session expected to approve funding for the project.
"The government has made it clear to MPs that the Serengeti road is a priority project and we expect it to allocate funds in its 2011/12 budget for the construction of the road."
Tanzania has increased infrastructure spending in its 2011/12 budget by 85 percent to 2.78 trillion Tanzanian shillings ($1.73 billion).
Government officials said the Ministry of Works will announce details of the road project in parliament within the next few weeks.
(Editing by James Macharia and Robert Woodward)