22 Aug 2018

Tanzania’s largest wildlife reserve threatened by dam construction

One of the last areas of untouched wilderness in the world could face irreversible damage. Building a hydroelectric dam in Selous Game Reserve contravenes Tanzanian environmental laws for this World Heritage Site, as well as threatening Endangered bird species.

The Madagascar Pond-heron (Endangered) finds refuge in the reserve - for now © Hanjo Hellman
The Madagascar Pond-heron (Endangered) finds refuge in the reserve - for now © Hanjo Hellman
By Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

Inside Tanzania lies a nearly undisturbed tract of land roughly the size of Switzerland. The Selous Game Reserve is one of the last areas of wilderness left on Earth. Due to its importance as a largely untouched habitat, this vast expanse was named a World Heritage Site in 1982. It is also an Important Bird & Biodiversity Area (IBA) and Key Biodiversity Area (KBA), hosting a long list of species typical to the savanna regions of Africa.

Selous contains many different ecosystems, which serve as an important habitat for many animals, including the largest number of African Buffalo Syncerus caffer in Africa, as well as extensive populations of Lions Panthera leo and African Elephants Loxodonta africana (both Vulnerable). It is also a wintering ground for the Madagascar Pond-heron Ardeola idae (Endangered), which finds shelter in its extensive wetlands. This rare waterbird winters in Selous, taking advantage of the many wetlands offered by the site. The Pond-heron is largely threatened by loss of habitat, making Selous a key refuge.


African Lion © Richard Mortel

Selous’ large area makes it an ideal habitat for lions. The park provides the big cats with plenty of space and food in the form of wildebeest, zebra and even giraffes.

That may be about to change. In late April, the Tanzanian government opened up a tender to clear a large swathe of vegetation inside Selous. The government most likely wants to build a hydropower dam called the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam. This decision is in breach of Tanzanian environmental legislation and goes against the World Heritage Committee position against dams with large reservoirs being built in World Heritage sites.

Clearing land would directly impact the species within the reserve by reducing their habitat, as well as indirectly affecting them by changing the environmental conditions around the proposed dam. The creation of more roads could also open the land to poaching.  Unfortunately, Selous is not the only important ecological area threatened by plans to build a dam. In a recent assessment of IBAs in Danger around the world, BirdLife found dams were the number one threat to these areas.

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Böhm's Bee-eater © Dave Montreuil

Any birdwatcher will be able to recognise the bright colors and sharp beak of the Böhm's Bee-eater Merops boehmi. These birds nest in holes in cliffs, and eat small insects including, yes, bees.


That’s why BirdLife is tirelessly working to push for measures to protect IBAs. BirdLife joins the World Wildlife Fund, IUCN and other conservation organisations in advising the Government of Tanzania of the consequences of building a dam at Selous, and asking them to consider alternative options for energy generation.

BirdLife International is a conservation organization working to protect birds and habitats around the world. If you would like to support our work, why not make a donation today?