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Five African Nations Sign Up for Conservation Zone the Size of California

by Leon Marshall
(National Geographic 29th August 2011)

The blue line shows the border of the mammoth Kaza Transfrontier Conservation Area. Map provided by the Peace Parks Foundation.

The blue line shows the border of the mammoth Kaza Transfrontier Conservation Area. Map provided by the Peace Parks Foundation.

Five southern African countries have signed into place the region’s biggest and most ambitious transfrontier conservation project yet. It covers a sparsely populated region of 444,000 square kilometers (171,429 square miles; slightly larger than California) that comprises some of the most spectacular scenery on the continent.

It is also an area that has suffered some of the worst agony and destruction of the continent’s past wars. The plan should bring new hope to communities living scattered about the vast region.

The scheme is called the Kaza Transfrontier Conservation Area. “Kaza” stands for the Kavango and Zambezi rivers on which it is largely centered. It comprises adjoining areas of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The presidents of the five countries used a meeting last week in Angola’s capital of Luanda of the heads of state of the Southern African Development Community to sign a treaty establishing the joint conservation area.

Underscoring how much the region will function as a unit, practically separate from its respective countries, its secretariat said in a statement: “The KAZA TFCA shall become an international organisation with a legal persona, capable of entering into contracts, and acquiring and disposing of property. Institutions established through the treaty to govern the TFCA, particularly its secretariat, will be empowered to ensure that the objectives of the treaty are realized and corresponding strategic plans and protocols implemented.”

It said that by signing the treaty, the five partner states wanted to ensure that the natural resources they shared across their international boundaries along the Kavango and Zambezi rivers would be conserved and managed prudently for present and future generations. Their intention was to make tourism a vehicle for socio-economic growth in the region.

The ambitious scheme has been getting financial and logistical support from the likes of the German and Dutch governments, South Africa’s Peace Parks Foundation, the Swiss Agency of Development and Cooperation, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).

An inflow of tourists and their money, as is bound to happen once the scheme starts taking proper effect, could change the lives of the approximately 2.5 million people who live mostly in conditions of poverty, cut off from the administrations and economies of their respective countries.

The plan holds the potential of consolidating some of the most precious wilderness areas of southern Africa and reinstating age-old migration routes for the vast elephants herds now living mainly bunched up together in the northern regions of Botswana where their impact on ecosystems have become a matter of great concern.

Among the most striking features of the conservation area are the breathtaking Victoria Falls on the Zambezi River between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the wondrous Okavango swamps that cover an enormous part of the desert-type landscape of northern Botswana. Overall, the area includes an assortment of reserves under highly different states of protection and repair. Many offer the possibility of being linked across boundaries and through wildlife corridors. It would make them mutually supportive within a broader framework that will make nature-based tourism a bright prospect.

Most remarkable among the potential link-ups could be that between Botswana’s 10,566 square kilometre (4,079 square miles) Chobe Reserve and Zambia’s 22,400 square kilometre (8,648 square miles) Kafue Park. Though the protected areas are a considerable distance apart, the corridor between them would cross a part of Namibia’s Caprivi strip between Zambia and Botswana which is already a community conservancy. And the remaining Zambian stretch of about 80 kilometres (50 miles) to Kafue consists of community land that includes game management areas as well.

The link-up could become the ecological and tourism axis that holds together the bigger project. It could also become the main route for elephants wanting to return to their old stomping grounds to the north.

Plans to put the scheme together go back to 2003, the year after the end of Angola’s civil war was signaled by the public display of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi’s bullet-ridden body after a final bloody encounter with MPLA forces in the country’s south-eastern Moxico province in 2002.

From Regional Conflict to Peace Park

The scheme is all the more remarkable when compared with the regional conflict that raged particularly in the area covered by the conservation area.

The South African forces had their forward bases in the Caprivi, the strip of land jutting from Namibia between Angola and Zambia in the north and Botswana to the south before it bumps up against Zimbabwe just short of the Victoria Falls.

To the north of the Caprivi, in Angola’s Bie province, was the Huamba headquarters of Angola’s Unita rebel movement that first helped its fellow rebel organizations, the MPLA and FNLA, unseat the Portuguese administration in the mid-1970s, before political disagreements caused them to turn viciously on each other.

Namibia’s SWAPO joined the MPLA to get at the South African administration of the then South West African territory, and the ANC joined in as part of their struggle to end white minority rule in South Africa. South Africa entered the fray on Unita’s side against the MPLA, also to keep Swapo and the ANC, and their Cuban allies and Russian backers at bay.

The conservation area, set to include a major portion of south-eastern Angola, is mapped to include Jamba, Unita’s southern headquarters that became the focal point of the fighting towards the end. It will reach farther north-west, almost to Cuito Canavale, a small trading post that got practically wiped out in a final bloody battle between Cuban and South Africans forces in 1988.

Ivory Used to Pay for Weapons

The animals had a hard time of it during the war years. Their ivory served to pay for weaponry, and much of the rest of the wildlife became bushmeat for soldiers and famished villagers, most of whom later fled to Zambia. Those of the elephants that were able to escape the massacre fled south and joined the large Botswana herds.

Werner Myburgh, the Peace Parks Foundation’s project manager for the scheme before becoming the foundation’s chief executive, once told me about his impressions when he was taken on a flight over the Angolan area after the war had ended. “There were hardly any huts to be seen, and no roads. I thought to myself, this is wild Africa, without game.”

One of the remaining problems is the landmines left in Angola which still need to be cleared. When elephants first started returning there after the war had ended, some had their legs and trunks blown off. But Michael Chase, a biologist working there for the Elephants Without Borders conservation group, told me at the time that those elephants that followed had somehow learned to avoid the mined areas.

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