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Easing the pressure

1 March 2007

Transfrontier park will ease pressure on the environment

BY far the majority of Botswana's mighty elephant herds are concentrated in the northern region of the country, where their impact on the environment has become all too visible.

Like South Africa, the country suspended culling in the 90s. But at least it has relief beckoning in the form of an immense transfrontier conservation area that is intended to span its entire bordering region with Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The hope is that the proposed Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area will ease pressure on the area by allowing the elephants to disperse into a vast and sparsely populated region of south-eastern Angola and neighbouring parklands in Zambia.

The five countries' ministers charged with environmental affairs and tourism last year signed a memorandum of understanding committing their governments to work towards the establishment of the shared conservation area. Their vision was for it to come to a 287 132km2 chunk of Africa.

As its name suggests, the scheme is heavily centred on the region's river system.

The Kavango River feeding the Okavango Delta and the Cuito River that crosses the Caprivi to Botswana before joining the Zambezi both originate deep inside Angola.

So does the Zambezi River, which cuts through Zambia to form the border first with Nambia`s Caprivi and then with Zimbabwe, a short distance before it tumbles down the Victoria Falls.

Dr Lucas Gakale, secretary to Botswana's ministry of environment, wildlife and tourism, believes the scheme could be of much help towards easing the pressure of his country's oversized elephant population.

Controversial

"A plan we drew up in 1990 put the maximum number of elephants Botswana could carry at 60 000.

"But because culling was controversial, and because we did not want to attract international condemnation, we allowed numbers to grow.

"It is now put at up to 150000, and we need somewhere for the animals to go.

"Zambia and in particular Angola offer a way out. We are in fact already seeing elephants move into Angola," he says.

Gakale is also chairman of the five signatory countries' officials committee, which is responsible for taking the process forward. He says a full feasibility study now needs to be done.

But most urgent is for the individual governments to get into talks with the local communities that stand to be affected, and to start negotiations with their local authorities and their immigration, security and disease control establishments.

"We are going to try to open adjoining parks across national boundaries and link others by corridors. We will need to do it in a way that will avoid large-scale resettlement. But the biggest challenge is going to be to get the co-operation of the various land users," he says.

The Angolan part of the proposed parkland cuts deep into Angola's 199 049km2 Cuando Cubango province, which has only about 140 000 people.

It touches on Cuito Canavale, the town that in 1988 saw the bloody closing battle between South African troops and Angola's now-ruling MPLA.

The country's protracted war, which ended four years ago with the killing in battle of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi, is said to have taken as heavy a toll on its animal life as on its people.

Elephant ivory served to pay for weaponry, and much of the rest of the wildlife became bushmeat for soldiers and famished villagers.

The Peace Parks Foundation's project manager for the KAZA scheme, Werner Myburgh, says he was taken on a flight over the area recently and it made for a remarkable sight. "There were hardly any huts to be seen, and no roads. I thought to myself this is wild Africa, without game."

Home
He says the area offers a vast new home for Botswana's elephants. He even talks of them as a potential marketing tool in a sense much like the Serengeti's wildebeest - "come to see Africa`s greatest elephant herd".

The scheme will include 36 parks, and although these are in varying states of repair, Myburgh says many could be linked and so become mutually supportive.

The Zambian government is for instance keen to have a corridor that links Botswana's 10 566km2 Chobe Park to its 22 400km² Kafue Park.

He is optimistic about the chances of doing so, as the corridor would cross a part of the Caprivi strip that is already a community conservancy.

The remaining Zambian stretch of about 80km to Kafue consists of community land that also includes game management areas.

By allowing game and tourists to move between the parks, the link-up could become a central feature of the project.

Like Chobe, Kafue boasts an enormous range of wildlife.

Though lacking management and tourist infrastructure, Myburgh says this is changing fast through large investments by the World Bank and tourist facilities created particularly by the Wilderness Safaris group.

One of the major obstacles is landmines left from the war in Angola. They seem concentrated in an 80km strip along the Cuando River, which towards the south forms the boundary between Angola and Zambia.

Gakale says the elephants seems to sense where the mines are and move around them.

Leon Marshall

1st March 2007Daily News

Daily NewsLeon Marshall

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