Transfrontier conservation in Southern Africa

Steve Felton

The linking of sophisticated conservation of wildlife with both tourism and community development is the vision behind Southern Africa’s latest ‘peace park’, but much will need to be done to ensure better visitor access.

In a world where tourism and travel leave very large footprints, it is not always easy to see how tourism can drive conserva­tion. But with the launch of KAZA comes the hope that tour­ism will be the economic force behind sustainable development, wildlife and habitat conservation in the Okavango and Zambezi river basins in Southern Africa.

The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) came into being last year, when ministers from the five participating countries – Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe – signed a treaty bringing into being Africa’s largest conservation area. Over 440,000 sq. km – about the size of Sweden – KAZA encompasses national parks, game management areas, communal conservancies and farmland.

KAZA is a conservation area, not a park. But with attractions like Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta, its potential for tour­ism is enormous. Take two lodges in Namibia’s Caprivi region, sandwiched between Zambia and Botswana. Susuwe Island Lodge and Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge are both situated next door to na­tional parks, on communal conservancies run by local communi­ties, which have rights over wildlife and tourism granted by the Namibian government.

Both lodges are joint ventures between private investors and the conservancies. The investors provide capital and training for staff. The conservancies provide game guards and eco-services that minimise poaching, so that wildlife populations increase. Namibia’s communal conservancies are often adjacent to national parks, or form links in a chain between parks, creating large-scale conservation areas.

The international KAZA model eschews mass tourism, and encour­ages the development of small lodges and campsites within national parks or on communal land run on conservation principles. Elephants and other wildlife will have greater opportunities to move freely be­tween park and communal land, and across national borders, and visitors to the five KAZA states will have greater opportunities to see wildlife that is free to roam.

The concept is not new. In the 1990s, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) identified at least 70 protected areas in 65 countries that straddled national frontiers. It was an idea that resonated with Anton Rupert, president of the former South­ern African Nature Foundation, and President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, so that there could be a permanent link between some of the protected areas in South Africa, Mozambique, Swazi­land and Zimbabwe.

A report was commissioned that recommended a shift away from the national park concept towards an emphasis on a multiple land use – for people and wildlife – by introducing the transfrontier conserva­tion concept. There was a growing recognition that tourism could help propel economic growth in rural Southern Africa and that a sep­arate organisation could coordinate, facilitate and drive the process of setting up transfrontier conservation areas, or TFCAs; the Peace Parks Foundation came into being in 1997.

Kgalagadi became the first peace park in the year 2000, abolish­ing the border within it between South Africa and Botswana. Great Limpopo, between South Africa and Mozambique, and Ai/Ais-Rich­tersveld between Namibia and South Africa followed, but all three are dwarfed by the scale of KAZA.

The question is: Will it succeed? The vision of establishing a world-class conservation and tourism destination in the context of sustainable development will mean harmonising the conservation policies of the five countries, so that government wildlife and vet­erinary authorities all work together. One objective is to remove fences, allowing greater freedom of movement for wildlife across borders. But that’s not as easy as it sounds. Both Botswana and Namibia have large beef export industries, and strive to contain foot and mouth disease – endemic in Southern African wild buffalo herds – by quarantine and fencing.

Small-scale farmers, who depend upon maize crops and cattle farm­ing, have a deep-rooted and realistic fear of wildlife. Elephants and baboons devastate maize harvests, and predators like lions and hyenas can prey on cattle. If a farmer has only ten cows, losing two might mean the difference between sending his children to school or not. The hope is that tourism – the fastest-growing industry in the region – will begin to tip the economic balance away from farming, by creating jobs as tour guides and other essential workers, and by sharing dividends from joint venture lodges and safari companies with communities.

Dusty Rodgers runs Susuwe Island Lodge and several other joint ventures with communal conservancies in Namibia’s Caprivi re­gion. He sees the future in tours that connect similar lodges in the Caprivi – and beyond. He already links up with Simone Michelet­ti, an Italian investor who built the nearby Nkasa Lupala Tented Lodge together with Wuparo Conservancy. Both lodges are situ­ated just outside a national park, and conservancies form a link between Mudumu and Mamili national parks, creating a conserva­tion zone rich in wildlife. Lion, elephant and buffalo lead the large species list, and there is a wealth of birdlife and excellent fishing in the area, which floods annually with water fed by the Zambezi, Chobe and Kwando rivers.

Rodgers used to run a lodge in Botswana, and he regularly meets lodge owners from the KAZA countries at trade fairs. He also runs the 5 Rivers Safaris with nine lodges and camps in Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. The dream for Rodgers and Micheletti is to make the transit easier between the five KAZA counties, so that visitors can pass as free­ly as the elephants across the Chobe River.

But that remains a dream for the moment. A KAZA ‘Uni-Visa’ would facilitate things more than anything else. If the hassle of vi­sas and the wait at borders could be eliminated, new lodges might spring up like grass, bringing more tourists to the area and greater income to local communities.

Where once the ecotourism mantra was “take only photos; leave only footprints”, the vision now is sustainable tourism. Numbers must be contained in order to protect the fragile habitat. One sa­fari vehicle with one or two families on board makes little impact on a park with a few sandy tracks, like Mudumu or Mamili. But busloads of tourists, for which tarred or gravel roads would be re­quired, would change the experience – and the landscape – for the worse. So KAZA is looking at the luxury lodge and safari camp concept to bring in the revenue that will keep the conservation vi­sion alive.

About the author:

Steve Felton works for the WWF


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