One Park, Three Countries
By Moyiga Nduru
The creation of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, one of the world's largest nature preserves, involves South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It is hoped that the park will eliminate the need to cull the elephant population to prevent overcrowding in concentrated areas.
JOHANNESBURG, (Tierramérica).- Hope for the survival of many of Africa's unique animals lies in multinational cooperation initiatives like the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, although the challenges remain enormous, say conservationists.
The park, situated on the South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe borders, is one of the world's largest, with an area of 35,000 square kilometers, almost the size of Israel.
The treaty to create the parks was signed in Xai-Xai, Mozambique, in December 2002, bringing together some of the region's best and most acclaimed national wild game parks: South Africa's Kruger, Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou, and Mozambique's newly developed Limpopo.
The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park ''represents a pragmatic approach to managing and conserving wildlife in the region,'' Jason Bell-Leask, southern Africa director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), told IPS in a telephone interview.
''We support it. It's achievable. But it's a huge challenge,'' he added.
These challenges include training game wardens, building infrastructure, as well as enacting laws to combat poaching and to protect the environment.
Furthermore, a great deal of work remains in the transfrontier park, such as building roads, hotels and accommodations for more than 20,000 villagers living inside the Mozambican sector, say experts.
Under the terms of the Great Limpopo transfrontier park treaty, South Africa will gradually dismantle its 120-kilometer electric fencing that separates it from Mozambique to allow animals to move freely across the border.
Zimbabwe says it will open its borders for human movement before opening it to animals.
Yoarn Fredmann, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, an organization based in South Africa's commercial hub of Johannesburg, believes the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park will, at least temporarily, ease problems related to the elephant population explosion in the Kruger National Park.
The Kruger is home to 11,000 elephants, but the park's capacity is just 7,000.
Park authorities in the past have resorted to culling as a way of stabilizing the animal population. But with the formation of the transfrontier park, conservationists believe that the elephants will now have the habitat space they need.
However, ''It's not a permanent solution,'' Fredmann told Tierramérica, because they will not necessarily spread out evenly over the park area. ''Recently 40 elephants, taken to Mozambique from South Africa, returned home,'' Fredmann said. ''Animals, like human beings, love home.''
Visitors will also enjoy the freedom of moving across international borders within the park and between the three countries, and without much fuss, according to a document prepared by the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
IFAW's Bell-Leask says ''tourism potentials in Zimbabwe and Mozambique are huge.''
Opening up the borders also comes with the problems of poaching, especially in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where prevention structures are still weak compared to South Africa's.
''In Mozambique, we are not only faced with big animal poaching, but also with prevalence of bushmeat selling. There are reports that when you drive around Mozambique you see bushmeat being sold along the roads,'' said Bell-Leask.
Fredmann, however, sees little danger in controlled community and subsistence hunting, ''which has been happening for centuries. It doesn't harm much,'' he said. But sales of bushmeat -- a word commonly used in Africa to describe the meat of any wild animal -- are becoming big business on the continent.
According to the Nov. 12 edition of the U.S.-based Science magazine, bushmeat trade is on the rise in West Africa because over-fishing by European Union-subsidized trawlers, has deprived coastal populations of the fish they normally eat. Thus villagers resort to bushmeat from elephants, antelopes, monkeys, gorillas and rats.
The EU maintains the biggest foreign presence off the West African coast, says the magazine, with fish catches increasing 20-fold from 1950 to 2001, and financial subsidies jumping from six million dollars in 1981 to more than 350 million dollars in 2001.
Conservationists say the smooth running of the transfrontier park will take some time, because the issue of basic needs always takes the priority in Africa. ''Wildlife issues usually take a back seat in the region,'' said Bell-Leask.
Even so, Fredmann has described the treaty as a ''huge success... although implementation is going to be difficult.''
The three countries -- South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe -- will have to harmonize their laws, including those relating to immigration and animal welfare, if the park is going to serve as a model for up to 21 others being planned across the African continent.
* Moyiga Nduru is an IPS correspondent.