NationalGeographic.com [an error occurred while processing this directive]


 

Online Extra
September 2001



<< Back to Feature Page






Without Borders: Uniting Africa's Wildlife Reserves








By Peter Godwin
The fence along the eastern side of Kruger National Park is a mighty fence indeed. Five thick cables and a tough web of diamond mesh are stretched between anchor posts made of railway track rooted in concrete. There is something starkly alien about this vast man-made cordon, this African Iron Curtain. Its silver spine slices in a straight line for nearly 250 miles (402 kilometers) across the bush, following an arbitrary colonial border, dividing an ecosystem, and blocking ancient game trails. But it has been the most vital weapon protecting South Africa's flagship wildlife sanctuary from the wildlife Armageddon on the other side. On the other side few birds sing. You can fly over it for hours, as I did, skimming beneath the towering cumulonimbus clouds and craning down at Coutada 16, the Mozambican wilderness area that adjoins Kruger, and see not a single animal, not a solitary game trail. Twenty years of civil war cost Mozambique perhaps a million human lives and devastated its wildlife.
 
Ian Whyte, Kruger's resident elephant specialist, describes the scene routinely witnessed. "Vehicles drove up and down the fence, shooting anything that moved, irrespective of size or sex or species. AK-47s were common, so any impala, kudu, or duiker was fair game. Even smaller animals such as genets and porcupines got shot." Park employees observed that when elephants crossed over, as is possible if a section of fence washes away along a river, they knew to come back that very same night, or they wouldn't survive.
 
Now, however, the South Africans have cut back on the dedicated fence-repair teams who constantly patrolled the line. And since peace has returned to Mozambique, Pretoria's conservation czars are considering something that until very recently would have been labeled by many as insane: bringing down the fence altogether. If the plan succeeds, similar fences will soon be coming down all over southern Africa and beyond, to create a series of "peace parks," or transfrontier conservation areas. It is one of the most ambitious conservation moves since the creation of Africa's first game reserve, which is now Kruger National Park, a century ago. It is also a high-risk, high-reward proposal, the fate of which will, in large measure, determine the future of conservation in Africa—after all, its goal is nothing less than to change the conservation map of a continent.
 
The first transfrontier conservation park, launched last year, was the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which unites the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana with the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa. Such a union presents few problems—the two parks were separated only by an unfenced dry riverbed. A joint management plan has been devised to run the area as a single ecological unit, and tourists who enter one park may now pass freely into the other and back again, thus increasing traffic and revenue to both. In many ways this unification is a no-brainer.
 
Other transfrontier areas are more complex and ambitious. What they attempt to do, as explained in a groundbreaking report by the World Bank in 1996, is to bring conservation to the people. The aim is to show the local communities living alongside traditional game reserves that money can be made from wildlife, and in so doing to undercut the resentment felt by many of these people at being prevented from farming the land. South Africa's Nelson Mandela explained it to me thus: "If the government unilaterally decides to establish transfrontier parks without consulting the community, then the community will not cooperate."
 
Three pilot transfrontier areas have been put on the fast track: The first, and in size the most ambitious, is Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou. This will join Kruger to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and Coutada 16, a huge chunk of state-owned land in Mozambique's Gaza Province, to create one superpark. In time this would form the core of a mixed- use conservation area covering 60,000 square miles (159,399 square kilometers), a swath of land the size of Florida.
 
The second pilot project is Chimanimani, which will join a mountainous reserve in eastern Zimbabwe with the rest of the Chimanimani range in Mozambique, including the forests of the foothills.
 
The third, Lubombo, aims to unify two existing South African parks, Tembe and Ndumo, with Maputo Elephant Reserve in southern Mozambique and ultimately with Hlane Royal National Park and two adjacent nature reserves in Swaziland. The Lubombo units are not your typical African game reserves; they consist of floodplains and sand forests with dense foliage that can make for inconvenient game spotting. It's so thick that local people call one section Mahemane?—which conveys the sense of "where are we?" But it has other compensations, principal among them its great variety of bird and amphibian life. The area, in fact, is one of the most extraordinary centers of biodiversity in the world.
 
From the teak deck of the Ndumo Wilderness Camp, I watch a patrol of four hippos snort like riverine horses up the Banzi pan and past a grove of fever trees whose peeling trunks glow luminously green in the dying rays of the day. The low unmistakable profile of a crocodile snout breaks the water, and the air is thick with the mating calls of frogs: foam-nest frogs, waterlily frogs, and banded rubber frogs. Bubbling kassinas. Greater leaf-folding frogs and tropical platannas. Snoring puddle frogs and bushveld rain frogs and tremolo sand frogs. Together they produce an ear-ringing chorus to the gathering night.
 
My guide here is Clive Poultney. With a shaved head and full beard and gold rings in his ears, he strides around in a kikoyi, a bright cloth wrap knotted at his waist, and an epauletted khaki shirt. It's a juxtaposition that accurately reflects his personality. He's been working here for 22 years, as an anthropologist, a trader, a development consultant, and a negotiator. After national service in the South African Army, Poultney was recruited in the field by the African National Congress's (ANC's) armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation, where he perfected his fluent Zulu. He also leads cultural tours, introducing visitors to the mysterious world of the rural izangoma, traditional healers, who historically have been great defenders of the environment.
 
Today all is not well with Clive, however. He is stumbling with malaria. Beads of sweat chase each other down the brown dome of his lightly stubbled head. Every few hours he swallows a few quinine pills and declares himself, "Better, thank you. Much better." It has been a bad year for malaria up here. And cholera. The front pages of the Johannesburg newspapers have been dominated by headlines of the cholera outbreak, calling it "the worst in living memory," scaring the tourists and somewhat muting my enthusiasm for this expedition. I have armed myself with broad-spectrum antibiotics, and I'm popping an antimalarial prophylactic called Larium, which has a list of possible side effects a foot long, among them "psychotic episodes."
 
I fall asleep in my cabin under a slapping fan, to be woken before dawn by a couple of warthogs feuding noisily among the cabin stilts, squealing and grunting, until one of the warthogs butts a stilt, and the whole structure shivers with the force of it.
 
The dawn sun is a raw egg yolk, bulging fat upon the horizon over the reeds by the time the frogs' nocturnal cacophony is replaced by the raucous chorus of birds: goldenrumped tinker barbets, Burchell's coucals, Klaas's cuckoos, spotted dikkops, purplecrested louries, and tambourine doves.
 
This reserve is packed with nyalas, sunis, red duikers, and, blocking our way this morning, two of the biggest giraffes I have ever seen. They peer down at our Land Rover from their lofty elevation and continue browsing, unmoved. It is 15 minutes before they deign to shift. Around the next bend a barrel-bodied white rhino cow heaves into view, a little armored calf skittering at her feet. In spite of its name the white rhino is in fact a dark gray.
 
The white of its name is a corruption of the Afrikaans for "wide," so called because it has a wide mouth, unlike the black rhino, which isn't really black at all and has a narrow pointed mouth, almost like a beak. The mother swings the scimitar of her horn at us, then turns and canters off stiff-legged down the road with her puppy-hoofed calf, until the bush thins enough for them to take a side path.
 
All that separates Ndumo from neighboring Tembe reserve is the Mbangweni Corridor, a sliver of land barely three miles wide. But, as Clive explains, years of efforts to close the gap have failed. This area is home to the Thonga people, who have long been traders and can make far more money using the corridor as a transborder smuggling route than they will likely see from any conservation spin-offs.
 
We drive north along a sand track dimpled by the hooves of cattle until we reach the fence marking the Mozambique border. Once this was a highly sensitive frontier, and you can still see the remnants of the sisal lanes planted by the old South African Army in the hope that the spiky interlocking leaves would form an impenetrable barrier against armed guerrillas seeking to topple white South Africa. Clive promises me that "most" of the antipersonnel mines laid by the army have been lifted. But then he does have malaria. And he admits that occasionally local people are blown up, mostly when they till new land or after heavy rain.
 
There is a constant passage of pedestrians across the border. Lefe Mthethwa, barefoot and ragged, is crossing south, ducking under the fence with a basket of tilapia fish to sell at market in South Africa, where she will buy sugar and cooking oil. Mthethwa admits that not all the contraband that makes this journey is quite so benign. "They sell guns too," she says. "At night when we are asleep, they bring them across."
 
Trudging north a couple of miles into Mozambique through the soggy heat, we find a welcome path-side tavern with a gas-powered fridge serving South African Lion lager in quart bottles. Sophia Tembe and her husband, William, are also resting up, on their way to visit a clinic on the South African side. "We lived in South Africa during the war," William Tembe explains, "but we moved back to Mozambique to farm when peace came."
 
The medieval Portuguese navigators who sailed this coast called it Terra dos Fumos, Land of Smoke—smoke caused by Thonga slash-and-burn agriculture, a land-hungry method still widely practiced in southern Mozambique by Tembe and his fellow farmers.
 
William Tembe hasn't even heard about the plans to establish a conservation area here, but when I explain, he is distinctly lukewarm. "It's always the same. They say to us, 'You must share the land with wild animals,' but they end up kicking us out." His wife adds, "The wild animals destroy our crops, and they kill people. Why should we share our land with them?"
 
Not all the surrounding people are this hostile to wildlife. In fact, two local communities on the South African side are in the process of trying to turn over large chunks of their own territory to conservation.
 
Herman Els, an environmental anthropologist, has come down from the University of Pretoria to help get one of these projects off the ground. Els hands me the report he has just helped write on the "anthropological component" of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area. "The essence of this report is absolute poverty," he says bluntly. In Mozambique the average income is less than $375 a year. In the communal areas of South Africa (former apartheid homelands that make up 14 percent of the country and on which half of the population still lives) it's still under $750.
 
Zeblon Gumede is chairman of the Manqa-kulani Development Committee, which is meeting with Els today to talk about dedicating 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of their communal land to ecotourism. "The objective," Gumede tells me on the veranda of the Tembe Elephant Park office, "is to set aside an area for wildlife tourism, which could generate jobs and money. From the outside we see the tourists coming to this park and spending money—so we asked ourselves how we could get them to come and visit us too." One of the sea changes in rural Africa today is the growing unpopularity of the traditional agrarian lifestyle. "These days the youngsters don't want to farm," says Gumede. "They want better jobs."
 
When the Tembe Elephant Park was proclaimed in 1983, local communities insisted that it be fenced off to protect them from the ravages of elephants. But the northern border with Mozambique was left open to allow the historic movement of the herds up and down the nutrient-rich Futi corridor, which stretches 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the Maputo Elephant Reserve. By 1989, however, that avenue was also fenced off by the South African park authorities to protect the Tembe elephants from massive poaching in war-torn Mozambique. What had been a single elephant population was thus split in two. Those animals that happened to be inside Tembe, 104 of them, remained there.
 
Ferdie Myberg, who is in charge of the park's antipoaching operations, is proud to tell me they haven't lost a single elephant to poaching since then. He uses a metal detector to scan the carcasses of elephants when they die, just to be sure. Many of the animals were refugees from the slaughter in Mozambique, and they bear the scars to prove it. Inside one bull elephant, which eventually died of old age, Myberg dug out no fewer than 31 bullets.
 
Since Tembe's enclosure, its resident population has grown to more than 130, too many for the small park to sustain without major damage to its flora, including the rare sand forests. And as Wayne Matthews, Tembe's ecologist, who can often be spotted riding his bicycle around the park, explained, the population is age- and gender-skewed, with bulls making up about 70 percent, instead of the usual 15 percent or so. This disparity distorts elephant behavior by increasing tensions among bulls. It also increases pressure on the vegetation, since bulls are more destructive foragers. If Tembe's northern border was reopened, this would allow the elephants to mingle freely with the 300 elephants based in the Maputo Elephant Reserve, fewer than 60 of which are bulls.
 
I leave Tembe and follow the paved road northeast until it comes to an abrupt halt at the Mozambique border, where we put the vehicle into four-wheel drive. It pitches and yaws, churning through the scorching beach-sand track up the coast. Hard to believe that this country once attracted nearly as many visitors as Zimbabwe and South Africa combined. Hard to believe, not because of a lack of beauty—the Indian Ocean beaches here are world-beaters—but because the towns and villages are ruins of their former selves.
 
Ponta do Ouro (Point of Gold), the southernmost town, is once again hosting visitors, but this species of holidaymaker spends little money. An entirely self-sufficient community of vacationing Afrikaans farmers has taken over a rudimentary campsite. They have brought with them boats, generators, fuel, army tents, food, water, beer, fridges, servants, even their own wooden dance floor for a New Year's bash. Their SUVs have scoured blond scars into the nearby hills, which they scale daily to pick up the cell-phone signal from across the border.
 
The distance from here to the Maputo Elephant Reserve is not great, but there is no real road for much of the way. We drive through a largely uninhabited, untouched territory banded by sea on one side and the Futi wetlands on the other. This area may end up in the transfrontier conservation area, or it may become the site of eucalyptus plantations, a deep-sea port, and a railway link; its fate still hangs in the balance.
 
Suddenly, incongruously, after the miles of emptiness in southern Mozambique, the towers of the capital, Maputo, rise above the acacia tree line like a mini-Manhattan. At the edge of the Rio Maputo estuary we load the vehicle onto an elderly freighter, the Bagamoyo, which has an alarming list to starboard as we chug across, leaving in our wake an unspoiled landscape and heading toward the neon and air-conditioning of the city.
 
The idea of joining wildlife areas across national borders is not new to Africa. As long ago as 1938, Gomes de Sousa, a Portuguese biologist, was pointing out its logic. In 1990 the South African multimillionaire Anton Rupert, a businessman who was president of what is now that country's branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature, met with Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano to discuss such a linkup. Chissano was enthusiastic, so Rupert set about forming the Peace Parks Foundation, with Nelson Mandela as patron, to make it happen. When I was first shown the transfrontier plans some three years ago by John Hanks, then the executive director of the foundation, I was staggered by the sheer size of the vision. It seemed nothing less than an ecological Cape to Cairo dream.
 
Today Hanks's successor at the Peace Parks Foundation, Willem van Riet, an expert on park planning, is wrestling with the details. In a darkened room at the offices of Mozambique's National Directorate for Forestry and Wildlife on the Square of the Heroes in Maputo, van Riet runs computer models gleaned from satellite data for an audience of senior Mozambican officials. The current thinking on rehabilitating Coutada 16, the huge territory adjoining Kruger Park that will make up Mozambique's part of Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou, is to divide it up into three separate zones of use: a tourist zone, a wilderness zone, and a resource utilization zone. The most controversial of these, the utilization zone, in which hunting would be permitted, is to be buffered from Kruger by the other two zones to prevent the Trojan horse possibility that haunts so many Kruger rangers—hunters lined up along the eastern edge of Kruger, lying in wait for big mammals to cross. "That will never be allowed to happen," said van Riet, who is also on the board of South African National Parks (SANParks).
 
But van Riet is careful to leave the actual decisions up to his Mozambican hosts. They are very sensitive to the South African big brother syndrome. In the past some South Africans have referred to this transfrontier park as the "Kruger expansion," and one hears mutterings of ecological imperialism. There is a grotesque disparity in management capacity; Mozambique has virtually no professional conservators, and the educated class here, with its European clutch bags and well-cut suits, is intensely urban. But Arlito Cuco, the head of the wildlife department at the forestry and wildlife directorate, told me as we waited on the runway for the plane that was to fly us over Coutada 16, "The political will to establish these transfrontier parks is there—at the very highest level. This thing will definitely happen." And the one problem that the project doesn't face at this stage is lack of money—the World Bank, the Germans, the Americans, are all lining up to help, in fact are impatient that funds already earmarked are yet unspent.
 
From Maputo we fly north, stopping first at Massingir dam on the southern edge of Coutada 16. The little town of Massingir is to be the Mozambican administrative headquarters of the new park. Massingir dam was intended to feed a grand irrigation project, but like so many things in Mozambique the scheme was interrupted by war. Van Riet thinks the lake behind the dam can be one of the most important of Coutada 16's tourism features. The peninsulas that probe into the water are prime wildlife real estate, where leases will be auctioned off for some of the first lodge sites.
 
North of Massingir is just bush, lush virgin bush, dotted with pans and streams flowing down from the Lubombo hills ("bridge of the nose" in Shangaan), crisscrossed with avenues of trees that follow the water forced up along rhyolitic fault lines. Because there are so few large animals, much of the bush is unnaturally thick. "You're looking at something very few people have ever seen," exults van Riet. For the four hours that we fly over Coutada 16, we observe almost no signs of human habitation—the footprint of man is very faint indeed.
 
Finally we reach the eastern boundary of the proposed park—the Limpopo, "the great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees," as Rudyard Kipling described it in The Elephant's Child. But today it is none of these things. Today it is choked with silt, and much of its ancient riverine foliage, including its fever trees, has been ripped away by the force of last year's tremendous floods. This river is well known to van Riet: He once spent six weeks canoeing down it to the sea. Halfway, he encountered Zambezi sharks and crocodiles in the same stretch of water. "One shark took the stern of my kayak in its jaws and gave it a great shake," he recalls. He taped up the hole and paddled on.
 
Most of the 12,000 people living in Coutada 16 farm on the fertile soils of the riverbank. They are to be the first beneficiaries of the jobs created by the new reserve. Ironically, in light of the eventual dropping of the Kruger fence, the first jobs will be constructing a new electric fence to keep the elephants out of populated areas. Solar panels erected to charge this fence will also provide a source of power for local villagers. "This is not going to be a people problem, this park," says van Riet confidently, and Cuco nods his agreement as we fly south again over more vast tracts of uninhabited land.
 
Reduced to its most simple equation, Mozambique has the space, Kruger has the animals—and one animal in particular: elephants. Kruger's crisis with elephant overpopulation is urgently spurring the whole transfrontier park process here.*
 
In many ways the story of Kruger National Park is the polar opposite to that of Mozambique's wildlife areas. While Mozambique's parks have languished completely unmanaged, Kruger has enjoyed the most sophisticated management of any African park (though, in an effort to rationalize its organization, Kruger's staff has recently been cut by a fourth). But in its hands-on management experience lies a cautionary tale, and maybe a little hubris too, for Kruger has proved a painful illustration of how bad humans are at trying to replicate the subtleties of nature.
 
After the emptiness of Mozambique, Kruger comes as a bit of a culture shock. More than a hundred years old, the park now attracts more than a million visitors a year to 25 lodges and numerous campsites. Among recent lodge concessions auctioned to private operators, Nwanetsi, on the border with Mozambique, went for a down payment of a million dollars, which goes into the national parks kitty, with further payments linked to income. It's an optimistic indication of the kind of largesse in store for Coutada 16 once it gains access to Kruger's extensive tourism catchment. Kruger brings in more money by far than any other national park in South Africa, helping to subsidize most of the others. It has 600 miles (966 kilometers) of paved road, more than some entire African countries. Kruger's headquarters are at Skukuza, named after the Shangaan nickname (meaning "he who sweeps clean") of the park's first warden, Col. James Stevenson-Hamilton, a stickler for tidiness. Based here is the battalion of ecologists who try to steer the three principal architects of the park's bushveld: fire, water, and elephants. But recently the park's managers had to execute U-turns in their policies on all three.
 
Their policy of controlled burning was dropped after they belatedly realized that such fires burned hotter than natural fires and were harming wildlife habitat. And the firebreaks themselves sometimes caused serious erosion. Today you can also see the abandoned wells of their "water for animals" program, a misconceived network of 400 artificial water holes that distorted seasonal migrations and undermined the natural competitive advantage enjoyed by less waterdependent animals.
 
The third architect of the bush is Loxodonta africana—the African elephant. Elephant numbers are not self-limiting, at least not in the medium term. Whereas populations of species like buffalo and impalas (and the predators that eat them) will grow and decline with the 20-year cycles of wet and dry weather that characterize the region, elephants, being less specialized feeders, just keep on reproducing—decreasing only after devastating their terrain. So Kruger rangers culled their elephants annually for nearly three decades until 1994, when, under intense pressure from animal rights groups, SANParks dropped this controversial policy. Since then the elephant population has climbed to more than 9,000 and is showing no signs of slowing. With workable contraceptive techniques still some years off and other small overflow reserves full, Coutada 16 is a desperately needed lifeboat for Kruger's elephants.
 
But how to get significant numbers of elephants to cross over the border once the fence is lowered is something of an ecological mystery. Ian Whyte, the elephant specialist, reckons that initially only a few elephants, mostly bulls, would cross on their own. Each breeding herd has a home range, and the clans don't overlap that much, says Whyte. If left to their own devices, elephants would move across to Coutada 16 only very gradually. "But nobody knows," admits Whyte. "It's all speculation. Nothing like this has ever happened before."
 
Instead, large numbers of Kruger elephants will have to be translocated, and plans have been made to move a thousand, in family units. This would be by far the biggest mass movement of elephants ever attempted, and it will be an astonishing feat. Estimates of the cost range from $1,000 to $2,500 an elephant. The first 250 animals will be trucked out by the end of this year.
 
When they arrive in Mozambique, the elephants will start out in adaptation bomas, corralled by an electric fence. "Elephants are extremely sensitive to electric fencing. They don't like being shocked one bit, and once one or two have received a jolt, none of them will touch it again," says Whyte. "Once they have settled in the boma, after about 48 hours, the fence will be quietly opened to allow them to disperse in their own time."
 
Initially, Kruger rangers think, the boundary fence should stay up, to prevent the elephants from trekking back to their home ranges—their first instinct. Once the fence is lowered, says Whyte, other species will slowly cross on their own, the antelopes first and then their predators. This raises another problem: Many of Kruger's buffalo are infected with bovine tuberculosis, and the disease is now crossing over to lions and could spread further.
 
All eyes will be on the first elephants to be moved. Should poaching—either for the pot by local people or by illegal ivory traders—prove to be a major problem, then translocations will cease. The key to preventing poaching is not so much training up a corps of guards—which is being done—but convincing the surrounding communities that they can profit more from wildlife in other ways than by killing it.
 
It is this community component that is the key to the long-term success of transfrontier conservation areas. In this field Zimbabwe was the pioneer, with its Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources, or CAMPFIRE, now widely copied elsewhere on the continent. CAMPFIRE was the first scheme that really acknowledged two conservation fundamentals that had been largely neglected: Most African wildlife lives outside actual game reserves, and unless local communities see direct economic benefits from wildlife, whether through ecotourism or hunting safaris, they will ultimately wipe it out. By ceding wildlife decision-making to local people, CAMPFIRE empowered them to take responsibility for it.
 
A few years ago I stayed at Chilo Gorge Lodge, on the edge of the Gonarezhou National Park, a hundred miles north of the Kruger boundary and soon to be part of the same new transfrontier park. In the local dialect Gonarezhou means "home of the elephants," but Gonarezhou's elephants had been so badly mauled in Zimbabwe's war for independence and the Mozambican civil war that they became pathologically shy of humans. Chilo lodge perches on the prow of a cliff overlooking the Save River. The lodge and another nearby are run in partnership with the Mahenye community. These local people provided the lodge sites and the labor to build them. The lodge owners guaranteed employment for more than 150 people and agreed to pay 10 percent of their revenues to the Mahenye. They have also improved access roads and extended electricity to the community clinic and grinding mill. Once projects like this and licensed hunting safaris began pumping income into this marginal community, poaching dropped off dramatically. CAMPFIRE had turned poachers into gamekeepers.
 
After dinner I stood at the cliff edge with Mike Muvishi, the senior ranger at Chilo, and we watched as the kitchen staff climbed down a steep set of stairs to the river below. They boarded a raft and set off downstream to their village for the night. The raft floated around a bend in the river and passed a low island, little more than a sandbank caught in the restless sweep of their flashlight. "It's called Gayiseni Island," explained Muvishi. "It was named after the migrants, the gayiseni, who journeyed south to work in the mines at Johannesburg—eGoli, City of Gold." For nearly a century people from here had been making that economic pilgrimage, and the island was their perilous stepping-stone across the barrier of the crocodile-ridden Save. "But now these people have found work closer to home," said Muvishi. "Now they can remain with their families."
 
Later that night the quickening breeze brought with it the sounds of drums, cracking whips, and women ululating. I took it to be some sort of celebration, but later I found it was local farmers trying to scare the elephants away from their cornfields. A few years before, they'd probably have tried to kill them. It was simple economics: The elephants were worth more alive than dead.
 
In time CAMPFIRE became a template for African wildlife management outside reserves, though there is a sad postscript to its progress. Zimbabwe itself has recently been plunged into political chaos as its increasingly unpopular president, Robert Mugabe, unleashes violent party activists upon his opponents. This has damaged the Save Conservancy, a large block of former cattle ranches adjacent to Gonarezhou given over to wildlife in 1991, which was supposed to form part of the transfrontier park. Save has now been invaded by government-backed squatters and poachers. In a six-month period last year, on just one of the conservancy's 21 units, scouts collected 2,291 wire snares, but not before losing 3 elephants, 2 cheetahs, 245 impalas, 49 warthogs, 32 kudu—and 160 miles (257 kilometers) of fencing. This state-sponsored turmoil has led to the suspension of bilateral aid and the collapse of tourism in Zimbabwe. CAMPFIRE and the whole national parks network has foundered. The situation is a sobering reminder of how the whole peace parks idea hangs on the golden thread of political stability, sadly still such a fragile thread in Africa.
 
Later, when I visit the new Southern African Wildlife College on the western edge of Kruger, I mention to Eugene Moll, its outgoing director, that all the fine maps and presentations, the triumphal press releases and political protocols, can sometimes seem a world away from the situation I have encountered on the ground. It's here at this thatched campus in the bush that Moll has been training the first of the corps of transnational wildlife managers. He acknowledges my doubts and knows full well the huge practical problems that his students will face out there in the real world. "That's why," he tells me, "these courses are designed to turn out graduates who can take up jobs as wardens of under-resourced parks, practical leaders, above all, who know how to improvise in difficult situations." And he reiterates the message I've heard all along on this trip, the message that has almost become the mantra of conservation in Africa. "Ultimately conservation is about people," he says. "If you don't have sustainable development around these parks, then people will have no interest in them, and the parks will not survive."
 
On my last night I take a drive with Moll and his wife in an open Land Rover out into the bush surrounding the campus. Impalas and zebras graze on the rain-gorged pastures, and a civet scurries away. After an hour we are rewarded with a spotted hyena. It is sitting in a shallow dust hole, ears twitching at the night sounds, mouth open and panting, its wide white fangs gleaming dully in the moonlight.
 
I am reminded of the power of the dream. A dream of a wilderness unified and vast, stretching across this great continent. Of Nelson Mandela's dream. "I dream of an Africa which is in peace with itself," he told me in his Johannesburg study, set in a lush garden. "I dream of the realization of the unity of Africa, whereby its leaders combine in their efforts to solve the problems of this continent. I dream of our vast deserts, of our forests, of all our great wildernesses. We must never forget that it is our duty to protect this environment. Transfrontier parks are a way we can do just that."

Top



E-mail this page to a friend.



© 2005 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved. Privacy Policy       Advertising Opportunities       Masthead

National Geographic Magazine Home Contact Us Forums Shop Subscribe