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In Africa’s Peace Parks
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Africa’s New Conservation

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By Peter Godwin Photographs by Chris Johns

In southern Africa transfrontier reserves hold the promise of restoring ecosystems, bolstering tourism, and creating trust among nations of a war-torn continent.

Read this compelling excerpt, or print the whole story.

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 16ís 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.

Sights and Sounds
SIGHTS & SOUNDS Witness the promise of a borderless southern Africa with photographer Chris Johns.

VIDEO Photographer Chris Johns talks about the pros and cons of establishing transfrontier peace parks. Click Here

AUDIO (recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer   WinMedia

Final Edit
The one that got away from our coverage of peace parks is this month’s Final Edit.

The success of southern Africa’s transfrontier parks depends on the continent’s political stability. How can peace parks be sheltered from war? Tell us what you think.

Decorate your desktop with Africa's flying flamingoes.

Online Extra
AUDIO Nelson Mandela shares his hopes for southern Africa’s peace parks with author Peter Godwin.

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Adjoining protected areas—national parks, wildlife reserves, and other kinds of conservation lands—straddle more than a third of the world’s international boundaries. The challenge of cooperatively managing fragile ecosystems confronts governments in Europe, Asia, and the Americas as well as in Africa.

—Lynne Warren

Peace Parks Foundation
This website discusses the Peace Parks Foundation’s activities and provides general information on southern African conservation.

International Peace Parks
This website highlights news of peace parks and peace park initiatives around the world.

Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou Transfrontier Conservation Area
This website provides background information on the Gaza-Kruger Gonarezhou Transfrontier Conservation Area.


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Quammen, David. “Megatransect: Across 1,200 Miles of Untamed Africa on Foot,” National Geographic (October 2000), 2-29.

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Chadwick, Douglas H. “Elephants—Out of Time, Out of Space,” National Geographic (May 1991), 2-49.

Lanting, Frans. “A Gathering of Waters and Wildlife,” National Geographic (December 1990), 5-37.

Lee, Douglas B. “Okavango Delta: Old Africa’s Last Refuge,” National Geographic (December 1990), 38-69.

McCauley, Jane R. Africa’s Animal Giants, National Geographic Books, 1987.


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