Transfrontier conservation in Southern Africa

In a global world where tourism and travel leave very large footprints, it can sometimes seem odd to claim that tourism can drive conservation. But with the launch of KAZA, Africa’s largest conservation area, 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 representing the five participating countries, Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, signed a treaty bringing into being a conservation area over 440,000 sq km – about the same size as Sweden – encompassing 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 minimize 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 camp sites 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 Southern African Nature Foundation, and President Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique, so 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 – people and wildlife using the same areas – by introducing the transfrontier conservation concept. There was a growing recognition that tourism could be the engine to drive economic growth in rural Southern Africa and that a separate organisation could coordinate, facilitate and drive the process of setting up TFCAs; the Peace Parks Foundation came into being in 1997.

Khalagadi 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, formed in 2011.

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 – 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 expanding 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 bird life 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 Five 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.

If an earlier eco-tourism 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.

Steve Felton
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