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SOS Rhino : In the News : Don't fence me in

Don't fence me in

  February 2, 2003

South Africa's concept of "peace parks" is marching up the continent - and here's hoping it changes the conservation map of Africa forever.

Stand aside, Africa's dodgy dictators, tyrannical regimes and failing economies. A bold vision to create a series of "peace parks" is scrapping political boundaries and re-establishing ancient animal migration routes.

"Political boundaries are the scars of history," says Professor Willem van Riet of the Peace Parks Foundation, the organisation that's committed to a breathtaking vision that will ultimately unite a number of conservation areas that cross national borders throughout Southern Africa and beyond.

The declared aim of the Peace Park Foundation is to convert 500000 square kilometres of open landscape, spanning eight countries in Southern Africa, into transfrontier conservation areas promoting tourism and harmony between humankind and nature.

Free passage between parks

The formal opening of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in May 2000 proved it could be done, allowing people and animals free passage between South Africa's Kalahari Gemsbok Park and Botswana's Gemsbok National Park.

Now, less than three years later, Africa's greatest cross-border unification is becoming a reality. The giant Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park links South Africa's Kruger National Park, Mozambique's neighbouring Limpopo National Park and Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park.

A tree too far

Driving the Land Rover-sponsored Lebombo Eco Trail along Kruger's eastern boundary a while back brought home the enormity of the challenges. On one side of this arbitrary colonial border formalised by a daunting elephant-proof fence was one of the world's wildlife paradises, the Kruger Park, which ranks as Africa's oldest game reserve and arguably its most successful sanctuary.

"I have pleaded all my life for harmony between man and man and man and nature. Peace parks ensure this by creating peace, prosperity and stability for generations to come."

Dr Anton Rupert

On the other side was a country devastated by civil war, with the toll in wasted human and animal life counted in millions. (In fact, flying over parts of Mozambique in a helicopter recently, I didn't see a single wild animal or game path.)

But it was my irrational and overpowering urge to "hug a baobab" while driving the border that really brought home the absurdity of arbitrary political boundaries.

"Soon this fence will be down," my Kruger Park guide vowed. "Then, in the new transfrontier park, you'll be able to move freely across this border and access that baobab tree without an intervening fence."

I climbed the fence, like so many refugees before me, albeit in the opposite direction, and photographed the giant tree up close.

Since then elephants have been donated and trans-located to the Mozambican side, with two "holes" created in the fence for freer movement. By the time you read this more of the fence may have come down, allowing easier movement of elephant and other wildlife.

The vision
The transfrontier vision is the conservation equivalent of scrapping apartheid, dismantling the Berlin Wall and drafting a new democratic constitution that recognises the rights of all people, creatures and eco-systems.

As 2003 dawns bright with optimism, the peace park dream is on track, fuelled by the determination of conservationists, politicians and visionaries from all walks of life.

"I know of no political movement, no philosophy, no ideology, which does not agree with the peace parks concept as we see it going into fruition today. It is a concept that can be embraced by all. In a world beset by conflict and division, peace is one of the cornerstones of the future. Peace parks are building blocks in this process, not only in our region, but potentially in the entire world."

Nelson Mandela

Back in 1990 it was multi-millionaire entrepreneur Dr Anton Rupert who initiated discussions with Mozambican premier Joaquim Chissano as the first step, with elder statesman Nelson Mandela lending his considerable support as patron.

Today, the conservation map of Africa is being re-written despite political and practical obstacles, not least of which is the argument from rural communities that wild animals destroy crops and present a very real threat to life and limb.

But bush diplomacy is winning in many areas, especially among some of those communities pushed to the very edge, who are desperately grasping at any chance of survival. Gradually there is an acceptance, in some areas at least, that tourism can be a lifeline, and the concept of wildlife protection and sustainable community development a practical reality.

The unified areas
The vision encompasses unification of the Richtersveld mountain desert in the Northern Cape with Ai-Ais, its Namibian twin, while a similar exercise is creating the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area between Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal. A third initiative in the Lubombo region is linking a remarkable diversity of landscapes, including pristine coastal wetlands of northern KZN and Mozambique, with Swaziland's Hlane Royal National Park.

Artificial boundaries many of them fenced have separated communities and blocked animal migrations for decades, but like the Berlin Wall, they too can be erased from the map.

A united Africa
While enjoying the friendly face of 4x4dom recently during the 4x4 Eco Challenge in Namibia, I met conservationist Duane Rudman, chief warden of the Skeleton Coast National Park.

He talks enthusiastically of President Sam Nujoma's vision of a wildlife corridor linking Etosha National Park with the Skeleton Coast in what Namibia refers to as a "people's park". While the name differs slightly, the dream is a carbon copy of our own.

Exciting plans include increasing the black rhino population in Namibia to 2000 animals by 2010, with local communities charged with their care, and in line to reap tourism benefits.

It is estimated that more than 100000 elephants roam the upper Zambezi River and Okavango basins, with logic dictating another co-operative venture between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"It is a well-known fact that the largest industry in the world, employing more than one out of 10 of all workers, is tourism. The establishment of peace parks will play a major role in creating jobs. This is the most worthwhile project I have ever been involved in."

HRH Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands
Looking further north the conservation architects also have some of the great lakes of East Africa in their sights, working tirelessly to create a culture of peace and trust despite generations of conflict.

Anton Rupert talks of humankind's need to reconnect with nature and the Earth. "The mind of modern man is in shock, reeling from information overload in the business sector, stung by a plethora of stimuli and numbed from a media bombardment of war, atrocity and aberration...

"Embedded deep in the psyche of man is the oldest symbol of all, the Garden of Eden. This is a place of peace and reflection free from divisive barriers and physical constraints.

"Affluent Western man needs for the health of his soul to take time off from the frenetic treadmill of his existence to return to the Garden for refreshment and contemplation, and the growth of tourism to wilderness areas endorses this.

"Poverty-stricken Africa desperately needs alternatives to subsistence living, and the creation of jobs from tourism provides these."

For more info, visit the Peace Parks website.



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