Giving peace to man and beast

SUN JOURNAL

Cooperation: Huge, cross-border parks offer a way to protect wildlife, increase tourism and improve relations between nations.

November 09, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa - Long before colonial powers carved up Southern Africa into its current political boundaries, the region's abundant wildlife roamed without a care - free of armed border posts, electrified fencing and other disruptions to their ancient migration and grazing patterns.

Soon Africa's elephants, buffalo, lions and other animals may reclaim some of that unspoiled past.

A new conservation effort is under way to pull down fences between Southern Africa's adjoining national parks and game reserves, opening up the continent to vast new wildlife areas that straddle political borders. The newly created regions are called "peace parks," so named because in a part of the world often known for its political turmoil, the parks are expected to foster greater cross border cooperation among Southern Africa's human inhabitants as well.

One peace park is already open along the Botswana-South Africa border. And several more are planned in the years ahead, including a sprawling wildlife region shared by South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

The most ambitious of all the parks, it will join the world famous Kruger National Park in South Africa with Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and former hunting lands in Mozambique. The landscape of mountains, savanna, woodlands, rivers and dense bush populated with lions, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippos, giraffe, buffalo and hundreds of other species will occupy 38,000 square miles - about the size of Indiana.

"Animals know no boundaries. Boundaries were created by humans. If we remove these fences and give a larger space to the animals to roam, we believe the whole thing will create the largest conservation area in the world," said William Mabasa, spokesman for the Kruger National Park.

When the park, known as the Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou, or GKG, opens its gates in April, it should mean a tourist boom for all three countries, Mabasa says. Safari-goers will be allowed to roam as freely as the animals they observe, crisscrossing three political borders without the hassles of visas, checkpoints, permits and fees. Organizers also envision many new attractions for visitors, including fishing, river cruises, rugged 4-by-4 adventure drives and cultural programs.

For Kruger's elephant population, the new park will mean a new lease on life. Kruger game officials have regularly culled the park's elephants to control overcrowding. But when the fences come down, thousands of acres will be opened up for the elephant herds, eliminating the need to continue the oft-opposed culling program - at least for the time being.

In the first symbolic step toward establishment of the GKG park, Kruger Park officials are trucking about 30 elephants into Mozambique, the first of 1,000 elephants it plans to relocate during the next three years.

Park officials hope to follow the elephant move with the relocation of other game such as waterbuck, sable antelope, eland and later buffalo and impala. Such predators as lions and leopards will colonize the new area on their own, organizers say. Starting in April, the electric fence separating South Africa from Mozambique will be dismantled and the animals will be allowed to migrate on their own.

The challenge for peace park organizers is ensuring that the animals live safe from man in their new homes. The park joins geographic regions of mixed political and economic fortunes. On one side is South Africa's Kruger National Park, which draws nearly 1 million tourists each year and boasts huge populations of animals: 9,000 elephants, 32,000 zebra, 1,500 lions, 2,200 white rhinos and 100,000 impala, to name a few. Just across the border in Mozambique, it is a very different story. Years of civil war, rampant poaching and neglect have meant the destruction of much of Mozambique's wildlife and any potential tourist industry.

Before the fences fall between Kruger Park and Mozambique's parkland, organizers from both sides of the borders have begun to remove land mines from Mozambique, educate the communities about the new park and beef up game guard operations.

Just north of Kruger, Zimbabwe is unraveling as the government continues to condone invasions of white-owned farmland. The currency is plummeting. Thousands of Zimbabweans stream across the border into South Africa. And last year the land invaders moved into Gonarezhou parkland. But in a rare act of condemnation of the land invasions, the Zimbabwe government forced the intruders off the land because of the importance of the peace park project.

For both Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which will account for nearly 80 percent of the park area, the stakes are high. Both countries stand to benefit economically if the park is a success.

"The border areas are not economic hubs in Southern Africa," said Irma Engelbrecht, spokesman for the South Africa-based Peace Parks Foundation. "Not much is happening there. Ecotourism is the only hope they have for economic growth."

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