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Game Without Frontiers

4 minute read

A few years ago it was little more than an African dream: a patchwork of game reserves cutting across national borders and cultural boundaries, opening vast areas of the continent to the exciting new world of ecotourism. Now the vision of Peace Parks is being realized. In southern Africa one is already in business, several more are on track and by the end of this year the gates will open on one of the world’s biggest.

This vast animal kingdom, a deal involving South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, guarantees the lives of at least 1,000 elephants. Instead of being culled because their habitat can’t sustain them, they will be trucked-in the world’s biggest managed wildlife migration — from South Africa’s Kruger Park to Mozambique.

They owe their lives to a Peace Parks Foundation set up in 1997 by retired South African industrialist Anton Rupert, head of the Rothman’s tobacco empire, to raise funds and promote interregional partnerships in game conservation. Rupert pushed the idea not just to improve game management and create more tourism jobs but also, in a continent known more for conflict than cooperation, to promote peace. Endorsed by Nelson Mandela and funded by eminent local and foreign sponsors, the foundation drew up a list of eight potential cross-border sites, covering up to 200,000 sq km in 10 southern African countries. A Peace Parks development program was also set up to help local communities manage their natural resources and develop ecotourism. The task involved getting sovereign countries to coordinate passport and customs controls, poaching laws, fencing and road-building plans. “The logistical challenges are enormous,” says Peace Parks executive director Willem van Riet, “but so are the rewards. We are looking at the frontiers of a genuine African renaissance.”

First of the new mergers was that of South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park to create the Kgalagadi — meaning “land of thirst” — a 38,000-sq-km wilderness in which tourists and animals can move freely across the two countries’ borders. Since the park’s formal opening last May, tourist traffic has increased threefold to around 150,000 visitors a year. A Peace Parks Club offers tours that include tracking wild game on foot with experienced San, the indigenous bushmen of the Kalahari.

The most adventurous project, however, is the joining of South Africa’s famous 20,000-sq-km Kruger Park with Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park and a huge big-game reserve in Mozambique. Organizers say the park, known as the gkg (Gaza-Kruger-Gonarezhou), could become one of the planet’s top ecotourist destinations. The World Bank, usaid and the German Development Bank are helping pay for research, infrastructure and the development of villages on or near the transnational game corridors where the animals will roam.

Leo Braack, a leading South African conservationist and former head of scientific services at the Kruger Park, is coordinator of the gkg project. “Our milestones include agreements on community involvement and protection, the development of an integrated tourist plan and the training of game rangers and law enforcement officers,” says Braack. “Only then do we start the big elephant move.” Among the challenges that Braack has to face are the building of a 400-km fence and the removal of unexploded land mines — the legacy of decades of conflict. “Wild animals don’t have borders,” says Anton Rupert. “They could teach us a thing or two — like how to live in peace and coexistence.”

Rupert plans to apply that wisdom beyond Africa. His foundation is involved with an International Peace Parks Council that has identified 136 potential sites involving 98 countries. South Africa is discussing the possibility of a Peace Park with the governments of North and South Korea. It would sit astride the demilitarized zone that separates those two longtime enemies — an area where animals such as the endangered Siberian tiger and Amur leopard are known to exist. Van Riet says there is some interest in the idea at the U.S. Defense Department. If the generals of the Pentagon and their counterparts in the two Koreas are as wise as the tiger and the leopard, then peace may have a chance.

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