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In the footsteps of African giants

By John Yeld

Cape Town - It’s about the journey, not the destination, as the old saying goes – and the wisdom in that was confirmed by veteran conservationists Ian McCullum and Ian Michler during an epic 5 164km journey to promote environmental awareness that took them from one side of the southern African subcontinent to the other, across six countries.

Sight to behold: The team takes stock of the presence of some live giants  African elephants  while kayaking through the Okavango delta. Pictures: Ian MichlerCROSS-CONTINENT: The route of the Tracks of Giants expedition, from Namibia's Skeleton Coast in the west to Cape Vidal on the KwaZulu-Natal coast in the east. Picture: NICK CHEVALLIER PRODUCTIONSON YER BIKES: When not walking or kayaking, the team took to the saddle as they made their way through six countries on the subcontinent.FIVE BIG ONES: Conservationists Ian Michler, left, and Ian McCullum, who walked, pedalled and paddled over 5 000km across southern Africa during their 125-day Tracks of Giants expedition to raise environmental awareness, particularly for transfrontier conservation areas, ...EARLY DAYS: The first stages of the expedition saw the team hiking through spectacular landscapes, like this canyon in Namibia.Sight to behold: The team takes stock of the presence of some live giants  African elephants  while kayaking through the Okavango delta. Pictures: ian michler

Using only their own personal muscle power to walk, cycle and kayak their way – although always supported by family, friends and like-minded individuals – their epic Tracks of Giants journey started on May 1 on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean at Rocky Point, on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, and ended 125 days later on the Indian Ocean beach at Cape Vidal in KwaZulu-Natal.

The pair’s route was carefully planned to take them through eight major conservation nodes on the subcontinent, including five transfrontier conservation areas or “peace parks” – Iona-Skeleton Coast, Greater Mapungubwe, Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, Lubombo and Kavango-Zambezi.

Their main goal was to promote recognition of these vital cross-border conservation areas, and of the need for physical corridors to link existing protected areas, explained Michler, a stockbroker-turned-specialist wilderness guide and environmental journalist.

“Wildlife doesn’t pay any recognition to political boundaries, so if we have wilderness areas that are separated by political boundaries and managed as different systems, you have a breakdown and a disintegration of the greater ecological system.

“So transfrontier parks seek to do away with the political boundaries and manage these areas as one large entity. This, for us, is the primary focus of what Tracks of Giants is all about.

“To put it in a starker sense, we’ve been protecting conservation areas for about 140 years now, when we started declaring national parks in the 1880s. There have been hundreds of thousands of people involved, and we’ve thrown tens of billions of dollars at it, but the bottom line is that we continue to lose habitat, and we continue to lose wildlife and species.

“And so, as a macro policy, the only option we have left to arrest the decline in habitat and wildlife loss is transfrontier parks. We refer to it as ‘the last roll of the dice’.”

While they’d experienced “a great journey”, it had also been “a little bit of a horror show”, Michler added, “because some of the conservation issues out there don’t make for pretty seeing or hearing”.

As the expedition name implies, their route took them along some of the ancient African elephant migration paths that crisscrossed the region before colonialism and development.

Symbolically, they carried with them all the way a GPS-linked elephant collar that was later presented to the Botswana non-profit organisation Elephants Without Borders, and fitted to a bull elephant in the Kwando River region in the heart of the massive Kavango-Zambezi transfrontier park.

Michler and McCullum, a former Springbok rugby player, psychiatrist, wilderness guide and poet, also explained that “giants” was a reference to those who had dedicated their lives to the conservation cause in southern Africa.

These were people like Ian Player, founder of the Wilderness Leadership School and Wilderness Foundation, Garth Owen-Smith in Namibia, Paul Dutton in Mozambique, Michael Chase in Botswana, and Andrew Muir of SA-based Wilderness Foundation, among many others, some of whom joined them for part of their journey.

“Sharing ideas and time with these guys was something really special for Ian and me,” Michler recalled.

“Ecologists, conservationists, researchers, NGO workers, community leaders, ecotourism operators, safari guides... everyone who is involved on the ground in conservation work. They are some of the true giants of the conservation world.

“Some of the really serious work out there is being done by people whom you never hear of, who’ve been working 25 or 30 years on projects, pioneering concepts and strategies, solving conservation issues. So for us, we also wanted to tell their stories. While the journey serves as the hook, the real story for us is the conservation message and the issues.”

Another major expedition issue was competition for the use of land.

“It was a theme that followed us all the way through. There’s a constant gnawing away at the protected areas – by mining, agriculture, urban development, logging… a variety of commercial and economic activities,” Michler said.

And McCullum pointed out that the expedition had taken them to “incredible landscapes and waterscapes”, some of which were now under serious threat. “If we are ever going to be in need of leadership, it’s now – leadership with very special reference to the environment,” he said.

Another central aim of their journey was to investigate the role of community-owned conservancy areas.

“Quite simply, without the 100 percent buy-in and involvement by the communities involved, we will simply not succeed with our conservation initiatives,” Michler said.

And other issues explored along the way included the over-exploitation of natural resources (“the biggest threat to biodiversity on this planet, whatever way you look at it”), and human-animal conflict, such as between stock farmers and predators like hyenas.

The pair are producing a book about their journey, while a major documentary is likely to be previewed at the World Wilderness Congress in Spain in the latter half of next year. They are also planning an environmental education component, so the issues and questions that emerged during the trip can continue to be debated and discussed.

Recognition of the importance of establishing physical corridors between conservation areas had to be matched by an understanding of the human element, said McCullum. “We have to live differently. We need to open the corridors of the mind before we can really tackle these issues of corridors between wild areas. We need to have a far greater understanding of who we are in relation to landscapes and to other people.” - Sunday Argus

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