Giant step towards the light

The Victoria Falls and Okavango Delta will form part of a new five-country conservation plan.

The Victoria Falls and Okavango Delta will form part of a new five-country conservation plan.

Published Sep 1, 2011


A vast region that once was the scene of some of southern Africa’s most brutal fighting has come a big step closer to being turned into one of the world’s most remarkable conservation projects.

Comprising major portions of five adjoining countries, it is known as the Kaza Transfrontier Conservation Area.

“Kaza” stands for the Kavango and Zambezi rivers on which it is centred. It comes to 444 000 square kilometres, about the size of Sweden, and includes spectacular features like the Victoria Falls and the Okavango Swamps.

The countries involved are Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, whose presidents used the occasion of the Southern African Development Community meeting in Luanda this week to sign a treaty setting up the scheme.

The announcement was made by the Kaza secretariat, which said the project would make tourism a vehicle for socio-economic growth in the region. In signing the treaty, it said, the five partner states wanted to ensure the natural resources they shared across their international boundaries along the Kavango and Zambezi rivers would be conserved and managed prudently for present and future generations.

It underscored the extent to which the area would function as a unit, practically separate from its respective countries, saying the area would become an international organisation with a legal persona, capable of entering into contracts, and acquiring and disposing of property. Institutions established through the treaty would be empowered to ensure that the objectives of the treaty were realised and corresponding strategic plans and protocols implemented.

The ambitious scheme has been getting financial and logistical support from the likes of the German and Dutch governments, South Africa’s Peace Parks Foundation, the Swiss Agency of Development and Co-operation, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature.

Plans to put it together go back to 2003, the year after the bloody regional war came to an end, signalled by the public display of Unita leader Jonas Savimbi’s bullet-ridden body after a final bloody encounter with MPLA forces in Angola’s south-eastern Moxico province.

The treaty marks a major turn-about in the fate of a region that for nearly four decades suffered the destruction and agonies of anti-colonial wars and then a civil war in Angola which continued for more than a decade, becoming ever more cruel. The contrast with what went on there once is remarkable.

The South African forces had their forward bases in the Caprivi, the strip of land jutting from Namibia between Angola and Zambia in the north and Botswana to the south, before it bumps up against Zimbabwe just short of the Victoria Falls.

To the north of the Caprivi, in Angola’s Bie province, was the Huamba headquarters of Angola’s Unita rebel movement that first helped its fellow rebel organisations, the MPLA and FNLA, unseat the Portuguese administration in the mid-1970s, before political disagreements caused them to turn viciously on each other.

Namibia’s Swapo joined the MPLA to get at the South African administration of the then South West African territory, and the ANC joined in as part of their struggle to end white minority rule in South Africa. South Africa entered the fray on Unita’s side against the MPLA, also to keep Swapo and the ANC, and their Cuban allies and Russian backers at bay.

The conservation area, set to incorporate a major portion of south-eastern Angola, is mapped to include Jamba, Unita’s southern headquarters that became the focal point of the fighting towards the end.

It will reach further north-west, almost to Cuito Canavale, the small trading post that got practically wiped out in a final bloody battle between Cuban and South Africans forces in 1988.

It has been estimated that only about 2.5 million people live in the conservation area, which, apart from the Victoria Falls and Botswana’s Okavango Delta and Chobe Reserve, will include Namibia’s ecologically diverse Caprivi Strip, and a vast and particularly sparsely populated area spanning the Angola-Zambia border.

The whole of Angola’s adjoining 199 049 square kilometre Cuando Cubango province, which will form a major portion of the proposed parkland, has only about 140 000 people.

Dotting the region is an array of conservation areas. Though in various states of protection and repair, many can be linked across boundaries and through corridors and so become mutually supportive within a broader framework to make nature-based tourism the main industry.

Most remarkable among the potential link-ups could be that between Botswana’s 10 566 square kilometre Chobe Reserve and Zambia’s 22 400 square kilometre Kafue Park. Though the protected areas are a considerable distance apart, the corridor between them would cross a part of the Caprivi strip which is already a community conservancy. The remaining Zambian stretch of about 80km to Kafue consists of community land that includes game management areas.

The link-up could become the ecological and tourism axis that holds together the bigger project. One of the single most remarkable aspects about the entire scheme could indeed be its re-opening of age-old elephant migration routes.

The animals had a hard time of it during the war years. Elephant ivory served to pay for weaponry, and much of the rest of the wildlife became bushmeat for soldiers and famished villagers, most of whom later fled to Zambia.

Those of the elephants that were able to escape the massacre fled south and bundled together with the large Botswana herds that were allowed free rein by that country’s government, to the point that their destruction of the habitat in the northern regions of Chobe and the Okavango became a serious concern.

Werner Myburgh, the Peace Parks Foundation’s project manager for the scheme before becoming the foundation’s chief executive, once told me about his impressions when he was taken on a flight over the Angolan area after the war had ended. “There were hardly any huts to be seen, and no roads. I thought to myself, this is wild Africa, without game.”

One of the remaining problems is the landmines left in the area which still need to be cleared. When elephants first started returning there after the war had ended, some had their legs and trunks blown off.

But Michael Chase, a biologist working there for the Elephants Without Borders conservation group, told me at the time that those elephants that followed had, amazingly, somehow learned to avoid the area in which the mines were. - Sunday Tribune

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