Far & Wild – It’s nothing short of magical, this plan to create Kaza, the biggest reserve on our continent…
Words: Leon Marshall
Pictures: Leon Marshall, Wilderness Safaris and the Peace Parks Foundation
The idea of the Kaza Transfrontier Conservation Area is so far-reaching, it’s hard to get your mind around it. But there it is, a chunk of Africa the size of Sweden that was set aside for special protection of its fabulous natural features, and with ecotourism as its main commercial activity.
An impressive project it certainly is, one that sees almost 40 game parks in the spectacular Kavango and Zambezi river basins (hence the name Kaza), handed over by Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe to form this vast 444 000km² international reserve.
In signing the agreement to combine the adjoining territories of their countries, the presidents of these five African countries even went so far as to bestow colonial-type powers on the secretariat charged with running it, declaring: ‘The Kaza TFCA shall become an international organisation with a legal persona, capable of entering into contracts, and acquiring and disposing of property. Institutions established through the treaty to govern the TFCA, particularly its secretariat, will be empowered to ensure that the objectives of the treaty are realised, and corresponding strategic plans and protocols implemented’.
This is high ambition indeed for a part of the world where one of Africa’s bloodiest wars ended only about a decade ago when Unita leader Jonas Savimbi died in a hail of bullets. But such schemes are also called peace parks. Yet while the image is of a massive reserve centred on the Kavango and Zambezi rivers, the reality is somewhat different. Transfrontier conservation areas fall short of transfrontier parks, where adjoining reserves are opened to each other across national boundaries to extend the roaming areas of their animals, as well as to facilitate joint administration of the natural habitat and make it easier for tourists to cross between the parks. Transboundary conservation areas might include reserves, but also settlements and other forms of land usage and development.
Parks incorporated into Kaza include Zambia’s giant Kafue, Zimbabwe’s equally sizeable Hwange, the Victoria Falls, Botswana’s sprawling Okavango Delta and Chobe Reserve, and Namibia’s string of reserves leading up and into the Caprivi.
Wedging in from the north is a vast landscape that a de-mining expert once described to me as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This is the south-eastern part of Angola’s enormous Cuando Cubango province where he had carried out a survey of the minefields left behind. The area includes a ready-made park that had already, before the war, been proclaimed the Luiana Partial Reserve.
Fighting had taken as heavy a toll on the region’s animal life as it did on its villagers, most of whom fled into Zambia. Werner Myburgh, chief executive officer of the Peace Parks Foundation, set up in the mid-nineties by Anton Rupert to facilitate such transfrontier conservation projects, once told me after flying over the area, “There were hardly any huts to be seen, and no roads. I thought to myself, this is wild Africa, without game.”
It will take time for the mines to be cleared and for the Angolan portion of the project to live up to its tourist potential. But already the vast elephant herds of Botswana are showing the way, drifting back into the area from which many had been driven by the war. Dr Michael Chase, a biologist who had been working in the area for the Elephants Without Borders conservation group, in the beginning reported elephants having their trunks and legs blown off. But somehow those that followed started to avoid the mined areas.
Like the animals, tourists have not been slow to respond to the wider region’s rich promise since the guns fell silent. More and more safari vehicles pass through, and along the main roads the stream of ordinary cars is also growing as travellers come to explore this beautiful patch of old Africa. It is telling that the architects of the transfrontier scheme are even talking about a Kaza visa to make it easier for tourists to cross boundaries inside the conservation area.
I have enjoyed fleeting touches of this vast hinterland, mostly courtesy of Wilderness Safaris. Once, flying to Livingstone, I noticed the white expanse of Botswana’s Magkadigadi Pans glimmering in the distance. On the southern extreme of Kaza, it offers an eye’s feast of zebra, wildebeest and migratory birds during the rainy season. Below me on Kaza’s south-eastern extreme, Hwange National Park slipped by, the place where elephants cross the vast plains to the pans and head north to the Okavango and Chobe, and back.
Flying on we saw the billowing white cloud of Victoria Falls. The Zambezi was in full flood from heavy rains in its catchment in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the pilot banked to allow a better view. “I have never seen it so beautiful,” he remarked.
On the Zambezi’s Zambian shore I watched the mighty river heave by and later enjoyed cocktails on a leisure boat. At dawn I awoke to the unearthly scream of a large bush baby at the open window metres from my head. My drive through Zambia’s Mosio a Tunya (Smoke that Thunders) Park brought us to the merry chaos of the ferry at Kazangula, where travellers bunched up at the customs counter before making it onto the boats for the trip across the Zambezi. A short drive away, in Botswana’s pretty town of Kasane where the Kaza secretariat has its headquarters, I saw folk step casually aside for two warthog scuffling on the sidewalk. Along the main road lay mounds of elephant dung.
Flying over the Chobe River, we saw enormous elephant herds moving across the plains. Where the Chobe becomes the Linyanti River, which also springs from deep inside Angola, a mesh of elephant and hippo paths through the marshes bore out the region’s pachyderm wealth. Sadly there are no more rhinos, the last of which was killed by poachers years ago.
Our rustic camp on the Botswana side of the Linyanti had a view across the river to a sea of papyrus that covered the flood plain on the Namibian side. That night in the dim light of a half-moon, shadowy figures of elephants soundlessly passed my tent on their way to the river. A hippo grunted close by, and in the morning our guide, Thuto Moutloutse, for all his deep love of nature, complained with a laugh that a hyena had again eaten the soap in the shower.
A 13-hour drive via the dry Savuti riverbed and through unending wilderness took us to the Okavango Delta, where the aroma of wet grass filled the air as water pushed into long-dry spillways, from rains that had months before fallen in Angola’s highlands. From flat-bottomed boats we watched the feeding frenzy of small fish that had come in with the slow-moving flood. “It will not be long before the animals converge here in numbers,” mused Thuto. That same morning, before flying across the wondrous watery expanse that is the delta, we watched an enormous elephant bull wade through the spillway.
One of the biggest challenges of patching together the transboundary scheme is to get the cooperation of local communities. And there was delight when two Zambian chiefs, Sekute and Inyambo Yeta, decided to turn a disputed floodplain on the north-eastern bank of the Zambezi into the Simalaha Community Conservancy and dedicate it to the scheme with the words, ‘Children do not know what the animals look like that are in the stories told to them by elders, and are growing up without knowing what nature has to offer. The Inyambo and Sekute people feel that this way of life needs to be resuscitated and they need someone to help them do this’.
Their example is precisely what the grand scheme needs, to set up the link of a wildlife corridor between the Botswana and Namibian parks and Zambia’s Kafue. The elephants would be most pleased.
More so than with any other transfrontier project, Kaza will be forever a work in progress. But surely its consolidation will gather force as, like those chiefs, more and more people come to realise the importance of protecting what remains of Earth’s precious natural environment.
Transfrontier projects with SA
There are six transfrontier projects involving South Africa. Three are transfrontier parks, where adjacent reserves are joined across national boundaries to allow animals free movement and make it easy for tourists to cross. The others are transfrontier conservation areas, which are adjacent territories with notable natural features, including reserves, where conservation and ecotourism are jointly promoted.
- The 6 045km² Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park spans the mountain desert dissected by the Orange River boundary between Namibia and South Africa. It includes the Ai-Ais hot springs and the Fish River Canyon. Customs posts and a pontoon at Sendelingsdrift allow tourist traffic between the two parks. It is the key link in a chain of protected areas and parks stretching from Augrabies Waterfall, across the river and up the Namibia coast to the Kunene River, across which beckons Angola’s enormous Iona National Park.
- The proclamation in 1999 of the 38 000km² Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park – South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park – formalised a cooperative arrangement ongoing since 1948. Whitewashed stones along the dry Nossob River denote the boundary. The animals could always cross. Now visitors can do the same, needing passports only when entering and leaving by different gates. What the South African park brought to the union in the form of a rich variety of tourist facilities, the vast Botswana park made up for in size.
- The Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area is centred on the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe rivers where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet. It is anchored by South Africa’s Mapungubwe Park and its surrounding private reserves. The Botswana part includes the Northern Tuli Game Reserve. In Zimbabwe it includes the Sentinel and Nottingham farms that have game ranching and safaris as major activities. By putting a fence between the Shashe and community land on the Zimbabwe side of the river, the idea is to link the southern parks with that country’s reserve-type Tuli Circle in the north where it cuts across the Shashe in a semi-circle into Botswana.
- The 35 000km² Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park – Kruger Park and Mozambique’s adjacent Limpopo Park – is the world’s biggest animal kingdom because of its wealth of species, and the removal of the war-time security fence between them is allowing animals to cross freely into the parks. The new Giriyondo customs post near Letaba is helping tourists to do the same. The third part of the scheme, Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou, still needs to be connected by way of a bridge across the Limpopo, and some form of wildlife corridor through community land.
- The Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area is the collective name for five projects. One involves Swaziland’s Malolotja Park and Mpumalanga province’s adjoining Songimvelo Park. Another joins Swaziland’s Nsubane Park and KwaZulu-Natal’s Pongola Park. A third comprises Swaziland’s Hlane, Mlawula and Mbuluzi reserves and the Changalane region in Mozambique. The crux of the scheme starts where the Usuthu River cuts through the Lubombo mountains and South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique meet. It incorporates Ndumo and Tembe reserves, linking them through the Futi wildlife corridor with Mozambique’s Maputo Special Reserve. A fifth part incorporates Mozambique’s Marine Protected Area and Kosi Bay and isiMangaliso Wetland Park.
- The Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Conservation Area spans the border between South Africa and Lesotho from Golden Gate to the Ongeluksnek Nature Reserve in the Eastern Cape. On the South African side it incorporates the string of wilderness areas and fabulous parks along the mountains. In Lesotho it includes only three isolated parks. The rest is demarcated as a ‘managed resource protected area’, meaning it is open to sustainable grazing.
The scheme’s biggest advantage for the moment lies in integrated conservation management of the mountain range, but it also holds exciting longer-term tourism possibilities for the Lesotho side.