Poaching stymies superpark

Poaching and resettlement in Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe could put paid to dreams of a boundary-free Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park for years, say conservationists.

Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Thabo Mbeki met in Xai Xai, Mozambique, this week to establish the park. They signed a treaty in which they “undertake to develop a wildlife sanctuary across political boundaries, where animals may freely roam and flourish in keeping with natural ecological processes”.

But the political situation in Zimbabwe will slow down progress for years, observers say. Poaching in Zimbabwe presents a particular problem.

Jonny Rodriguez of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force (ZCTF) says rampant poaching is decimating game in Gonarezhou.
“It is absolutely sickening,” he says.

Conservancies around Gonarezhou have been plagued by farm invasions and parts of the reserve itself have been settled. About 25% of the Save conservancy near Gonarezhou is occupied by settlers.

Save and neighbouring Chiredzi report extensive poaching. The ZCTF reports that more than 1 000 animals have been found dead in snares.

Rob Style, vice-chairperson of the Chiredzi conservancy abutting the reserve, says habitat has been destroyed by settlers. Poachers and new farmers have burnt almost half the conservancy’s 110 000ha.

A year ago the Zimbabwe government put 11 000ha of Gonarezhou on its list of areas for resettlement. People began moving on to the land, built houses and started clearing away bush to plant crops. Their cattle roam freely within the reserve.

Trevor Sandwith, coordinator of Cape Action Plan for the Environment (Cape), reported about 400 cattle grazing in the reserve in July last year. Anthony Hall-Martin, a consultant for the Peace Parks foundation, says the situation has not improved since.

“The Zimbabwean authorities don’t see the settlers in Gonarezhou as a threat because they only occupy a small piece of the reserve. They view the occupied land as communal property anyway,” he says.

Zimbabwe’s authorities are considering changing the boundaries of the park to accommodate the settlers, says Hall-Martin.

The Zimbabwe Independent reported last month that reassurances from the government that the situation was under control were nothing but “a political gimmick”. The newspaper said more people were being encouraged to settle in Gonarezhou.

Anyone expecting to drive through the 35 000km2 superpark next year will be gravely disappointed, says David Grossman, a project consultant on the Mozambique side of the park. He says it might take up to seven years for the park to be open to tourists.

“I find it incredibly sad that a potentially wonderful project is being jeopardised by short-term political interests and pressure from the Peace Park Foundation, which has raised millions from donors who now expect to see an instant park,” says Grossman.

The transfrontier park will help prevent elephant culling because the animals can wander from Kruger to the bare Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe. But are South Africa’s neighbours ready to receive them? asks Grossman.

The Kruger and Limpopo national parks share a 150km-long border where three gaps are being cut in the border fence. One gap will extend 35km, another 15km and the third 10km.

Mozambique is transforming a former hunting concession into the Limpopo National Park and game is being restocked.

“Though obstacles still exist in the park, a lot of hard work is being done on the Mozambican side,” says Arrie van Wyk, the Peace Park Foundation’s project manager in Mozambique.

Van Wyk estimates it will take at least five years to link the Limpopo National Park in any meaningful way with the Kruger National Park.

On the Zimbabwean side it will take even longer. Little has been said about the Gonarezhou’s role in Greater Limpopo National Park and what is needed to develop the park.

Mike Knight, a chief scientist at South African National Parks, says that little development has taken place in the park. “It is one of Zimbabwe’s least-developed parks and not a lot has been done to change that.”

Limpopo National Park abuts Kruger, but a 50km corridor will have to be created through the Sengwe communal area to connect Gonarezhou to the other two. The animals will have to travel through this corridor to roam freely between the Kruger and Gonarezhou once the fences are removed. Grossman says the treaty signing and removal of fences were a publicity stunt. “This wonderful park can’t be built on quicksand. The [Mozambican] government has to realise that there are 25 000 people living there. About 6000 people, with their livestock, live within the heart of the [Limpopo National] park, in the vicinity of the Shingwedzi river. This area has been identified as prime wildlife habitat and accordingly zoned for future tourism development.”

Van Wyk concedes that the politicians had set the time to take down the fences. “But I don’t feel the project has bulldozed ahead,” he says. “We’ve made considerable gains. We’ve actually slowed down to address critical issues, such as engaging the affected communities in dialogue.”

He says no person who now lives in Limpopo National Park will be forced to leave. “The park actually creates new opportunities for the people inside.”

Van Wyk says villages will be fenced to protect the communities from wild animals.

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