Fences not the only barrier for cross-border park

The Pafuri-Banyini pan in South Africa’s north-eastern Kruger National Park teems with game. Elephant bulls amble among clumps of marula trees and impala leap gracefully across the grassland, where buffalo graze.

Located in the triangle between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet, the pan is more than an idyllic corner of the Kruger park. It will ultimately lie at the heart of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
This conservation area will encompass 35 000 square kilometres, allowing animals to follow ancient migration routes between the Kruger park in South Africa, the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

The pressures that are being brought to bear on the pan are indicative of problems that the transfrontier park as a whole will have to grapple with—a matter of increasing importance as the deadline approaches for dropping another stretch of border fencing to create the conservation area.

The first section of fence to be taken down was a 15km strip in 2002, between Mozambique and South Africa—just north of where the Shingwedzi River enters the Kruger park. This year, a 30km section of fence will be dropped south of the Shingwedzi—also between South Africa and Mozambique—after the presidents of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique open the border post at Giriyondo.

This post, between the Kruger and the Limpopo parks, is the first to be opened under the transfrontier park initiative. The ceremony is scheduled to take place in October.

Poaching

Jack Greef, a former special forces operative who has worked in wildlife security in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Tanzania—and who now runs a crack ranger unit in the Kruger National Park—believes dropping the fence without beefing up patrols on both sides of the border will worsen poaching.

Reports have already surfaced of rhino poachers from Mozambique driving into the Kruger park through areas where the first section of fencing was dismantled. And, even though the Pafuri-Banyini pan lies some way north of Giriyondo—where the next stretch of fence is to come down—poachers are already taking a toll in the area.

“Zimbabweans cross the river, lay snares and sell bush meat in the villages in South Africa. Then they buy groceries here to take back to Zimbabwe,” Greef said during a visit to the pan, pointing to one of several well-trodden footpaths leading to the Limpopo River.

In May, Greef’s team of eight rangers found 79 snares at a spring near the Pafuri gate into the Kruger that had been set three nights before. By the time they reached the scene, a buffalo calf, hyena and impala had been killed.

“If we hadn’t detected these snares, it would have been a slaughter house,” said patrol leader Prison Manganye.

Two months later, Kruger rangers caught a poacher transporting 129 genet skins by car from the Mozambican border post at Pafuri to the Punda Maria gate into the Kruger park.

“That’s virtually the entire population of genets along the Limpopo,” noted Greef.

Mozambican park official Hernando Vukeya said 36 poachers armed with AK47 assault rifles have been arrested in the district during the past five years. Most were war veterans turned poachers. But, he said, the situation is under control.

“We are dealing with poaching very efficiently here.”

There are currently about 70 rangers in mobile units in the Limpopo National Park who are in radio contact with their counterparts in the Kruger.

“Generally bigger is better,” Greef concluded at his headquarters. “And with increased cross-border cooperation between ranger units, we can catch more poachers who escape by slipping across the border.”

But, he is not as sanguine about the situation as Vukeya is.

Conflict with communities

Poaching is only part of the problem, however.

Just 30km east of Pafuri-Banyini pan, in the Limpopo National Park, lies Shikumba village: one of a string of settlements along the Limpopo River housing up to 20 000 people.

Inhabitants of these villages have refused to move elsewhere.

“We debated this issue and decided we would rather be fenced in and stay here,” said Maria Nyampuli, one of the villagers. “We are not happy about it, it but we will adhere to the law.”

However, certain villagers have also threatened to take up arms if the number of elephant in their area increases as a result of park fences being taken down. Elephant may kill people or trample crops, no small matter for communities that rely on subsistence farming for their survival.

“People were saying to me, ‘We hear on the radio they will move elephants in here. If the animals come, we will take them out,’” says an ecologist who conducted field work in the area. “It’s a war zone out there.”

Given the number of weapons that are in circulation in the aftermath of Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, the villagers’ threats cannot be taken lightly.

“This place is awash with guns from the war, including AK47s,” said a South African police inspector at the Pafuri border post. “You will see what happens if you try to force them to move.”

Development issues

Steve Collins, a development worker with extensive experience of communities living next to parks, is also concerned.

“Community development issues have become secondary to conservation,” he said. “This is colonialism by conservationists.”

Nyampuli and her family members were among thousands who fled the area next to the Limpopo during the war, some going as far as Johannesburg. Many returned when the conflict ended in 1992. By then, trading stores established by Portuguese colonists had been burned down and most game had been slaughtered and eaten. The only means of survival for people in Shikumba and neighbouring villages is farming, but drought has pushed them to the edge of starvation.

“There’s no rain,” sighed Nyampuli. “Only hunger.”

Villagers acknowledge that the transfrontier park may help them escape poverty—even if it also causes headaches in terms of incoming elephants.

“If it can give our children jobs, if it gives us water and arable lands, then we support it,” said one inhabitant of the area, pushing his bicycle down a deeply rutted track that passes for a road.

However, a community in South Africa is less optimistic about the eventual benefits of the transfrontier conservation area.

The Makuleke ethnic group is the first community to have won back land in one of the country’s national parks, under a restitution system that was set up to assist people who were forced off their land during colonialism and apartheid.

It now leases this land to lodge operators, including Wilderness Safaris, with substantial revenues flowing back into the community. The Makuleke are concerned their animals will be poached when they wander into Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

“We need to come up with programmes of direct benefit to communities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique,” said community spokesperson Lamson Maluleke, who also complains that the Makuleke have not been adequately involved in decisions about the regional park.

Benefits to communities

However, the Peace Parks Foundation—which originated the idea of the transfrontier conservation area—insists that community benefits lie at the heart of its work.

The foundation is based in Stellenbosch, in the southern part of South Africa. It was founded in 1997 to help create cross-border parks and promote regional stability. The foundation assists governments to create these conservation areas by securing grants from donor agencies.

To date, six transfrontier parks have been established, all in Southern Africa, but there are plans to expand the concept throughout the continent.

The Limpopo villagers, says Ari van Wyk - transfrontier park coordinator in Mozambique - will probably stay in the park, but be allocated hunting quotas.

“There will always be subsistence hunting when people are hungry,” he said.

As the amount of game circulating between Kruger and the Limpopo parks increases with the dropping of fences, Limpopo villagers may find that their settlements fall within migration routes. With this in mind, a grant of about $8,7-million has been provided by France to relocate villagers to the edges of game corridors—and to provide them with irrigation systems.

Another group of people inhabiting the Limpopo National Park—6 000 people living in eight villages along the Shingwedzi River—will benefit from a grant of about $7,5-million made available by the German government.

Part of these funds will be used to establish an irrigation scheme outside the park where soils are better, says Van Wyk, by way of an incentive to get villagers to leave the conservation area.

“Most have already accepted resettlement because they live in remote areas without services,” he noted. Resettlement is expected to take three to five years.

In addition, certain camps for tourists in the Mozambican section of the transfrontier park are to be run by villagers.

“We have calculated Limpopo has a carrying capacity of about 1 000 beds for 300 000 potential visitors a year,” Peace Parks Foundation chief executive Willem van Riet said. “That translates to about 3 000 jobs.”

According to Van Riet, the Limpopo National Park has already created 250 jobs where previously there were none.

Maluleke’s concerns about Zimbabwe are echoed among staffers at the Peace Parks Foundation, however.

The country has become increasingly isolated over the past five years, in the wake of a controversial programme of farm seizures, and three elections marred by allegations of human rights abuse and vote rigging. These events have taken their toll on Zimbabwe’s economy, creating mass unemployment and triple-digit inflation. Certain Zimbabweans have turned to poaching in a bid to make ends meet.

“Until Zimbabwe comes back into the fold, nothing will happen there because donors are not going to put up money,” said Van Riet.

Wildlife operators such as Wilderness Safaris acknowledge that communities living alongside and in the parks will have to be catered for by the transfrontier initiative if it is to succeed. For all this, the park remains an ideal tourism opportunity for them.

“Eventually you will be able to visit three national parks in three different countries without a passport as long as you exit on your side,” said Gary van Rensburg, manager of the newest Wilderness Safaris lodge, which opened at Pafuri last month. “That’s really attractive from a tourism point of view—and we’re right at the centre of it.”—IPS

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