With pressure building for African land, coupled with parks that lack legitimacy in the eyes of local people, declining government investment in their management, booming prices for wildlife products, poaching and the never-ending tales of bribery and corruption (sister blog), what hope for the future of African wildlife? Much will depend on the success of a new approach – the conservation of large landscapes incorporating multiple parks and reserves and sizeable populations of rural people. Before taking a closer look at some of the ‘conservation landscapes’, it is worth pausing to recall the origins of this approach in Africa – surprisingly, it was born out of the search for peace.
The Peace Parks dream kicked off in Africa in 1997 through the commitment of three visionaries: President Nelson Mandela, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Dr Anton Rupert, a South African philanthropist. They envisaged the establishment of a network of protected areas that linked ecosystems across international borders. They sought to move beyond the idea of strictly protected national parks to a view of landscapes that supported both wildlife and multiple resource-use by local communities.
They foresaw the day when people, long divided by historical frontiers, could freely join to set about managing and utilising natural resources throughout their traditional territories. At the same time, they anticipated wildlife populations that were free to roam over ancient migratory pathways that crossed vast terrains. It was the birth of ‘transfrontier conservation’ and the new transfrontier parks would support whole ecosystems and pursue sustainable economic development within the context of regional peace and security.
The first peace park was Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which united South Africa and Botswana. It is an area of Kalahari bush with sweeping parallel dunes, separated by dune-valleys and open pans. The park contains large herds of ungulates such as gemsbok, springbok, blue wildebeest, eland and red hartebeest and their predators – leopard, brown and spotted hyaena, lion and cheetah. In May 2002 the ‡Khomani Bushmen and Mier agricultural communities reached an historic land settlement with the government of South Africa which restored a large tract of land to communities that had once roamed in or farmed the area. They opened a fully catered luxury lodge in 2007. It was a good beginning.
Bucking the depressing trend for many other parks, the transfrontier conservation areas soon picked up the support of Presidents and Kings and the powerful South African Development Cooperation. The movement has grown from strength to strength and now encompasses some 18 areas across southern Africa with new proposals now reaching into Central and East Africa.
Although the bright beginning has given cause for celebration, a serious obstacle remains to be overcome. The long-term future of these conservation landscapes depends entirely on the extent to which rural communities within them can benefit from wildlife-based land-uses. With a few striking exceptions, the record so far is poor. This leads to a serious challenge for conservationishsts, politicians, development agencies and local people alike. It will be necessary to reform national legislation in most countries so that communities within and around the conservation landscapes have legal access to natural resources (Vol 2 of the Strategy). Only when such rights are granted will there be the necessary long-term security for the development of sustainable resource use. If the new paradigm is to succeed and the new transfrontier parks are to prove sustainable, then this is the way forward.
The largest of the 18 landscapes is the giant KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area, which at 520,000 km2 is larger than Zimbabwe or Spain or California. It encompasses five countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe), thirty-eight protected areas, two million people and two hundred and fifty thousand elephants which live in the largest undivided population on the continent.
The team that developed the EU strategic approach for African wildlife in 2014/15 reasoned that the same landscape-based approach can be applied anywhere, even when the area is far from an international frontier. They called such areas Key Landscapes for Conservation, or KLCs for short, and started the job of mapping some of the more important ones.
At this stage there are 70 proposed KLCs spanning the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.
As a prime example of a proposed KLC, the Greater Virunga Transfrontier Conservation Area in Central Africa would comprise eleven protected areas in an area spanning parts of DR Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. It has a towering altitudinal range of 600 to 5,100 m and correspondingly high diversity of habitats – alpine to bamboo to swamp and lowland rainforest. It protects the world’s remaining eight hundred mountain gorillas, contains many of the Albertine Rift endemics and is considered one of the most species-rich regions on Earth.
Another example from Central Africa is the proposed Greater TRIDOM-TNS Transfrontier Conervation Area which covers a very large area of essentially contiguous moist forest spanning the borders of three countries (Cameroon, Gabon and Congo). It contains a majority of Central Africa’s forest elephants, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees as well as a substantial proportion of the Congo basin flora.
An outstanding example from West Africa is the WAPOK Savanna KLC which lies near to the frontiers of Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger and Togo. It protects viable populations of lion, cheetah, elephant, giraffe, leopard, manatee, roan antelope, buffalo, and Defassa waterbuck in the last functional savanna ecological complex in West Africa. Another example is the vast Niger-Chad-Algeria Desert KLC which will seek to protect the highly threatened desert species such as scimitar oryx, Saharan cheetah, dama gazelle and addax.
A third is the Senegal-Mauritania Atlantic Coastal KLC which contains the most import wetlands in West Africa consisting of lagoons, saline flats, alluvial plains, an interconnecting network of rivers lakes and ponds, mangroves and dunes. They are vital for the annual bird migrations to and from Europe and Asia and are used by over two million wintering Western Palaearctic waders.
In Eastern Africa, the proposed KLCs include the iconic Mara-Serengeti-Ngorongoro Transfrontier Conservation Area encompassing seven protected areas including three World Heritage sites and famous for its migrations of wildebeest, zebra and Thomson’s gazelle, its high numbers of predators and the 50-year record of painstaking scientific studies. The Greater Kilimanjaro transfrontier conservation area between the same countries has eight protected areas, including one World Heritage site, and is equally iconic for its combinations of wildlife-filled plains and snow-capped mountain (photo of Mt Kilimanjaro in sister blog). Less well known but as impressive in scale is the Sudd-Badingilu-Boma-Gambella ecosystem, where migratory herds circulate between South Sudan and Ethiopia. The most recent estimates obtained in 2009 for the migratory species are 1.67 million white-eared kob, 340,000 gazelle and 125,000 tiang, the Sudanese long-legged form of topi.
It is early days yet but we can say with confidence that the Peace Parks conception has been thriving since its propitious African birth some fifteen years ago, and is now giving lusty teenage voice to a landscape-based approach to conservation. It is the last best hope for the future of wild African ecosystems.
I have been fortunate to live in some of Africa’s conservation landscapes for years at a time. They are a treasure beyond price. They are a heritage beyond value for all Africans, and for all humankind who feel that unique bond with the continent of their forefathers and mothers. May they bring prosperity to their nations and in so-doing live long and adventurous lives.