Cross-Border Park Is Africa's Largest Wildlife Refuge

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
for National Geographic News
February 11, 2003
A high security fence erected in 1975 that blocked an ancient elephant migration route between South Africa and Mozambique is being torn down to create what will be the largest wildlife reserve in Africa.

The 13,513-square mile (35,000 square kilometer) Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park will connect the parks of three countries: South Africa's Kruger National Park, Mozambique's Limpopo National Park, and Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park.

In the more than two decades since South Africa's white-minority government built the fence to keep the violent revolution in Mozambique from spilling into Kruger National Park, elephant populations on both sides have suffered, although for different reasons.

Kruger National Park is over-populated, with more than 10,000 elephants in an area with a carrying capacity for about 7,000. The resulting ecological pressure could ultimately force wildlife managers to conduct massive culling if not relieved.

Mozambique has been left denuded of elephants and most other game due to hunting under Portuguese colonial rule and the protracted war for independence during which soldiers hunted for meat and ivory to trade for weapons.

As more sections of the 75-mile (120-kilometer) fence are removed, it will only be a matter of time before the elephants resume their old seasonal migration, said Kobus Wentzel, northern district ranger for Kruger Park.

Prior to the erection of the fence, the elephants moved across the border to water pans in Mozambique during the dry winter season, beginning in June, he said. They could resume that migration pattern as soon as they discovered the fence was gone, possibly in this coming winter season.

Massive Game Translocation

Opening the old migration route is just part of a massive animal translocation program.

It could take other game species in Kruger some years to break with the roaming patterns instilled by the fence and start drifting into Mozambique, said Wentzel. But when they start doing so, it will do wonders for improving gene pools and relieving pressures on habitats, he said.

To hasten the distribution of game throughout the greater park, South Africa has delivered more than a thousand head of game to a temporary sanctuary in Mozambique. The goal is to move about 3, 000 animals, ranging from elephants and rhinos to a variety of buck species, and to keep them in the sanctuary until they are sufficiently adapted not to want to move back across the border.

It will take a good deal longer for animal migrations to be restored with Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou Park to the north.

The volatile state of Zimbabwean politics, aggravated by the government's controversial land-reform program, has repeatedly delayed the launch of the transfrontier park.

The treaty signed on December 9, 2002 by the presidents of the three countries—Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique, and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe—was initially to have been signed more than a year earlier.

Willem van Riet, chief executive of the South African-based Peace Parks Foundation, a driving force behind the creation of transfrontier parks in southern Africa, has been a strong proponent for pushing ahead with the launch of the Great Limpopo despite the political problems.

"Why wait for people to sort out their problems? Let us get those fences down so that the animals can at least start moving about freely," said van Riet.

He says the big picture of what the transfrontier park could mean for southern Africa is so fantastic that it makes no sense to allow it to get bogged down in small and transient problems.

Livelihood for the Poor

Hopes for the park go far beyond its considerable environmental benefits. Supporters expect ecotourism to provide jobs for many of the people living in the sprawling, poverty-stricken communities that surround the park.

South Africa's minister of environmental affairs, Valli Moosa, says the creation of the park will contribute to establishing a sustainable tourism economy for all three countries.

"It will provide Mozambique with almost immediate access to a million people visiting Kruger annually," he said. "We predict that the overall number of tourists will be much more than the sum of those who have been visiting the three parks separately."

Others hope that it will foster peace and stability in a region left ravaged by years of war and political instability.

In his speech at the treaty-singing ceremony in December, Mbeki, who is also head of the newly-formed African Union, said it should reinforce the process of creating the conditions for Africa's collective renewal.

"The challenge ahead of us is to create these conditions, to build a new world of boundless peace and prosperity for our peoples, even as the animals of the wild learn to live in the new world created by the open frontiers of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park," he said.

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