The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 October 2022
The Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area lies in a magnificent landscape with the Limpopo River flowing through it. Here cultural antiquity meets current-day conservation, and three countries collaborate to protect the ecosystem they share. It’s a place with a little of everything and a lot of uniqueness.
Orginal text by Keri Harvey
It’s early morning and a single file of elephants is silhouetted against the rising sun. They’re crossing the Limpopo River from Zimbabwe to South Africa to browse for the day, and tonight they will return to their homeland. It’s hoped that soon tourists will be able to move as freely between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana within Greater Mapungubwe and enjoy the offerings of each country.
“What makes Greater Mapungubwe unique is that it’s both a cultural and wildlife landscape, so there are multiple layers,” says Paul Bewsher, programme manager for Peace Parks Foundation. “It’s also the only transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) in the SADC region that focuses on the conservation of a recognised cultural landscape and World Heritage Site, which transcends international boundaries. The TFCA has an important contribution to make regarding ecological connectivity along the Limpopo and Shashe rivers, as well as the conservation of arid bushveld.” Also unusual is, while TFCAs usually comprise government-owned land, Greater Mapungubwe is a mosaic of land owned by the government in South Africa, private and community-owned in Zimbabwe and privately owned land in Botswana.
Mapungubwe National Park manager, Conrad Strauss, is passionate about the area and says, “I think we underestimate what we have in Mapungubwe. It is the site of the first kingdom in southern Africa and the jewel in the South African National Parks (SANParks) crown. There is excellent wildlife viewing, magnificent varied landscapes – from riverine forest to sandstone hills and the Limpopo River – plus the historic cultural landscape. This is all packed into 28 000 hectares. Really, everything is here.”
Sure, there are challenges too, especially pot poaching, the smuggling of contraband, illegal cattle grazing and human trafficking across the borders, but this is being addressed by superbly co-ordinated anti-poaching patrols from all three countries. They’re so proud of their trilateral cooperation that they all wear uniforms bearing the flags of all three countries.
Senior Section Ranger for Mapungubwe, Stefan Cilliers, has been in Mapungubwe for 18 years and knows the park like the back of his hand. “Yes, there are daily challenges around poaching and smuggling,” he says, as we stand talking on the banks of the Limpopo, waiting for Zimbabwean rangers to wade through the river to start anti-poaching patrols on the South African side. “We have a trilateral management committee for sharing intelligence and doing anti-poaching patrols, and it is working well,” he says modestly. “The illegal bush meat trade has a great impact on our predators,” he adds, “so we do our best to keep it at bay. There is never a dull moment here, which is why I love it.”
Future Hoko, chief game scout for Sentinel Ranch on the Zimbabwe side, is reed thin and fearless. “We are busy all year, but I am exactly where I belong,” he says. “To do this job you must have passion because it’s difficult and dangerous. But it’s important so that our children can also enjoy our wildlife heritage.” Standing nearby, field ranger and dog handler David Malatji nods in agreement, while his canine companion waits for instructions. And then they’re all off on patrol, the whole team instantly disappearing into the thick riverine bush, committed and deeply proud of the work they do; their success is a testimony to this.
With insight into the historic traditions of the area, the current challenges are not entirely unexpected. Conrad explains, “The Limpopo is a colonial boundary not well understood by people living in the area. Families here live on both sides of the river and it’s a historical legacy because ancient Mapungubwe’s people moved freely between countries.
“The Mapungubwe Kingdom rose to greatness through migration and people using the landscape to exist. It was first established at Zizho, then people moved back to Zimbabwe and Botswana, back again to K2. They again moved from Mapungubwe to Great Zimbabwe and later back down to Thulemela in Kruger. Because descendants still live here, these connections are there, 900 years later.
Conrad says the area is also poverty stricken – both in South Africa and Zimbabwe – so pot poaching is because of hunger, and antelope and fish are targeted. “This makes it difficult to now declare the area a no-go zone, because local people are simply using the resource they have had for thousands of years. The connection between community and conservation is what will sustain efforts to protect natural resources in the 21st century, so people are very important in the equation and they need to experience the benefits of preserving their natural heritage.”
Tourism has obvious benefits to poverty alleviation and has dramatically increased from 4 000 visitors in 2003 to 37 000 in 2017, vastly increasing job opportunities. One reason for this may be that Mapungubwe plays host to two ingenious events. Tour de Tuli, launched in 2003, is a cross-border mountain biking race which is massively well supported and Safari on the Run: Mapungubwe Wildrun® was launched in 2016 and has already garnered an impressive local and international following – with 11 countries represented this year. The latter follows elephant paths and game trails through all three countries in the TFCA and offers runners a unique game viewing-on-the-run experience.
Wildrun® organiser, Owen Middleton, says the event is “key in the evolution of trail running in South Africa. It’s more about ability than speed, while being able to see extraordinary areas only accessible on foot. Mapungubwe ticks all the boxes of community, nature and conservation.”
The trail camp is set up on the community land of the Maramani, who enjoy tangible benefits from the event. Not just in jobs, but all food for the trailists is sourced locally and vegetables for meals are provided from the Shashe Irrigation Scheme. Last year the benefits to the local community amounted to a substantial R325 000. “We want to encourage communities to explore tourism as a livelihood,” says Owen, “and the better we do from Wildrun®, the better they will do. We can make a difference by being here and we are 100% committed to doing this.”
“The commitment by private sector operators to community involvement in event coordination is innovative,” continues Paul, “and highlights the potential of community public private partnerships. Tour de Tuli and Wildrun® are great examples, as is the TriNations Camp – the only youth Children in the Wilderness programme and camp.”
He adds that Peace Parks Foundation’s current involvement in GMTFCA is operational support on the ground – anything from resource management and tourism to community development projects and programmes. This includes assisting with the development of the Shashe Irrigation Scheme, cross border tourism development and joint planning.”
There are currently numerous land claims on the area, since the cultural landscape belonged to different peoples in the past, who require access to their sacred places. “We need to find out how to assist communities to make a success of what they want to do,” says Conrad. “It is about finding balance and managing the process. It will be great to show the international community how land claim agricultural farms can operate within a world heritage site and work together with conservation efforts. It is about give and take. The land claims are not negative, just a challenge to consider all the necessary aspects and manage these effectively into the future.”
There are lots of plans to offer more to tourists visiting Mapungubwe, with additional rock art and archaeological sites to open in the next five to ten years. “But the ultimate goal for me as park manager,” says Conrad, “is to get the conservation area recognised, resolve the name issue, and get the flow of people moving easily through Mapungubwe to Zimbabwe and Botswana with efficient border controls.
Just imagine if tourists could visit Mapungubwe, cross over to Zimbabwe and camp on the Maramani community land, visit the fossil and archaeological sites on Sentinel Ranch and then return to Mapungubwe with ease. Greater Mapungubwe TFCA has it all for tourists, just ease of access is needed. Then the potential is huge and will go a long way towards establishing sustainable benefits the local people.”
Conrad is not alone in believing the future of Mapungubwe is extremely bright. “We have achieved many firsts and there are still many to come. Here we have the ideal opportunity to showcase working together for the protection of the landscape with local communities. I am excited about it and I think it’s a marvellous opportunity to show the world what we can do in Africa.”