The perilous 1,000-mile journey to save Africa’s endangered black rhinos
28 Oct 2022
A multi-national approach first mooted by Jan Smuts in 1922
FROM a hill in Mapungubwe National Park, the wide sandy course of the Shashe River can be seen snaking its way from the north to its meeting point with the Limpopo River.
It is a beautiful sight, and one the royals who ruled there 1000 years ago must also have enjoyed from their mountain fortress, after which the park is named.
Long before the spectacular confluence marked the spot where three countries now meet, a community thrived there among the rocky outcrops and baobab trees, doing business with traders from Persia and India, as revealed by archaeological excavations.
Now the aim is to transcend the political borders by creating a transfrontier conservation area spanning sections of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
The Shashe River is the border between the latter two countries, and the Limpopo is the border between them and South Africa.
There is an island at the rivers’ meeting point with a cottage on it. It is perhaps typical of the region’s mystique that some peculiar theories were advanced when I first asked who the owner might be. It turns out to be one Hendrik Coetzer, who says the island came with a large Botswana (then Bechuanaland) farm his father bought in 1952.
It wasn’t clear at first which country it belonged to, which prompted his father to declare it the Independent State ofShasheland. That moved the British colonial government to annex and declare it part of its Bechuanaland Protectorate.
Coetzer told me this at a ceremony this week at the dry confluence of the two rivers where the environment ministers of the three countries signed a memorandum of understanding towards creation of the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area.
Negotiations have been going on for about eight years as conservationists and sympathetic officials tried to win political support for turning the confluence into a reserve. Their success, though still qualified, met with much excitement at the ceremony. With the three countries’ flags fluttering from poles planted in the sand, and with police, (some armed with assault rifles) from all three sides keeping watch, the ministers made ringing speeches.
Zimbabwe’s Francis Nhema declared: “We are here to reclaim what we destroyed. We must bring together what we set apart. We need to correct our mistakes.”
South Africa’s Marthinus van Schalkwyk, sporting dark glasses and a stylish bush jacket, predicted that “generations to come will look at what we have done and see it as the work of people who had courage and who understood the need to make sacrifices”.
Botswana’s Kitso Mokaila said the park “will be to the benefit of conservation and the socio-economic development of this region”.
But for all the obstacles overcome, patching together the Limpopo-Shashe transfrontier conservation area is going to be much harder than the creation of southern Africa’s pioneer and most successful transfrontier park, the Kgalagadi, established in 2000 between South Africa and Botswana. That happy experiment consisted of the amalgamation of two virtually pristine tracts of Kalahari separated only by beacons in a dry riverbed to indicate where the political border ran.
Limpopo-Shashe has a mulititude of complicating factors which are political, economic and ecological.
Professor Willem van Riet, chief executive of the Peace Parks Foundation, founded by renowned industrialist and conservationist Anton Rupert to facilitate the establishment of parks across national borders, makes no bones about it. It is, he says, one of the most complex situations he and his people have been involved in.
He will not say so but one problem must be the situation m Zimbabwe. The effect of its instability is well illustrated by the protracted delay in linking its Gonarezhou park with the Kruger National Park and Mozambique’s Limpopo Park to form the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park.
South Africa’s side hardly presents a problem. Progress with extending and consolidating what was last year named the Mapungubwe National Park has been nothing short of spectacular.
All but one farm cutting into the park and preventing its consolidation have been bought out, and roads, a rest camp and other tourist facilities like boardwalks have been provided.
Having been declared a World Heritage Site in 2003, the park has grown to close to 30 000 hectares. And it has served as a catalyst for sizeable private reserves on adjoining land.
Negotiations are already in progress to link all these together, including the 34 000ha Venetia Reserve belonging to De Beers Consolidated Mines, and a prospective 100 000ha private reserve that is in the making further east, towards the town ofMusina.
On the Zimbabwean side, the situation is decidedly brittle by comparison. Its proposed contribution consists of the 41 000ha Tuli Circle Safari Area on the western side of the Shashe River, a 76 379ha chunk of communal land owned by the Maramani community, and two ranches. Sentinel (32 000ha) and Nottingham (25 000ha), said to have fallen victim to partial land occupation but which, despite some fanning, are apparently happy to join in a cross-border arrangement.
None of these can quite be termed reserves, but Van Riet says there seems to be a will in Harare as among the local communities to turn the area into a park.
On the Botswana side the situation seems less fragmented, even though such reserves as there are, are privately owned. These include 36 farms (including Coetzer’s) that form the 70 000ha Northern Tuli Game Reserve. It has three upmarket lodges and a number of tented safari camps which draw 30 000 visitors a year.
One of the immediate headaches is Botswana’s large elephant population, which has destroyed many trees. South African conservationists are not altogether delighted with the prospect of them doing the same to the beautiful frees ofMapungubwe.
The dream of patching together a transfrontier park goes back a long way, to 1922 when General Jan Smuts, then South African prime minister and a conservationist of note, declared some of the farms along the Limpopo border as the Dongola Botanical Reserve, for its botanical wealth to be preserved and studied.
In 1947, when he was again prime minister, he had it declared the Dongola Wildlife Sanctuary, with visions of establishing a transfrontier wildlife reserve. But the Nationalist government shut down the park when it came to power in 1948.
It was only in 1994 that the idea was again taken up.
For all the problems, the political will this time, encouragingly, seems on the side of the conservationists and visionaries