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Africa's New KaZa Reserve Is World's Largest Conservation Area

November 22, 2011

Christian Selz, DPA, November 22, 2011

Antelopes graze among the ruined buildings of what used to be army camps while young lions conquer territory once ruled by the gun: Five African states have joined forces to create the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Park (KaZa), Africa's newest and largest conservation area.

The morning sun glints on this section of the mighty Zambesi river, which flows for 3,540 kilometres into the Indian Ocean. Everything appears double, the trees, shrubs and the rushes, including the two fishermen who are stalking Tilapia bream from a dug-out. The currents in the river, which is several hundred metres wide, blur the edges of this work of art -- a gem of creation which now enjoys comprehensive protection.

After years of preparatory work Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia finally agreed on the setting up of the Kavango-Zambezi-Transfrontier Conservation Area -- or KaZa for short.

The reserve stretches across nearly 300,000 square kilometres of territory. Big game is what lures the tourists and as the area gradually calms down and returns to normal the animals are returning too. The best time to visit is between May and January, outside of the flood season.

The KaZa story goes back seven years to the time when Francois Haasbroek founded a lodge in Katima Mulilo, the provincial capital of the Caprivi strip, in the extreme north-east of Namibia. His two houseboats give an idea of what the governments of countries along the Zambesi had in mind -- limitless safaris through breathtaking countryside.

On the banks of the Chobe, which divides Namibia fom Botswana, a group of elephants gathers to feed. A few minutes further up the river and a pride of lions can be seen repairing to the river to quench their thirst. Buffalo and impala graze on the flood meadows, hippos cool down in the water and enormous crocodiles warm themselves on heat-baked ground.

The five KaZa countries can count 36 national parks and reserves between them -- added together they cover an area as large as Italy. The vision is of a joint park visa for tourists touring all five states. It's likely that a lot of water will flow down the Victoria Falls waterfall before that stage is reached for despite the official stamp of approval KaZa is essentially a marketing idea.

Russell Taylor and Chris Weaver of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have been involved in the gestation of the park from the outset, following each stage as it unfolds.

"When Chris visited the first villages in Caprivi in 1993 they chased him away," recalled Taylor, planning advisor for international park projects. "Take what you've hunted with you and clear off. We don't want it," the locals told Weaver.

Today the director of WWF Namibia can laugh at outbursts like these. The American puts his trust in the responsibility of the people on the ground since for him there is no alternative.

"If animal conservation zones are to be operated efficiently then this must be done via the people who live with the animals," he said.

For a long time this didn't happen in Namibia. The rights to all game were held by the state which had a monopoly on issuing licences for hunting and safari purposes. The system excluded the traditional village communities, which had little interest in protecting the elephants that regularly trample their crops. Locals were not unduly bothered when poachers killed animals regarded as pests. In some cases they even helped the game hunters.

"This attitude has changed and game is now seen much more as something belonging to the community as a whole," said Taylor, describing the new mind-set of local people. Local citizens profit noticeably from participation in the lodges, the creation of jobs, the issuing of licences and camping site projects for tourists -- after all, no safari tourist can get by without experiencing wild animals.

The success of the new strategy is already evident. Large herds of elephant lumber along the Kwando river, a tributary of the Chobe, which runs right through Namibia to Angola and Zambia, while hippos grunt in the thick rushes.

The African Elephant Database 2007 listed 133,000 of the pachyderms whereas the WWF and KaZa administration estimate twice that many. The population has grown so rapidly in Chobe National Park in northern Botswana that the vegetation has visibly suffered as a result.

The KaZa project still has a full agenda, particularly when it comes to explaining to people what the work is all about and its value. The principles of wildlife conservation are not always adhered to in these parts. Talking about the giant reservation, livestock breeder George Magwaza says "where we stand to profit, we support it. When there is nothing in it for us, we do not."

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