NELSPRUIT, SOUTH AFRICA — During the apartheid era, South Africa staged incursions across its frontiers to wage war and destabilize its neighbors. Now it wants to tear down border fences - in the name of peace and prosperity - to create the world's largest conservation area.
If all goes as planned, South Africa's giant Kruger National Park will join up with Zimbabwe's Gona-re-Zhou National Park and wildlands in Mozambique to create a huge trans-frontier reserve.
Promoters say the park would restore animals' natural east-west migration routes, now blocked by political borders. It would also replenish game in depleted areas and provide much-needed tourism revenue for Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
"The benefits would be myriad, to animals and people," Robbie Robinson, South Africa's National Parks Board chief executive, told the Monitor.
Mr. Robinson said the new park would be two or three times bigger than Kruger, whose 7,500 square miles is almost as large as Israel.
Kruger, one of Africa's biggest game parks, receives tens of thousands of visitors a year. It is widely recognized as one of the world's best managed and does not suffer from the corruption seen elsewhere on the continent. Robinson says sharing South Africa's expertise with neighboring countries where poaching is rife could help save endangered species such as the rhinoceros.
A study for a transfrontier park was completed with support of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1991. The decision was that the time was not ripe for the park as long as South Africa was ruled by a white-minority government.
But South Africa's relations with its neighbors have improved following its first multiracial elections in 1994. Discussions among the three countries began in earnest last year, and joint commissions were set up to study the park idea.
The World Bank, WWF, and other international agencies have shown interest in assisting the project, which would cost an estimated $4 to $8 million.
Robinson sees few problems in linking Kruger with Zimbabwe and says the plan could come to fruition within two to five years once agreement is reached on joint patrols and other matters.
Mozambique is another story. Experts warn that there would be much to be resolved once the fences come down, including how to control disease, the flow of illegal aliens, and poaching. They point out that Mozambique is one of the world's poorest countries and is suffering the ravages of a devastating civil war. Land mines, hunger, and corruption are widespread. Environmental awareness isn't.
The World Bank, which along with several United Nations agencies is helping to manage $5 million of Western government aid to promote biodiversity in Mozambique, predicts it will be several years until the transfrontier park becomes a reality.
"In principle, it is a very exciting idea. The potential for jobs and revenue would be tremendous, as well as the environmental gains," says a spokesman for the Johannesburg office of the World Bank. "However, capacity in managing parks must be built. There are no functioning parks in Mozambique and that has to start first."
In recent talks, Mozambican officials expressed concern that South Africa would try to take over the management of what would be a large portion of their territory. They also worry about the displacement of people in communities within the designated areas.
The latter concern is shared by the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a nonprofit environmental group in Johannesburg that has been taking part in discussions.
According to the EWT's Mozambique expert, Don Beswick, it would take at least a decade to build the proper game stocks and infrastructure and properly train a staff. Mozambican authorities would need to discontinue handing out hunting concessions near the border as well.
WWF officials say much can be learned from other cross-border parks. They cite the adjoining Serengeti and Masai Mara in Tanzania and Kenya and a recent project to link up new conservation areas in the Central African Republic, Congo, and Cameroon.
But both cases were relatively easy because the populations living in the designated areas were nomadic and had coexisted with the park animals over centuries, says Henri Nsanjama, WWF vice president for Africa, based in Washington.
"Mozambique is going to be a tough one; [the] people aren't used to living with animals. It is different from the other cases where the local population respected animals," he says. But he adds, "Humans can always learn with education."
In the meantime, Robinson is looking at smaller cross-border projects. He says South Africa and Botswana are setting up joint management of a conservation area in the Kalahari Desert.
Discussions are also under way to start a new park in the corner of South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana within five years and to establish a protected area under joint management with Namibia on either side of the Orange River.