Former foes now share zebra

As a boy, Uriel Ngovene would go trekking with his father through the thick bush, hunting antelope to feed his family.

When his community was co-opted into Mozambique's newly established 2.5 million-acre Limpopo National Park a couple of years ago, however, hunting was banned. But Mr. Ngovene, for one, doesn't mind giving up his family's traditional livelihood, he says, because he feels confident that local wildlife will soon prove to be much more valuable alive.

"We know that a park can benefit a country because of tourism," he says.

At least, that is what Mozambican officials are banking on. Former enemies Mozambique and South Africa plan to merge Limpopo with Kruger National Park across the border along with the Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe to eventually create the world's largest wildlife conservation area.

Never mind that there are land mines to clear, infrastructure to build, and 6,000 people to resettle. In coming years, officials say, border fences will disappear from the 23,000-square-mile area, opening up new swaths of land for animals to roam and offering visitors greater access to some of southern Africa's most pristine wilderness.

This concept of creating parks and conservation areas that straddle national boundaries is gaining momentum across southern Africa, says Willem van Riet, chief executive officer of the Peace Parks Foundation, a South African organization that is promoting the creation of 22 different transfrontier conservation areas across the continent.

The first peace park, the Kgalagai Transfrontier Park, shared by South Africa and Botswana, opened in May 2000. Eventually, the foundation even hopes to see such parks in war-torn countries like Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

South Africa's Kruger National Park, one of the continent's foremost attractions, draws 2 million visitors each year. But until recently, impoverished Mozambique wasn't featured on too many tourist itineraries. That's why officials are excited about the new Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which was officially established in December 2002 and is being funded by Germany, the United States, South Africa, and the World Bank.

The plan, which will combine one of the continent's most established parks with one so new it has yet to open to the public, is widely regarded as a grand experiment in cross-border conservation and tourism.

Park plans reflect new ideas about the definition of a conservation area: people will live and farm in some places, communities will develop their own forms of cultural tourism and ecotourism, and limited hunting may even be allowed in some areas.

"People used to think of Africa as wildness with pockets of civilization," professor van Riet says. "What has now happened is that Africa has become mostly civilized with pockets of wildness."

Removing the border fences between parks is becoming more crucial as animal populations grow increasingly isolated from one another and are hemmed in by agriculture and rural population growth outside park areas, he adds.

To many, the park also symbolizes a new era of cooperation and stability taking hold in the region. When Mozambique emerged from its devastating 16-year civil war in 1992, President Joaquim Chissano approached neighboring countries and environmental groups for help in establishing new parks to link up with existing ones across borders in order to attract badly-needed tourist dollars into the country.

South Africa, once a bitter enemy blamed for fueling the Mozambican war, now shows strong support for the peace parks initiative. Over the past three years, it has sent nearly 2,000 animals such as giraffe, elephants, zebra, and wildebeest to its neighbor.

These animals sent over from Kruger, meanwhile, are now being kept inside an electric fence intended both to protect them from hunters and to protect villagers from them.

While Mozambique and South Africa are both gearing up for the new park, political instability appears to be slowing progress in Zimbabwe. The greatest worry, van Riet says, is that people who have illegally occupied land adjoining the park will kill off animals.

Because of Zimbabwe's tense political situation, the country also has not been able to raise money to develop its side of the park. The lack of progress in Zimbabwe will most likely delay its entry into the transfrontier park, but it won't affect plans for parks in Mozambique and South Africa to merge, officials say.

On the Mozambican side of the park, the first attractions - a series of hiking trails and a 4x4 SUV safari trail along the Limpopo River - are expected to open later this year. Five years from now, officials predict, the area may receive as many as half a million visitors.

Yet so far little infrastructure is in place. The first phone line was installed at the park headquarters a week ago, and land mines are still being cleared from the park's periphery.

Another challenge is the lack of animals: During the Mozambique war, local wildlife was decimated by poaching and subsistence hunting.

Meanwhile, the 26,000 people - most of them subsistence farmers - who currently live within the park boundaries present further challenges. The majority will be able to stay, says park warden Gilberto Vicente. However, a remaining 6,000 who live in what will become one of the park's core wildlife areas will either need to be resettled or fenced in for their own protection.

One elected community leader in the village of Massingir Velho said that residents don't object to being resettled, as long as the new park provides them with jobs. Now young men from the area often sneak over the border into South Africa to look for work because there are no jobs here.

The area is prone to drought, he says, and in bad years, villagers often go hungry in the months before the harvest or turn to hunting wildlife.

Yet with the establishment of the park, Mr. Vicente says, some villagers have voluntarily handed over around 50 rifles to park officials, suggesting that their perceptions of hunting are shifting. But he concedes that villagers faced with starvation will still hunt.

"For Mozambique in general, it's a major issue because we've never established a park ourselves," Vicente says. "It's a great opportunity to define our own model of a national park ... but the process is going to take a long time."

Ngovene, the former hunter, has been one of the few villagers so far to receive a job. Last year, he was one of 70 field rangers hired to patrol the park area.

His responsibilities now include preventing poaching and illegal hunting. And he says he looks forward to the day when he can show tourists the bush and explain about the animals.

His favorite animal, he says, is the rhinoceros. "I've never seen a real rhino," he adds. "Just in books."

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