Wednesday, August 16, 2006

South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe open border to animal park

'World's greatest animal kingdom' to span 3 countries

Wednesday, August 16, 2006; Posted: 11:37 a.m. EDT (15:37 GMT)

KRUGER NAT'L PARK, South Africa (AP) -- The presidents of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe officially opened a new border crossing Wednesday in a small but significant step toward creating the "world's greatest animal kingdom" -- a huge national park spanning the three countries.

Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Armando Guebuza of Mozambique and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe gathered at the Giriyondo border post linking South Africa and Mozambique for the formal opening. The road was opened last December to limited traffic.

"Nature has triumphed and shown us that we can transcend national boundaries and that we can create "benefits beyond boundaries," Mbeki said in a speech prepared for delivery at the opening ceremony. "Today our wild animals -- the elephants, rhino, antelope and many others are once again beginning to roam freely."

He said that the Giriyondo Access Facility marked the "beginning of a new era when we will bring down the colonial fences, which divided our nations over several centuries."

It will take years to turn the dreams of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier park into reality, with free movement of animals -- and people -- throughout the 14,000 square miles (36,000 square kilometers) of scrubby, sunbaked bush.

It is hoped that the cooperation between the three countries will improve conservation measures -- although there have also been fears the "borderless" park could also make it easier for poachers to operate.

Rob Little, chief conservation officer at the World Wildlife Fund's South African branch, said in an interview Wednesday that benefits would outweigh possible increase in poaching.

"The transfrontier park is a wonderful idea for conservation in general and opening up movement patterns, and also on international commitments to conservation in those regions," he said. "There are management implications and those need to be dealt with, as with any creation of a new conservation area. Some are going to work better than others. We have to remain optimistic as it's a wonderful opportunity."

South Africa's flagship, the Kruger, is well managed. But Mozambique's wildlife is only just beginning to recover from the country's long Civil War and authorities face the challenge of relocating 20,000 villagers living inside the Mozambican section, or at least allaying their fears about the risk of wild animals so that they agree to stay put.

Zimbabwe's economic and political upheavals, which have led to an upsurge in poaching and overstretched the country's conservation programs, are likely to delay plans to incorporate its Gonarezhou National Park in the project.

In Gonarezhou and in nature conservancies nearby, fences has been vandalized or stolen. Minefields left over from Zimbabwe's war of independence also remain a problem. Mugabe said in a speech Tuesday that the army would be called in to clear minefields in Gonarezhou, which means "the home of the elephant."

Much of the funding for the park, which will be about the size of Israel, has come from the World Bank and German government.

Although the area is famed for the "Big Five" -- the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo -- the Kruger Park also hosts 147 species of mammals, 505 species of birds, 116 species of reptiles, 34 species of frogs and at least 2,000 species of plants.

It is hoped that the nature reserves in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which are much wilder than the Kruger, may host additional species. Experts say the increasing range opportunities provided by a bigger park would help conservation of threatened animals like the endangered wild dog. It would also ease pressure on the Kruger posed by the booming elephant population, which has revived a debate on whether the mighty beast should be culled.

Park proponents hope it will serve as a model for 21 other parks planned across Africa. A transfrontier park linking the Kalahari across the borders of South Africa and Botswana already exists.

Mbeki noted that it will fit into larger tourism development plans.

"I have no doubt that the easy access facilities and open spaces within the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which has been branded as the world's largest animal kingdom, will be a major attraction before, during and after the 2010 FIFA World Cup," Mbeki said.

"We must surely redouble our efforts to ensure that this unique and rich tapestry of life on our planet is turned into a jewel of the tourism market."

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