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Cross Border Game Reserve Treaty to be Signed in Southern Africa - 2002-12-06

On Monday, leaders of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe are to sign a treaty creating the largest cross-border game reserve in the world. But there are still many details to be worked out before the park becomes fully operational. There are still thousands of people living in the Mozambican section of the reserve.

The treaty signing makes the Great Limpopo Trans-frontier Park a legal reality. But years of work lie ahead, before tourists and wild animals can begin crossing the borders freely.

The cross-border park combines South Africa's famed Kruger National Park with the Limpopo National Park of Mozambique and the Gonorezhou nature reserve in Zimbabwe. In the end, conservationists believe it will mean great things for wildlife in southern Africa. Aside from giving elephants and lions more room to roam, it could help speed the recovery of the sable and roan antelope, two severely endangered species that have nearly disappeared from Kruger.

Officials also hope the cross-border park will help the economies of Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which could benefit from some of the one million visitors who come to Kruger each year.

The first phase of integrating the parks has already begun. In the last year, officials have moved nearly 100 elephants from Kruger to the Mozambique side of the border. Other wildlife, including antelope, zebra and wildebeest, are also being moved. Some animals, such as lions, are finding their way across the border on their own, following their newly relocated prey.

Kruger National Park is already one of the largest nature reserves in the world. It contains almost two-million hectares of land, stretching along most of South Africa's border with Mozambique.

When the fence between the two countries eventually comes down entirely, Kruger's elephants, lions and wildebeest will have another one million hectares of space to roam.

Ecologically, that is important. Kruger has too many elephants, more than 10,000 of them, in a space that is really only big enough for 7,000. Conservationists say taking down the border fence will give the elephants and other animals more space to spread out, allowing them to return to their historic migration routes.

But there is a problem. There are still 20,000 to 30,000 people living on the land that has been earmarked for the Mozambican side of the park. Most of them live along the edge, in what is considered a "buffer zone" around the new park. But some 6,000 are living right in the middle of the area that Mozambique hopes will become its prime tourist attraction, the same area where elephants, lions and other wild animals are eventually to roam again.

With backing from European donors, the Mozambican government is offering to relocate anybody who wants to move out of the park. But residents can also choose to stay put.

"In principle, there is no real problem from an ecological perspective if people decide to remain in the park," said David Grossman, an ecologist working for the Mozambican park authorities. "People have been living all over southern Africa for hundreds and hundreds of years together with the wildlife. The two are not totally incompatible, it just needs management."

Nobody will be forced to leave the area, despite the introduction of the so-called "big five" game animals, lion, rhinoceros, elephant, buffalo and leopard, to the Mozambican side of the park. Residents who chose to stay will have fences surrounding their villages to keep the wild animals out. The project manager for Mozambique's Limpopo National Park, Arrie van Wyk, says the residents will be able to continue farming maize and cattle. But he says they will have to accept some restrictions.

"For example, traveling arrangements. Some of those villages are as far as 60 kilometers into the park," he said. "So, for them to get to their houses, at the moment, they either walk or ride bicycles. And that cannot be allowed in a big five park. It is just too dangerous for people to walk on foot."

As Mr. van Wyk speaks, he is standing in the Kruger park, beside a large gate in the barbed-wire fence that currently marks the border between South Africa and Mozambique. Another fence, an electrified one, stretches away from the gate into Mozambique. It runs approximately 50 kilometers east, toward the Massingir dam.

The electric fence marks the edge of a temporary sanctuary within the Limpopo National Park. It separates the people on the north side from the wild animals on the south side.

This, Mr. van Wyk says, is where the trans-frontier park will first become a reality.

"The sanctuary was built with the objective to create an area, " he said. "Separate from the people, where we can carry on with game relocation exercises, projects, without impacting on the community."

Mr. van Wyk believes it will take about five years to work out the problems surrounding the people living in the park. Those same five years will be spent improving the infrastructure, building roads, staff accommodation and offices, as well as sorting out how to handle entrance to the park, while maintaining border security. For example, officials do not want the park to become a conduit for stolen vehicles or illegal immigrants.

The ecologist, Mr. Grossman, says there has been pressure from donors and politicians to speed up the opening of the park.

"The expectation has been created that the park is imminent, that it's about to be there and we can soon start driving around and looking at animals," he said. "So again, you know, there are these various stakeholders and role-players with different agendas. And some of them are less patient with the process than others."

Mr. Grossman and Mr. van Wyk say, realistically, it could be 10 years before the park is fully operational. And that is just the Mozambican part of it, nobody is really talking yet about the section of the park located in Zimbabwe. There are other issues to deal with there, and most observers believe it will take even longer to integrate.