Skip to main content

Nature conservation ­without borders

With the KAZA project in southern Africa, Germany is helping to create the world’s largest conservation area.

© picture-alliance/dpa

The men from Germany kneel on the dusty mud floor, clap their hands and humbly bow their 
heads – just as protocol demands. It is already the second time they have visited His Majesty Inyambo Yeta, Senior Chief of the Lozi people in Zambia. They hope he will give them a little of his time, at least 
a few minutes. Philipp Göltenboth and Ralph Kadel have come to Africa with a vision that is worth kneeling for: nothing less than the world’s largest conservation area. Projected to span the borders of five southern African countries and cover an area of more than 440,000 square kilo­metres, the project is being largely funded by the German government. Following its launch in early 2012, financial support had to be coordinated, local authorities and tribal chiefs had to be won over – that’s why Göltenboth and Kadel have made the trip to southern Africa as project leaders for the World Wide Fund 
for Nature (WWF) and Germany’s KfW Development Bank.

The WWF is contributing an annual two million euros to the conservation project and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Berlin has so far pledged a further 20 million euros. Since February 2011, the funds have been flowing via the KfW to the KAZA Secretariat in Botswana – KAZA stands for 
Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, the park’s official name. It’s all about biodiversity, of course, but also about increasing prosperity for the people who live in the region. The park will cross the borders dividing Zambia, Botswana and Namibia and large sections of it will 
be in Zimbabwe and civil-war-scarred 
Angola. There are easier places on earth to build a conservation area of this size.

“It will only work if we get the local people on board,” says Kadel, dusting off his trousers in the ceremonial chamber adjoining Yeta’s palace. He is referring to the tribal chiefs, but also to the region’s farmers. Involving the local population in nature conservation is not yet a widespread practice in Africa. Under old colonial laws, the land belongs to the state; leaseholding is the only option available to the rural population. The beneficiaries are the local authorities and foreign investors. Safari tourism and mining are where the money lies. The local people see practically nothing of the profits and are often forced to poach in order to survive. The advent of the new park is meant to change all this.

It is to promote this goal that Göltenboth and Kadel have come to Yeta’s palace, a brick building surrounded by a tropical garden. The front door gives access to a vault-like space – the king’s conference room whose light blue distempered walls are hung with portraits of Zambian tribal chiefs. Before the king enters, the men take their places around the conference table, while the women squeeze into the back rows – that’s how tradition would have it. And that’s how Yeta would have it, too: once seated in his wing chair, he solemnly addresses his guests in a muted voice and begins to talk about the problems facing the region: “The Zambezi breaks its banks far too often, making it almost impossible to farm the land. The fields cannot feed my people. We need a way out of poverty.” That’s why he wants to designate his tribal homeland as Zambia’s first conservancy. A look of relief appears on the faces of his guests.

What the king calls a conservancy is a minor political revolution – and something the WWF in particular has been pushing for years. The idea is for villages to join together to form such self-administered conservancies. King Yeta can use the conservancy to extend his sphere of influence. And there’s money in it, too. But it would also benefit ordinary people: they would have the right to acquire property in the conservancies. Farmers could then – quite legally – exploit whatever lives or grows on their land in accordance with government-set hunting and cutting quotas. The conservancies would even be able to lease their land to tourism companies or sell licences to foreign safari operators. An example of how the scheme works is provided by Namibia, which has already introduced conservancies. Companies operating there pay between 5% and 10% of their turnover to the conservancies. This means an improvement in the latter’s economic situation: their total revenue grew from just 60,000 euros in 1998 to as much as 3.5 million euros in 2009.

One of the biggest problems facing the 
KAZA project, however, is finding ways for people and wildlife to peacefully coexist. Existing conservation areas – 36 national parks and numerous game and nature reserves – are isolated from one another, separated by densely populated areas. The map of KAZA resembles a patchwork quilt on which impoverished farmers breed cattle and often have difficulty defending their meagre crop yields against herds of elephants.

“Their numbers in particular have increased so dramatically in some parts that they cause huge damage to farmland,” says elephant expert Michael Chase who is assisting the two German conservationists. “In the 1970s, there wasn’t a single elephant in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. There are now 60,000 of them living there. That’s a lot more than the people and the vegetation can sustain. By contrast, neighbouring countries like Angola have lost a great many elephants through land mines and poaching during the civil war – they’d be happy to accept some new ones. The elephants’ redistribution would relieve the strain on some regions in the KAZA area. The park would provide the animals with a habitat corridor crossing national borders.

To get to this point, the initiators of the KAZA project still have a lot of obstacles to overcome: there are fundamental differences 
between the legal systems of the countries involved. Zambia, for example, follows traditional tribal law based on royal decrees. Angola is still struggling with the legacy of the civil war – one reason why it still fails to attach much importance to nature conservation. And then there’s Zimbabwe, a country plagued by a difficult political situation and widespread poaching. That’s why most of the projects supported by the KfW and the WWF are confined to Zambia, Namibia und Botswana. And even there the projects encountered teething troubles. In Botswana, conservancies were making too much money, too quickly, says Kadel. Revenue frequently ended up in the wrong hands. “You have to learn the hard way,” he says. In his view, there’s little point in building a ranger station in the bush unless you show people how to keep it in good repair.

Despite all the setbacks, KAZA appears to be making good progress: the park was opened in March 2012. For Göltenboth and Kadel, that is a giant step forward. The barren savannah that is home to the Lozi – whose fields are today subject to flooding by the Zambezi – could be repopulated by wildlife and attract tourists. And perhaps, the two conservationists hope, Yeta’s tribal homeland will one day be one of Zambia’s loveliest yet least spoilt tourist destinations. ▪

Kirsten Milhahn