Peace Parks: saving the wilderness

A uniquely Stellenbosch organisation; one that, for more than 20 years, has quietly gone about its business of fostering co-operation and collaboration in the name of conserving southern Africa’s wild spaces. That organisation is Peace Parks Foundation, based in the Techno Park on the outskirts of Stellenbosch.

You don’t need to be a local to realise that Stellenbosch is a long way from the wide expanse of the Kavango River, where a conservation area the size of France ensures a future for the area’s rich wildlife. Down here we have iridescent green vineyards, not the waving grasslands and elephant herds of the Maputo Special Reserve. And while there’s no shortage of suitably free-range cattle in our local pastures, they’re certainly not the wild buffalo recently reintroduced to the Simalaha Community Conservancy in southern Zambia. 

Yet, none of these conservation successes could have happened without the involvement of Peace Parks Foundation.

Peace Parks Foundation helps communities in conservation areas grow cash crops.

The roots of the foundation stretch back to 1990, when businessman Dr Anton Rupert – then the president of WWF South Africa (formerly the Southern African Nature Foundation) – met Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano to discuss consolidating the protected wilderness areas across the two countries’ borders. It was a brave move at a time when political tensions were still running high, four years before the advent of democracy in South Africa. 

Over the next seven years, earnest discussions led to the formal launch, on 1 February 1997, of Peace Parks Foundation by His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, President Nelson Mandela and Dr Anton Rupert. Its goal was simple: to facilitate the establishment of ‘peace parks’, or transfrontier conservation areas (TFCA), across southern Africa.

Unlike the work of conservation organisations already active in many southern African countries, the foundation would work specifically towards cross-border co-operation. “Nature knows no borders,” explains Kathy Bergs, Peace Parks Foundation’s chief development officer. “Ecosystems and migration routes don’t recognise borders. The foundation was never going to operate in competi­tion with in-country organisations, but was intended to be complementary to their work.” 

Today, that simple goal has expanded into conservation work in 10 of the 18 peace parks – separated into Formalised, Emerging and Conceptual – that stretch as far north as the Republic of Congo and Rwanda. 

With poaching and the illegal wildlife trade threatening species from rhino to pangolin, the need for cross-border co-operation in conservation has never been more crucial. “Poachers don’t worry about crossing boundaries but law enforcement has to stop at the border during a chase. How does that help? But if you can radio colleagues in the neighbouring country for assistance, you’re making an impact,” explains Kathy.

Conservation efforts are not purely strategic, but include work on the ground.

It’s also crucial for the harmonisation of conservation policies. For instance, rivers are often used as national boundaries, a shared resource between two countries that requires a cohesive management approach. 

Peace Parks Foundation occupies an unusual space in the conservation landscape. It is not a landowner safeguarding a specific site, nor a governmental conservation agency. Rather, its true skill lies in its ability to forge partnerships, whether it is bringing political leaders to the negotiating table, collaborating with like-minded organisations or facilitating global funding for conservation projects on the ground. 

It has also proven adept at encouraging international donors to support its cross-border conservation work. Today, the biggest supporter of transfrontier conservation in southern Africa is the German government through its development bank, KfW, along with others such as the World Bank, USAID, and the Dutch and Swedish Postcode Lotteries. Private foundations and trusts also provide enormous support for both the foundation’s 150 full-time employees and its partner organisations on the ground.

Over the years the foundation’s focus has broadened to encompass more work at the coalface of conservation. “We soon realised that if the transfrontier parks are going to work, all the building blocks have to be functional,” says Kathy. “So we’ve now identified areas on the ground where we can roll up our sleeves and get involved.”

It was recognised early on that building capacity on the ground was as essential as building political consensus, and the foundation has thus supported the establishment of two training colleges in South Africa. While one caters for training field rangers and frontline conservation workers, the other is a tourism college focused on hospitality training and development.

Some of the conservation areas are breathtaking in their scope and ambition. Take the Kavango Zambezi (KAZA) TFCA, the world’s largest terrestrial transfrontier conservation area. Roughly the size of France, KAZA stretches across five countries and incorporates two of Africa’s great rivers. The emerging Niassa-Selous TFCA aims to connect vast swathes of Tanzania and Mozambique, while the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park preserves 35 551km² of desert landscapes across South Africa and Botswana. 

It all began here, with the formal launch of the Peace Parks Foundation on 1 February 1997 by President Nelson Mandela, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Dr Anton Rupert.

There’s an important distinction to be made between transfrontier parks and transfrontier conservation areas, where the land use can range from proclaimed national park to communal land, private concessions and towns. In these areas, much of the foundation’s work focuses on managing the diverse needs of conservation and communities.

While returning wildlife to the land and developing ecotourism is a viable long-term strategy, in the short term, food security is the most pressing need for many communities. “If communities are starving, you can’t tell them not to fish or not to catch bush meat. So you have to give them a viable alternative,” says Kathy. “And if we want to reconnect fragmented landscapes, we have to mitigate human–wildlife conflict.” 

Part of the solution is forging partnerships with like-minded conservation and community organisations that have specialist skills. These include the likes of Herding for Health, a programme developed in partnership with Conservation International, which, recognising that livestock is a vital cultural commodity in Africa, works to ensure that domestic herds are well managed in aspects ranging from the animals’ health to sustainable grazing strategies.

Other like-minded organisations are working on coupling community agriculture with access to commercial markets. Meat Natu­rally, for example, provides a mobile abattoir service, with the cost absorbed by charging a premium to clients.

“We’ve realised we have to look at every conservation project through a business lens,” Kathy says. “In many instances, ecotourism can be the main revenue driver, but that’s not always the case and not always the only avenue. We’re also looking at things like cash crops, carbon credits and helping communities increase revenue from sustainable fishing.”

Whether it’s training frontline rangers or fostering community buy-in, the long-term goal for the foundation is to eventually cut the apron strings, to step away and leave behind effective conservation organisations and community projects that are self-sustaining.

“Ultimately, these are not our parks; they’re not our conservancies,” explains Kathy. “Our work is about empowering a new generation of conservation leaders.” 

The continent’s natural riches may be its biggest asset. The foundation labours to leverage this to the benefit of communities.

Explore the parks

Fostering ecotourism is one of the key pillars of conservation in southern Africa. The transfrontier conservation areas established by Peace Parks Foundation offer various ways to find adventure in the great outdoors. They include:

Richtersveld Transfrontier WildRun  

A 200km, five-day foot race from South Africa to Namibia through the arid landscapes of the |Ai|Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park. The race, dubbed the Namibia Crossing, begins in the crystal fields of Sendelingsdrif and tackles the giant boulders of Tatasberg in the transfrontier park before crossing the Orange River into Namibia and ending at the Fish River Canyon. 

20–26 June 2021 – www.wildrun.com

Nedbank Tour de Tuli

Limited to just 350 entrants, this memorable mountain-bike race through the Greater Mapungubwe TFCA follows unforgettable singletrack and ancient elephant migration routes through three countries. Over the four-day event, cyclists ride in Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, traversing unfenced wilderness areas in the company of trained wildlife guides. Proceeds from the race benefit the non-profit organisation Children in the Wilderness.

21–26 July 2020 – tourdetuli.com

Great Limpopo Cross-border 4×4 trails

A network of rugged 4×4 trails traverses the Great Limpopo TFCA, allowing bush lovers unrivalled access to three remarkable national parks. Both guided and self-guided trails are available, with a range of routes and durations on offer. 


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