Are Transfrontier Conservation Areas the Saviours of Africa's Wildlife?

By John Murphy
Last updated 3 Apr 2010

The ubiquitous traditional African guitar plays a soothing lilt as a smooth, rich baritone lament echoes across romantic images of the great African veld. The setting sun baths a herd of elephants in a golden glow as they make their way gracefully across the horizon. A narration that brings to mind the solemn, intoned voice of Orson Welles calls upon us to search within our souls and dare to... 

“...dream of ancient migration trails trodden deep by an instinct that time has never contained. Dream of a wilderness where the elephant roams and the roar of the lion shatters the night. Dream, like us, of experiencing Africa wild and free, where people can reap the benefits of nature and in turn support her”

This romantic, life affirming imagery that would create a gentle, heart warming stir in even the coldest soul is the image of transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) that the Peace Parks Foundation, one of the leading proponents of the concept, wants to deliver to the environmentally conscious corporation (and other potential sponsors). A concept based on restoring an African ecosystem freed from the artificial constraints imposed on nature by humanity where great herds of wild game can roam free. Furthermore, the people of Africa can reunite with fellow tribes’ people from whom they have been separated for generations. Indeed, for advocates of TFCAs or “Peace Parks” the concept represents an opportunity to holistically manage the multifarious ills that plague the African environment as well as offering a solution to the ongoing economic malaise of rural African society. 

On the face of it there seems to be a strong logic behind the idea of TFCAs. Afterall, many of the challenges faced by conservationists working in Africa, and elsewhere, are spatial in nature. Large animals, one can imagine, need large spaces in which to live and roam. For how can the vast migrating herds of the African plain and the array of carnivores that depend on them for sustenance thrive as nature intended when they are constrained by human-made barriers? 

And why stop at promoting benefits solely for wildlife? Do Africa’s people not need to benefit from new ideas and opportunities also? Well, the potential benefits of TFCAs, it is argued, are not limited to the charismatic mega-fauna of the African plain. No, TFCAs create an opportunity to overcome artificial political barriers as well as ecological ones to allow rural African communities to maximise the revenue potential of wildlife tourism bringing new hope to communities that have been ravaged by poverty. 

The boldest claims of support for TFCAs have even gone as far to suggest that they offer a realistic chance for African nations, long divided by cross-border conflict, to overcome political and economic differences and unite in a celebration of the continents ecological wonder. 

As Nelson Mandela, the great Madiba, proclaimed upon the initiation of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area: 

"I know of no political movement, no philosophy, no ideology, which does not agree with the peace parks concept as we see it going into fruition today. It is a concept that can be embraced by all."

However, as with most initiatives that have emerged in the world of biological conservation TFCAs have come in for some strong criticism. Critics drawn from both natural and social science backgrounds have identified what they perceive as being serious flaws in the TFCA blueprint.

Natural scientists have pointed out that while opening the borders of national parks allows for greater migration of wildlife, it also increases the potential for pathogens to be spread between populations that were previously living in effectively quarantined environments. Agricultural agencies have also pointed to the fact that the risk of disease transmission is not limited to wildlife but also has the potential to affect livestock thereby posing a significant risk to rural livelihoods. In addition to these possible negative impacts social scientists have identified issues relating to land ownership and access rights as governments eager to exploit the revenue potential of TFCAs may be tempted to re-designate communal land as protected habitat to be set aside for the sole exploitation of the wildlife tourist industry. 

Over the following paragraphs this article will seek to act as an introduction to the debate surrounding TFCAs and explore the arguments that lay out both the pros and cons of the concept. First, however, we shall briefly examine the basic fundamentals and history of TFCAs. 

Cape to Cairo: Bioregionalism and the Origins of TFCAs

William Wolmer of the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies traces the theoretical roots of TFCAs back to what has become known as the “bioregionalist” movement that first came to prominence through the environmental pressure groups of the United States during the 1970s. The premise of bioregionalism is that the natural environment needs to be understood from the perspective of the natural contours of the earth, its rivers and streams, mountains and lakes, the movement of its wildlife and not from the perspective of humanity who imposes artificial barriers that disrupt the natural flows of life on earth. Thus we have the concept of bioregions, vast areas of land and water linked by nature and not humanity. 

This concept of bioregions ties in nicely with contemporary concerns in conservationism regarding the limits of traditional protected areas such as national parks to offer long term, sustainable protection for the earth’s wildlife. Take, for example, concerns relating to the long term viability of the African lion (Panthera leo). Studies of South Africa’s lions raise the concern that despite there being relatively large numbers of the species they exist in isolated pockets with little or no opportunity of moving out of or across what is in effect an archipelago of protected areas consisting of national parks and private reserves. This has raised concerns over inbreeding and the subsequent problems that arise in lion populations. The lions of Hluhluwe-Imfolozi provide a case in point where the population’s isolation has been implicated in high morbidity levels bringing the long term viability of the population into question. 

According to bioregionalist thinking, if these isolated lion populations were allowed to roam freely from reserve to reserve the overall health and long term future of the species would improve exponentially as problems relating to inbreeding and natural gene flow would diminish. 

As well as appealing to natural scientists as a means to address  issues of viable wildlife populations the bioregionalist ideology also strikes at the heart of a romantic pan-Africanist image of the continent that dates back to early European settlers' vision of Africa as one vast edenic wilderness. Such views of Africa have led to conservationists such as the South African Novel de Villiers to call for all Africa’s national parks to be united into one expansive undisturbed ecosystem that should stretch from Cape to Cairo.

Such ideas and concepts garnered support internationally in the post-cold war era of the early 1990s. As political barriers across the world appeared to fall a new consensus emerged from international conferences such as the 1992 “Earth Summit” in Rio highlighting the need to address environmental degradation as a global issue that required holistic management. 

Today such grand plans and initiatives may seem less likely to be realised anytime soon, particularly following the disappointing outcome from the recent climate change conference held in Copenhagen. However, regardless of this stagnation in delivering a united international consensus on how to address the threats to the world’s biodiversity the African continent has witnessed a fairly rapid adoption of the TFCA concept with an increasing number of national governments taking a lead in announcing plans for the linking of protected areas across the continent. 

TFCAs in Practice

The numerous stakeholders involved in TFCA implementation go to great pains to sub-categorise the initiatives in which they are involved. Simon Metcalfe, who has been involved in many high profile conservation programmes in southern Africa, has identified several different categorisations of TFCAs including the  monikers Transboundary Parks, Transboundary Conservation Areas, Transboundary Natural Resource Management Areas, Peace Parks, and of course, Transfrontier Conservation Areas. 

This is necessary, we are told, due to the subtle differences relating to the implementation of the bioregionalist philosophy. Transboundary Parks are strict conservation areas which share an international border and are managed by a single authority. Transboundary Conservation Areas are cross-border conservation areas with varying statuses of protection for wildlife, for example they may include strictly protected national parks being linked to private reserves or areas of communal land where the utilisation of natural resources i.e. hunting of wildlife, is permitted. Transboundary Natural Resource Management Areas refer to the situation where less institutionally formalised initiatives are in place to coordinate the management of natural resources. Thus we may see authorities or other non-government organisations (NGOs) involved in resource management agreeing to a set of conditions for the use of natural habitat in order to maintain ecological continuity across regional or national borders. 

However, as William Wolmer points out, we are basically talking about situations were conservation initiatives have been put in place with the deliberate intention of  having conservation areas straddle national borders and/or creating adjoining conservation areas  via “wildlife corridors” an example of which is the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Here plans are afoot to establish an expanded conservation area by linking the reserves found along the north-eastern border of South Africa including Tembe Elephant Park and Ndumo Game Reserve and removing the physical boundaries between these protected areas and Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique. The TFCA will also seek to establish an unbroken link between these areas and Usuthu in Swaziland forming a conservation area that straddles three national boundaries as well as linking previously separated conservation areas within South Africa.  

To date the Peace Parks foundation identifies 12 TFCAs either established or in an advanced stage of planning across southern Africa with conservation areas crossing the national boundaries of 10 countries. 

TFCAs: Ecological Restoration or Purveying Pathogens?

As alluded to earlier, from an ecological perspective the generation of TFCAs would seem to make a genuine contribution to the desired goal of conserving threatened wildlife populations and natural habitat. Issues such as inbreeding depression and stochastic disease events, such as experienced within the lion population of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater, place significant pressures on wildlife. By removing the barriers that restrain the free movement of wildlife, TFCAs, it is argued, create the opportunity for increased gene flow between species and decrease the need for direct human intervention in managing wildlife populations. In the case of large herbivores such as the African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) removing restrictions to their migration allows for the release of pressure from over-grazing on their habitat possibly reducing the need to consider culling as a population management tool. This has been a significant consideration in both the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area and Lebombo where growing elephant populations have had a serious impact on vegetation, an impact one must acknowledge, that is not sustainable in the long term. 

However, while TFCAs can have ecological benefits they may also be susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. By opening up conservation areas for the movement of wildlife one also potentially opens up the opportunity for the parasitic organisms that live on wildlife to spread to neighbouring wildlife populations that may be immunologically naïve. The threat from pathogens not only depends on wildlife acting as a vector but also comes from potentially increased exposure of wildlife to domestic or feral animals such as dogs (Canis familiaris) that are commonly found living in and around communities who reside in areas adjacent to protected areas. 

A study conducted by Melody Roelke-Parker of the Serengeti Wildlife Research Institute investigating the serious outbreak of canine distemper-like disease among the Serengeti lions during the 1990s identified dogs from communities bordering the national park as the most likely source of the epidemic. Roelke-Parker and her colleagues suspected that the disease was transmitted to lions from dogs via Hyena (Crocuta crocuta) that travelled in and out of the park or/and by nomadic lions. Furthermore, studies conducted in Gokwe Communal Land bordering the Sengwa Wildlife Research Area in north-western Zimbabwe have also raised concerns over the potential of dogs to act as vectors of disease, notably rabies, amongst the areas wild carnivores. Thus we can observe that there is some basis to the argument that by expanding protected areas via “wildlife corridors”, that transect land inhabited and farmed by communities, migrating wildlife may well be exposed to pathogens that are then transferred from protected area to protected area. 

In addition to the threat posed by possible increased contact with domestic animals the opening up of migration routes for wildlife, if not managed properly, may also have implications for disease dynamics amongst previously isolated populations. Studies conducted into the epidemiology of lion lentivirus infection in the Kruger National Park (KNP) have suggested that the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area raises the possibility of genetic exchange not only between lions but also between the various strains of feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) found in the regions' lions. FIV causes AIDS like disease in lions and genetic exchange between the numerous sub-strains found in lions across the KNP and those found in Zimbabwe and Mozambique could, it is feared, potentially impact negatively on the health of the TFCAs lion population. 

Concerns over increased disease transmission relating from the opening up of conservation areas is not restricted to impacts on wildlife. Rural communities who in many cases depend on the farming of livestock may also have their livelihoods threatened as a result of their cattle being exposed to diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) which is endemic in many of southern Africa’s buffalo populations as well as being present in other mammals. Concerns over the transfer of TB to domestic cattle have led to Zimbabwean authorities’ reluctance to remove the fence that restricts the migration of wildlife between South Africa's Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou National Park. It should be noted that TB not only threatens the health of livestock but can also impact directly on the health of humans who consume significant amounts of dairy products infected by Mycobacterium bovis, the pathogen responsible for bovine TB, especially if they are already immuno-compromised by HIV infection. 

The potential of unforeseen consequences arising from the implementation of TFCAs on the livelihoods of rural communities is of great significance as one of TFCAs main selling points is their potential to promote rural economic development. However, social scientists and community rights activists have raised further doubts over the impacts of TFCAs on the welfare of rural communities particularly in relation to land rights and access to natural resources.

TFCAs: Dropping Fences or Expanding Exclusion

One of the main selling points for TFCAs has been the opportunities for economic growth and general improvements in living standards that they offer. This perspective is based on the popular idea that rural economies can thrive in a sustainable manner by utilising the income generating potential of wildlife. However, while wildlife tourism certainly supports economic growth across several southern African countries on a national basis the evidence for claiming it directly benefits rural communities’ livelihoods is less certain.  

Despite great efforts across many countries and over two decades of programmes promoting community initiatives in wildlife management there has yet to be a model derived that has fully achieved its target of ensuring sustained, equitable development amongst communities residing in or around conservation areas. Issues relating to a lack of rights over land including conflict between wildlife authorities and communities over access rights to natural resources, coupled with the capture of tourism revenues by large outside  companies and state authorities have all impacted on efforts to promote conservation as a realistic livelihood option for ordinary African people. Where communities have been encouraged to take a greater role in exploiting the economic potential of wildlife tourism there has, too often, been insufficient support in terms of capacity building for rural communities. For example, high illiteracy rates are still persistent in many rural areas which means that community members often lack the basic capacity to gain the skills necessary to participate fully within the tourist sector apart from taking up menial roles as porters or cleaners.

Promises that TFCAs represent a new era in natural resource management that can overcome the social problems that beset previous conservation initiatives have also been shown to be questionable. For example, in stark contrast to the promotional material advocating TFCAs as providing communities with new opportunities to benefit from conservation, free from old state enforced boundaries, the creation of the Greater Limpopo Conservation Area has actually resulted in efforts to remove residents in the Sengwe area in order to create a contiguous park boundary. The Makuleke people have also had to engage in a protracted struggle with authorities in order to secure access rights to ancestral land in the KNP. Furthermore, in a somewhat ironic fashion South African state authorities have insisted that as a prerequisite for the removal of the boundary fence between KNP and Mozambique the Parque Nacional do Limpopo must be fenced in order to restrict illegal immigration from Mozambique into South Africa. Mozambique does not have a tradition of fencing off protected areas and this development has unsurprisingly raised tensions between communities and conservation authorities. 

Very significantly, on a continent where high tensions still persist in relation to land ownership the promotion of tourism as a fundamental part of TFCAs represents a very different use of natural resources from traditional activities such as pastoralism and subsistence agriculture. As such, tourism remains embedded in the minds of many rural dwellers as being inherently linked with the control of land by colonial authorities. Something that has not been helped by years of fortress conservation policies which are commonly viewed as having dispossessed indigenous African populations of their land for the benefit of colonial settler communities and overseas travellers.

Overall, the evidence suggests that TFCAs may be just as susceptible to failing to deliver the economic and social benefits to rural communities as other joint development/conservation initiatives. In a desire to promote a message of ecological unity it seems that the proponents of TFCAs may be too eager to oversimplify the social dynamics of rural communities presenting these people as a homogenous African tribe to potential international sponsors rather than recognising the huge ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity found across the continent. By greatly emphasising the role of wildlife tourism as the sole basis for rural development, TFCA proponents are also exposing rural communities to significant long term risks, as tourist revenues cannot be guaranteed. Local factors such as political unrest as well as international issues such as the current global economic recession can all impact dramatically on tourist numbers leaving communities exposed to sudden and prolonged financial hardship. As evidence from countries such as Kenya suggests, if the economic rewards of wildlife tourism are over-played and then subsequently fail to materialise angry rural residents are often tempted to exact revenge on those who made the initial promises of economic prosperity through the retaliatory killing of wildlife. 

Devil in the Detail

When one is first presented with the case for transfrontier conservation areas it would be hard to argue against what seems like an ideal solution to Africa’s conservation ills. The removal of artificial, human constructed borders, communities working with wildlife authorities, economic prosperity, what is there to object to?

However, as with most ideas that seem too good to be true the devil, as they say, is in the detail. Although the political barriers of contemporary Africa result from the legacy of colonial rule removing or altering them is no simple task. Land ownership and access rights remain an unresolved and highly contentious issue across many parts of Africa. Re-designating land for wildlife conservation requires prolonged engagement between stakeholders and is a process that must be handled with sensitivity to local perceptions of land use and wildlife. 

From an ecological perspective re-unifying previously separated wildlife populations can have negative as well as positive outcomes particularly in relation to disease transmission. The interaction between wildlife, humans, and the environment is a complex process that requires careful management. Although the threat of some microbial diseases such as rinderpest has receded in recent times there remain many other pathogens whose complex interaction with wildlife must be considered in TFCA implementation. 

The coordinated management of natural resources across both physical and institutional boundaries is potentially a very significant development in the conservation of Africa’s biodiversity. However, it is a complex process that requires huge investments of financial and social capital. It seems unlikely that simply declaring borders open for the movement of wildlife and inviting in the tourist industry will, in itself, achieve anything unless the inclusion of measures to address the myriad consequences of undertaking such action also forms a core element of TFCA implementation. 


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Information relating to the Peace Parks Foundation, including the statements and promotional material quoted in this article, can be viewed at their website, while promotional videos are also available here.