Poaching prompts a review of Africa’s transfrontier parks

The debate around whether fences aid or curb poaching continues while units try hunt poachers. John Hrusa/EPA

Poaching has been at the forefront of conservation concerns in recent years. One initiative to try and deal with the scourge in southern Africa has been to manage natural resources collaboratively through the creation of transfrontier parks.

First mooted nearly two decades ago, three transnational parks have been created between South Africa and its neighbours. To create the parks, countries committed to taking down fences that previously marked national boundaries. Not all have done this.

But an escalation in poaching over recent years has led to transfrontier parks being questioned.

The rise in poaching is most marked among rhinos. Rhino poaching is of particular concern because of the perceived medicinal and status value of horns in the eastern market. There are only about 4 800 black rhinos left in the wild, down from 16 000 in 1970. Poaching is particularly rife in South Africa especially with black rhino as they’re endangered.

Dropping fences provides easy access

The benefit of Transfrontier Conservation Areas is that fences which have been put up for political purposes - that is to mark national boundaries - can be removed for the benefit of wild animals. On the downside, removing fences potentially provides easy access for poachers. Some argue this to be the case at the eastern border of the Kruger National Park. This is where the Limpopo National Park and Mozambique meet the Kruger Park.

But can transfrontier parks be blamed for the exponential rise in poaching? The answer is probably not. The main reason for this is that the fence between Mozambique and South Africa has remained largely intact. When the Great Limpopo National Park comprising South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe was declared in 2002, the fence between the Kruger Park and the Limpopo Park was partially cut down.

But the free movement of animals never materialised. This is party due to the movement patterns of some animals. Some stay in the Kruger area as the habitat is more favourable for them. Animals like the Kudu for example have the ability to jump the fences erected. In fact, a large part of the eastern fence remains intact and has been re-erected recently because of anti-poaching efforts.

The people matter

Are there steps that can be taken to make transfrontier parks more effective?

From a legal perspective, arrangements seem to be in place to fight poaching from a cooperative perspective. In 2014 a memorandum of understanding between South Africa and Mozambique was concluded to aid the fight against poaching. Also in 2014, an agreement between South Africa and Mozambique to allow hot pursuit by authorities chasing down poachers in the Limpopo Park was concluded.

But making frontier parks work in the way they were intended requires more than this. Crucially, all interested and affected parties must be engaged and involved.

The recent Southern African Development Community and Transfrontier Conservation Areas guidelines reiterate the importance of a buy-in from, and the building of legitimacy within, local communities.

Many people in communities bordering national parks live in poverty. This makes them susceptible to poach to sustain their livelihoods and also makes them ‘soft targets’ as recruits for poaching syndicates. This is important in the Limpopo park as large communities bear the consequences of the new conservation efforts because they have been relocated. This created tension as the people were disregarded for the sake of the animals. This led to people helping poachers for the sake of livelihood and income.

This created a setback in current efforts for co-operation in anti-poaching operations. Ecologist Kevan Zunckel explains:

This tension was felt acutely in the early stages of the Great Limpopo TFP where substantial political pressure was brought to bear on the process resulting in the premature implementation of a number of significant actions, such as the dropping of fences and the relocation of wildlife. While these actions may have served to secure buy-in at the political level, they may well have resulted in the loss of legitimacy at the local level.

Poaching is a complex issue and many role-players have a say in the success of anti-poaching efforts. This doesn’t mean that they actively feature in laws against poaching. All stakeholders should be involved in anti-poaching efforts. There is a need to involve the public as well in conservation efforts. Transfrontier Conservation Areas cannot be blamed for the exponential rise in poaching. Fences in reserves as vast as the Limpopo Park, are unlikely to keep potential poachers out.

Education, consulting and engaging with local communities and teaching them of the benefits of wildlife and sharing its benefits with them can contribute to a more sustainable solution.

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