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Uniting Africa's Wildlife Reserves

The fence along the eastern side of Kruger National Park is a mighty fence indeed. Five thick cables bvlgari fake gold ring and a tough web of diamond mesh are stretched between anchor posts made of railway track rooted in concrete. There is something starkly alien about this vast man made cordon, this African Iron Curtain. Its silver spine slices in a straight line for nearly 250 miles (402 kilometers) across the bush, following an arbitrary colonial border, dividing an ecosystem, and blocking ancient game trails. But it has been the most vital weapon protecting South Africa's flagship wildlife sanctuary from the wildlife Armageddon on the other side. On the other side few birds sing. You can fly over it for hours, as I did, skimming beneath the towering cumulonimbus clouds and craning down at Coutada 16, the Mozambican wilderness area that adjoins Kruger, and see not a single animal, not a solitary game trail. Twenty years of civil war cost Mozambique perhaps a million human lives and devastated its wildlife.

Ian Whyte, Kruger's resident elephant specialist, describes the scene routinely witnessed. "Vehicles drove up and down the fence, shooting anything that moved, irrespective of size or sex or species. AK 47s were common, so any impala, kudu, or duiker was fair game. Even smaller animals such as genets and porcupines got shot." Park employees observed that when elephants crossed over, as is possible if a section of fence washes away along a river, they knew to come back that very same night, or they wouldn't survive.

Now, however, the South Africans have cut back on the dedicated fence repair teams who constantly patrolled the line. And since peace has returned to Mozambique, Pretoria's conservation czars are considering something that until very recently would have been labeled by many as insane: bringing down the fence altogether. If the plan succeeds, similar fences will soon be coming down all over southern Africa and beyond, to create a series of "peace parks," or transfrontier conservation areas. It is one of the most ambitious conservation moves since the creation of Africa's first game reserve, which is now Kruger National Park, a century ago. It is also a high risk, high reward proposal, the fate of which will, in large measure, determine the future of conservation in Africa all, its goal is nothing less than to change the conservation map of a continent.

The first transfrontier conservation park, launched last year, was the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which unites the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana with the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa. Such a union presents few problems two parks were separated only by an unfenced dry riverbed. A joint management plan has been devised to run the area as a single ecological unit, and tourists who enter one park may now pass freely into the other and back again, thus increasing traffic and revenue to both. In many ways this unification is a no brainer.

Other transfrontier areas are more complex and ambitious. What they attempt to do, as explained in a groundbreaking report by the World Bank in 1996, is to bring conservation to the people. The aim is to show the local communities living alongside traditional game reserves that money can be made from wildlife, and in so doing to undercut the resentment felt by many of these people at being prevented from farming the land. South Africa's Nelson Mandela explained it to me thus: "If the government unilaterally decides to establish transfrontier parks without consulting the community, then the community will not cooperate."

Three pilot transfrontier areas have been put on the fast track: The first, and in size the most ambitious, is Gaza Kruger Gonarezhou. This will join Kruger to Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe and Coutada 16, a huge chunk of state owned land in Mozambique's Gaza Province, to create one superpark. In time this would form the core of a mixed use conservation area covering 60,000 square miles (159,399 square kilometers), a swath of land the size of Florida.

The second pilot project is Chimanimani, which will join a mountainous reserve in eastern Zimbabwe with the rest of the Chimanimani range in Mozambique, including the forests of the foothills.

The third, Lubombo, aims to unify two existing South African parks, Tembe and Ndumo, with Maputo Elephant Reserve in southern Mozambique and ultimately with Hlane Royal National Park and two adjacent nature reserves in Swaziland. The Lubombo units are not your typical African game reserves; they consist of floodplains and sand forests with dense foliage that can make for inconvenient game spotting. It's so thick that local people call one section Mahemane? conveys the sense of "where are we?" But it has other compensations, principal among them its great variety of bird and amphibian life. The area, in fact, is one of the most extraordinary centers of biodiversity in the world.

From the teak deck of the Ndumo Wilderness Camp, I watch a patrol of four hippos snort like riverine horses up the Banzi pan and past a grove of fever trees whose peeling trunks glow luminously green in the dying rays of the day. The low unmistakable profile of a crocodile snout breaks the water, and the air is thick with the mating calls of frogs: foam nest frogs, waterlily frogs, and banded rubber frogs. Bubbling kassinas. Greater leaf folding frogs and tropical platannas. Snoring puddle frogs and bushveld rain frogs and tremolo sand frogs. Together they produce an ear ringing chorus to the gathering night.

My guide here is Clive Poultney. With a shaved head and full beard and gold rings in his ears, he strides around in a kikoyi, a bright cloth wrap knotted at his waist, and an epauletted khaki shirt. It's a juxtaposition that accurately reflects his personality. He's been working here for 22 years, as an anthropologist, a trader, a development consultant, and a negotiator. After national service in the South African Army, Poultney was recruited in the field by the African National Congress's (ANC's) armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Spear of the Nation, where he perfected his fluent Zulu. He also leads cultural tours, introducing visitors to the mysterious world of the rural izangoma, traditional healers, who historically have been great defenders of the environment.

Today all is not well with Clive, however. He is stumbling with malaria. Beads of sweat chase each other down the brown dome of his lightly stubbled head. Every few hours he swallows a few quinine pills and declares himself, "Better, thank you. Much better." It has been a bad year for malaria up here. And cholera. The front pages of the Johannesburg newspapers have been dominated by headlines of the cholera outbreak, calling it "the worst in living memory," scaring the tourists and somewhat muting my enthusiasm for this expedition. I have armed myself with broad spectrum antibiotics, and I'm popping an antimalarial prophylactic called Larium, which has a list of possible side effects a foot long, among them "psychotic episodes."

I fall asleep in my cabin under a slapping fan, to be woken before dawn by a couple of warthogs feuding noisily among the cabin stilts, squealing and grunting, until one of the warthogs butts a stilt, and the whole structure shivers with the force of it.

The dawn sun is a raw egg yolk, bulging fat upon the horizon over the reeds by the time the frogs' nocturnal cacophony is replaced by the raucous chorus of birds: goldenrumped tinker barbets, Burchell's coucals, Klaas's cuckoos, spotted dikkops, purplecrested louries, and tambourine doves.

This reserve is packed with nyalas, sunis, red duikers, and, blocking our way this morning, two of the biggest giraffes I have ever seen. They peer down at our Land Rover from their lofty elevation and continue browsing, unmoved. It is 15 minutes before they deign to shift. Around the next bend a barrel bodied white rhino cow heaves into view, a little armored calf skittering at her feet. In spite of its name the white rhino is in fact a dark gray.

The white of its name is a corruption of the Afrikaans for "wide," so called mens fake bvlgari ring because it has a wide mouth, unlike the black rhino, which isn't really black at all and has a narrow pointed mouth, almost like a beak. The mother swings the scimitar of her horn at us, then turns and canters off stiff legged down the road with her puppy hoofed calf, until the bush thins enough for them to take a side path.

All that separates Ndumo from neighboring Tembe reserve is the Mbangweni Corridor, a sliver of land barely three miles wide. But, as Clive explains, years of efforts to close the gap have failed. This area is home to the Thonga people, who have long been traders and can make far more money using the corridor as a transborder smuggling route than they will likely see from any conservation spin offs.

We drive north along a sand track dimpled by the hooves of cattle until we reach the fence marking the Mozambique border. Once this was a highly sensitive frontier, and you can still see the remnants of the sisal lanes planted by the old South African Army in the hope that the spiky interlocking leaves would form an impenetrable barrier against armed guerrillas seeking to topple white South Africa. Clive promises me that "most" of the antipersonnel mines laid by the army have been lifted. But then he does have malaria. And he admits that occasionally local people are blown up, mostly when they till new land or after heavy rain.

There is a constant passage of pedestrians across the border. Lefe Mthethwa, barefoot and ragged, is crossing south, ducking under the fence with a basket of tilapia fish to sell at market in South Africa, where she will buy sugar and cooking oil. Mthethwa admits that not all the contraband that makes this journey is quite so benign. "They sell guns too," she says. "At night bulgari diamond fake ring when we are asleep, they bring them across."

Trudging north a couple of miles into Mozambique through the soggy heat, we find a welcome path side tavern with a gas powered fridge serving South African Lion lager in quart bottles. Sophia Tembe and her husband, William, are also resting up, on their way to visit a clinic on the South African side. "We lived in South Africa during the war," William Tembe explains, "but we moved back to Mozambique to farm when peace came."

The medieval Portuguese navigators who sailed this coast called it Terra dos Fumos, Land of Smoke caused by Thonga slash and burn agriculture, a land hungry method still widely practiced in southern Mozambique by Tembe and his fellow farmers.

William Tembe hasn't even heard about the plans to establish a conservation area here, but when I explain, he is distinctly lukewarm. "It's always the same. They say to us, 'You must share the land with wild animals,' but they end up kicking us out." His wife adds, "The wild animals destroy our crops, and they kill people. Why should we share our land with them?"

Not all the surrounding people are this hostile to wildlife. In fact, two local communities on the South African side are in the process of trying to turn over large chunks of their own territory to conservation.

Herman Els, an environmental anthropologist, has come down from the University of Pretoria to help get one of these projects off the ground. Els hands me the report he has just helped write on the "anthropological component" of the Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area. "The essence of this report is absolute poverty," he says bluntly. In Mozambique the average income is less than $375 a year. In the communal areas of South Africa (former apartheid homelands that make up 14 percent of the country and on which half of the population still lives) it's still under $750.

Zeblon Gumede is chairman of the Manqa kulani Development Committee, which is meeting with Els today to talk about dedicating 10,000 acres (4,047 hectares) of their communal land to ecotourism. "The objective," Gumede tells me on the veranda of the Tembe Elephant Park office, "is to set aside an area for wildlife tourism, which could generate jobs and money. From the outside we see the tourists coming to this park and spending money we asked ourselves how we could get them to come and visit us too." One of the sea changes in rural Africa today is the growing unpopularity of the traditional agrarian lifestyle. "These days the youngsters don't want to farm," says Gumede. "They want better jobs."

When the Tembe Elephant Park was proclaimed in 1983, local communities insisted that it be fenced off to protect them from the ravages of elephants. But the northern border with Mozambique was left open to allow the historic movement of the herds up and down the nutrient rich Futi corridor, which stretches 25 miles (40 kilometers) to the Maputo Elephant Reserve. What had been a single elephant population was thus split in two. Those animals that happened to be inside Tembe, 104 of them, remained there.

Ferdie Myberg, who is in charge of the park's antipoaching operations, is proud to tell me they haven't lost a single elephant to poaching since then. He uses a metal detector to scan the carcasses of elephants when they die, just to be sure. Many of the animals were refugees from the slaughter in Mozambique, and they bear the scars to prove it. Inside one bull elephant, which eventually died of old age, Myberg dug out no fewer than 31 bullets.

Since Tembe's enclosure, its resident population has grown to more than 130, too many for the small park to sustain without major damage to its flora, including the rare sand forests. And as Wayne Matthews, Tembe's ecologist, who can often be spotted riding his bicycle around the park, explained, the population is age and gender skewed, with bulls making up about 70 percent, instead of the usual 15 percent or so. This disparity distorts elephant behavior by increasing tensions among bulls. It also increases pressure on the vegetation, since bulls are more destructive foragers. If Tembe's northern border was reopened, this would allow the elephants to mingle freely with the 300 elephants based in the Maputo Elephant Reserve, fewer than 60 of which are bulls.

I leave Tembe and follow the paved road northeast until it comes to an abrupt halt at the Mozambique border, where we put the vehicle into four wheel drive. It pitches and yaws, churning through the scorching beach sand track up the coast. Hard to believe that this country once attracted nearly as many visitors as Zimbabwe and South Africa combined. Hard to believe, not because of a lack of beauty Indian Ocean beaches here are world beaters because the towns and villages are ruins of their former selves.

Ponta do Ouro (Point of Gold), the southernmost town, is once again hosting visitors, but this species of holidaymaker spends little money. An entirely self sufficient community of vacationing Afrikaans farmers has taken over a rudimentary campsite. They have brought with them boats, bvlgari zero1 fake ring generators, fuel, army tents, food, water, beer, fridges, servants, even their own wooden dance floor for a New Year's bash. Their SUVs have scoured blond scars into the nearby hills, which they scale daily to pick up the cell phone signal from across the border.

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