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Giraffes Restock Makuleke

According to an ancient Bushman legend, Giraffe was given the task of helping Sun find his way around the heavens. Giraffe took his job so seriously that the Creator rearranged a few stars in the sky to resemble a giraffe, in Giraffe’s honour. The Bushmen called the pattern Tutwa and they navigate by it. We call it the Southern Cross.

The legend sprang to mind when South African National Parks (SANParks) recently began restocking the Makuleke region of the Kruger National Park with wildlife, and started the project with giraffe.

Giraffe (and lion, rhino, wildebeest and even impala) disappeared from the area after the Makuleke community were forcibly removed from their land in 1969. This strip of land, which lies on the border between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, was used as a buffer zone by the former South African Defence Force.

In 1998 the Makulekes became the first community in post-apartheid South Africa to get their land back in a formally protected reserve. They decided not to resettle on their ancestral land, but rather to let it remain part of the Kruger Park so they could earn benefits from commercial safari operators.

In 2003 the community signed an agreement with private company Wilderness Safaris to develop a series of lodges. This contract means that 24,000ha in the Pafuri sector in the north of the Kruger will be commercially developed over the next three years.

The gross income earned by the community will be approximately 50% of profits. Although there is a guaranteed minimum, “rental” will be linked to turnover. The Makulekes could earn some R44-million over the next 20 years, which will be administered by a trust.

Members of the Makuleke community are receiving training to fill positions in the camps, ranging from guides to cooks and management roles. Some 120 jobs are expected to be created in the lodges, anti-poaching and associated small businesses. About 70 local people are building the lodges.

Twenty community members have completed the most advanced field-ranger training course on offer in South Africa and a number of these candidates graduated recently. Wilderness Safaris is providing training for community members through an ecotraining camp set up in the Makuleke region.

The wildlife relocation is a joint project of SANParks and Wilderness Safaris. As the giraffes put their hooves on the Makuleke land, they also marked the first initiative within a contractual national park in South Africa where SANParks supports the establishment of a community-based field-ranging and anti-poaching unit.

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Poaching Rife in new Limpopo Park

The Pafuri-Banyini pan in South Africa's north-eastern Kruger National Park teems with game. Elephant bulls amble among clumps of marula trees and impala leap gracefully across the grassland, where buffalo graze.

Located in the triangle between the Limpopo and Luvuvhu rivers where South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique meet, the pan is more than an idyllic corner of the Kruger park. It will ultimately lie at the heart of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park. This conservation area will encompass 35,000 square kilometres, allowing animals to follow ancient migration routes between the Kruger Park in South Africa, the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

The pressures that are being brought to bear on the pan are indicative of problems that the Transfrontier Park as a whole will have to grapple with- a matter of increasing importance as the deadline approaches for dropping another stretch of border fencing to create the conservation area.

The first section of fence to be taken down was a 15km strip in 2002, between Mozambique and South Africa- just north of where the Shingwedzi River enters the Kruger Park. This year, a 30km section of fence will be dropped south of the Shingwedzi- also between South Africa and Mozambique- after the presidents of Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique open the border post at Giriyondo.

This post, between the Kruger and the Limpopo Parks, is the first to be opened under the Transfrontier Park initiative. The ceremony is scheduled to take place in October.

Jack Greef, a former special forces operative who has worked in wildlife security in Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Tanzania- and who now runs a crack ranger unit in the Kruger National Park- believes dropping the fence without beefing up patrols on both sides of the border will worsen poaching.

Reports have already surfaced of rhino poachers from Mozambique driving into the Kruger park through areas where the first section of fencing was dismantled. And, even though the Pafuri-Banyini pan lies some way north of Giriyondo- where the next stretch of fence is to come down- poachers are already taking a toll in the area.

"Zimbabweans cross the river, lay snares and sell bush meat in the villages in South Africa. Then they buy groceries here to take back to Zimbabwe," Greef said during a visit to the pan, pointing to one of several well-trodden footpaths leading to the Limpopo River.

In May, Greef's team of eight rangers found 79 snares at a spring near the Pafuri gate into the Kruger that had been set three nights before. By the time they reached the scene, a buffalo calf, hyena and impala had been killed.

"If we hadn't detected these snares, it would have been a slaughter house," said patrol leader Prison Manganye.

Two months later, Kruger rangers caught a poacher transporting 129 genet skins by car from the Mozambican border post at Pafuri to the Punda Maria gate into the Kruger park.

"That's virtually the entire population of genets along the Limpopo," noted Greef.

Mozambican park official Hernando Vukeya said 36 poachers armed with AK47 assault rifles have been arrested in the district during the past five years. Most were war veterans turned poachers. But, he said, the situation is under control.

"We are dealing with poaching very efficiently here."

There are currently about 70 rangers in mobile units in the Limpopo National Park who are in radio contact with their counterparts in the Kruger.

"Generally bigger is better," Greef concluded at his headquarters. "And with increased cross-border cooperation between ranger units, we can catch more poachers who escape by slipping across the border."

But, he is not as sanguine about the situation as Vukeya is.

Poaching is only part of the problem, however.

Just 30km east of Pafuri-Banyini pan, in the Limpopo National Park, lies Shikumba village: one of a string of settlements along the Limpopo River housing up to 20 000 people.

Inhabitants of these villages have refused to move elsewhere.

"We debated this issue and decided we would rather be fenced in and stay here," said Maria Nyampuli, one of the villagers. "We are not happy about it, it but we will adhere to the law."

However, certain villagers have also threatened to take up arms if the number of elephant in their area increases as a result of park fences being taken down. Elephant may kill people or trample crops, no small matter for communities that rely on subsistence farming for their survival.

"People were saying to me, 'We hear on the radio they will move elephants in here. If the animals come, we will take them out,'" says an ecologist who conducted field work in the area. "It's a war zone out there."

Given the number of weapons that are in circulation in the aftermath of Mozambique's 16-year civil war, the villagers' threats cannot be taken lightly.

"This place is awash with guns from the war, including AK47s," said a South African police inspector at the Pafuri border post. "You will see what happens if you try to force them to move."

Steve Collins, a development worker with extensive experience of communities living next to parks, is also concerned.

"Community development issues have become secondary to conservation," he said. "This is colonialism by conservationists."

Nyampuli and her family members were among thousands who fled the area next to the Limpopo during the war, some going as far as Johannesburg. Many returned when the conflict ended in 1992. By then, trading stores established by Portuguese colonists had been burned down and most game had been slaughtered and eaten. The only means of survival for people in Shikumba and neighbouring villages is farming, but drought has pushed them to the edge of starvation.

"There's no rain," sighed Nyampuli. "Only hunger."

Villagers acknowledge that the transfrontier park may help them escape poverty -- even if it also causes headaches in terms of incoming elephants.

"If it can give our children jobs, if it gives us water and arable lands, then we support it," said one inhabitant of the area, pushing his bicycle down a deeply rutted track that passes for a road.

However, a community in South Africa is less optimistic about the eventual benefits of the Transfrontier conservation area.

The Makuleke ethnic group is the first community to have won back land in one of the country's national parks, under a restitution system that was set up to assist people who were forced off their land during colonialism and apartheid.

It now leases this land to lodge operators, including Wilderness Safaris, with substantial revenues flowing back into the community. The Makuleke are concerned their animals will be poached when they wander into Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

"We need to come up with programmes of direct benefit to communities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique," said community spokesperson Lamson Maluleke, who also complains that the Makuleke have not been adequately involved in decisions about the regional park.

However, the Peace Parks Foundation- which originated the idea of the Transfrontier conservation area- insists that community benefits lie at the heart of its work.

The foundation is based in Stellenbosch, in the southern part of South Africa. It was founded in 1997 to help create cross-border parks and promote regional stability. The foundation assists governments to create these conservation areas by securing grants from donor agencies.

To date, six Transfrontier parks have been established, all in Southern Africa, but there are plans to expand the concept throughout the continent.

The Limpopo villagers, says Ari van Wyk- transfrontier park coordinator in Mozambique- will probably stay in the park, but be allocated hunting quotas.

"There will always be subsistence hunting when people are hungry," he said.

As the amount of game circulating between Kruger and the Limpopo parks increases with the dropping of fences, Limpopo villagers may find that their settlements fall within migration routes. With this in mind, a grant of about $8.7-million has been provided by France to relocate villagers to the edges of game corridors- and to provide them with irrigation systems.

Another group of people inhabiting the Limpopo National Park- 6,000 people living in eight villages along the Shingwedzi River- will benefit from a grant of about $7.5-million made available by the German government.

Part of these funds will be used to establish an irrigation scheme outside the park where soils are better, says Van Wyk, by way of an incentive to get villagers to leave the conservation area.

"Most have already accepted resettlement because they live in remote areas without services," he noted. Resettlement is expected to take three to five years.

In addition, certain camps for tourists in the Mozambican section of the Transfrontier park are to be run by villagers.

"We have calculated Limpopo has a carrying capacity of about 1,000 beds for 300,000 potential visitors a year," Peace Parks Foundation chief executive Willem van Riet said. "That translates to about 3,000 jobs."

According to Van Riet, the Limpopo National Park has already created 250 jobs where previously there were none.

Maluleke's concerns about Zimbabwe are echoed among staffers at the Peace Parks Foundation, however.

The country has become increasingly isolated over the past five years, in the wake of a controversial programme of farm seizures, and three elections marred by allegations of human rights abuse and vote rigging. These events have taken their toll on Zimbabwe's economy, creating mass unemployment and triple-digit inflation. Certain Zimbabweans have turned to poaching in a bid to make ends meet.

"Until Zimbabwe comes back into the fold, nothing will happen there because donors are not going to put up money," said Van Riet.

Wildlife operators such as Wilderness Safaris acknowledge that communities living alongside and in the parks will have to be catered for by the transfrontier initiative if it is to succeed. For all this, the park remains an ideal tourism opportunity for them.

"Eventually you will be able to visit three national parks in three different countries without a passport as long as you exit on your side," said Gary van Rensburg, manager of the newest Wilderness Safaris lodge, which opened at Pafuri last month. "That's really attractive from a tourism point of view- and we're right at the centre of it."

Read more about the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park here.

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Fish Dying as Rivers Dry Up

HOEDSPRUIT- Hundreds of fish have died in the Olifants River about 15km from Olifants camp in the Kruger National Park (KNP) as the river dries up.

Dr Thomas Gyedu-Ababio, the KNP's aquatic biodiversity conservation manager, said the fish are believed to have died from oxygen starvation.

Gyedu-Ababio found at least 500 dead fish on the banks of a pool in what remains of the Olifants River when he visited the site recently. The 500 fish were what remained after birds had feasted on the dead fish, Gyedu-Ababio said. They were mostly catfish, yellowfish and tilapia.

Once the Olifants River was one of the largest continuously flowing rivers in South Africa, but at this time of year it is reduced to a series of pools in the KNP, kept alive by water released from the Phalaborwa barrage.

Balule camp had no water on Monday because the Olifants' flow is so diminished.

Hippos are forced to congregate in the remaining pools of water. In the pool where the fish died, Gyedu-Ababio found almost 100 hippos in less than 500m.

In a reversal of their normal behaviour, Gyedu-Ababio said, "the hippos ran out of the water when they saw people", as there was not enough water in the pool to cover them.

The hippos have been living and defecating in the pools, producing an excessive quantity of dung that is now decomposing. The decomposition removes oxygen from the water, causing the fish to suffocate. Fish jumping out of the water in other pools is also a sign of oxygen shortage.

The Phalaborwa barrage is required to release water for the ecological needs of the Olifants River, but also has to provide water for human use. Gyedu-Ababio said the flow out of the barrage for several days prior to the fish deaths was so low that the gauging weir in the park could not accurately measure it.

The barrage has very limited water storage, as almost 90% of the dam is occupied by silt. It is estimated that there is only enough water in the barrage when it is full for two to three days' water supply. In the dry season, the barrage relies on water releases from the Blyde Dam to boost the flow of the Olifants River.

Measurements of water flow at the gauging weir in the KNP show that the flow into the park is what it would be during drought conditions. The park has requested a higher flow from the barrage, as the Olifants River is not reaching Balule camp.

The silt in the barrage is to be the subject of an environmental study that went out to tender in February. The tender has yet to be awarded, the Lepelle Northern Water authority said.

The release of large volumes of silt-laden water from the barrage has previously caused fish deaths in the Olifants.

The silt is largely derived from soil erosion caused by poor agricultural practices further upstream in the Olifants River, in Sekhukhuneland.

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Game Joins In Kruger Marathon

SKUKUZA- Three lions showed up as unexpected guests while a marathon race was underway in South Africa's famed Kruger National Park, forcing runners to stop until the animals left the road, local media reported on Tuesday.

Three participants of the annual Skukuza Sterling Light half-marathon had a big fright on Saturday when they ran into three lions taking a nap in the middle of the road.

A motorcyclist in front of the athletes noticed them just before the 14km mark and stopped the runners in their tracks.

The nearest field ranger on duty was called and the lions were chased away before the marathon could continue.

But the incident resulted in a large group finishing together, said the newspaper.

On Friday evening, elephants caused havoc in the Skukuza staff village inside the park, which formed part of the race.

The elephants left the village before the race started, but the athletes had to run around heaps of dung, the newspaper said.

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