12 August 2003
South Africa and Namibia have signed a treaty establishing one of the largest conservation parks in southern Africa.
Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Mohammed Valli Moosa and his Namibian counterpart, Philemon Malima, signed the agreement establishing the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park in Windhoek last week.
The move virtually takes down the border fence between the two countries, and creates a massive tourism hotspot.
The park spans about 5 086 km² of some of the most spectacular scenery of the arid and desert environments in southern Africa. It merges Namibia’s |Ai-|Ais Hot Springs Game Park, which incorporates the famous Fish River Canyon, with South Africa’s Richtersveld National Park, which is owned by the Richtersveld communities but contractually managed by South African National Parks.
Besides the Fish River Canyon – often likened to the Grand Canyon in the USA – and the |Ai-|Ais Hot Springs, the Richtersveld is situated in one of the most species-rich arid zones in the world, making the transfrontier park an undisputed biodiversity hotspot.
The Richtersveld National Park is also regarded as a role model for a new approach to conservation, which incorporates local people into management. Because of these assets, South African National Parks will soon be applying for the Richtersveld National Park to be recognised as a World Heritage Site.
Bisected by the Orange River, which forms the border between the two countries, the transfrontier park offers enormous potential for development as a viable conservation area.
In particular, the Namibian section of the peace park could in future be expanded to include the entire Namibian coastline and to link up with the Iona National Park in Angola. An expansion on both sides along the Orange River, to link up with the Orange River Mouth Transfrontier Conservation Area to the west and the Augrabies Falls National Park in the east on the South African side, is also a possibility.
Orange River Canyon, Augrabies Falls National Park (Photo copyright Reinhardt Hartzenberg)
Combining all these areas could lead eventually to the creation of the third-largest protected area in the world, spanning over 19 million hectares.
The Namibian and South African tourism authorities will encourage public and private investment in the park, and cross-border tourism is expected to grow from 660 000 to a million tourists per annum.
Conservation authorities from both countries are due to meet soon to thrash out plans to set up a joint management board to oversee the running of the park.
Among the potential tourism projects are guided tours by vehicle, hiking trails and overnight camping, specialist botanical, geological, ornithological, photographic and cultural tours, and river rafting and canoeing.
Other projects to be undertaken include mountain biking, horse and camel trails, angling, overnight accommodation, campsites, a shop and information centre, and visits by educational institutions.
Parks that transcend borders
The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is the latest development in one of the boldest cross-border initiatives currently unfolding in southern Africa – the development of transfrontier parks and transfrontier conservation areas.
The programme is being pioneered by the department of environmental affairs and tourism together with SA National Parks and the Peace Parks Foundation. In terms of the programme, boundaries separating conservation areas and other protected areas are removed in favour of integrated, jointly managed parks
The |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park is the third-largest in the region after the 35 000 km² Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park – the largest wildlife park in the world – and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, which comprises the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana and the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park in South Africa.
Poor communities to score
Nama communities living in and around the Ai-Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park are set to reap the benefits of the treaty.
The disadvantaged Richtersveld population, comprising the Kuboes, Sanddrift, Lekkersing and Eksteenfontien communities, heavily reliant on a mining industry which is scaling down, is set to reap sustainable jobs from tourism growth.
Peter de Wet, a community leader from the Richtersveld National Park – which is owned by the more than 400 local households and managed by SA National Parks – hailed the new transfrontier park as a golden opportunity for development. “This is a great opportunity for development and job creation for our people. We are excited to have a bigger project in our area”, De Wet said.
Minister Valli Moosa said the park provided a platform for the establishment of community-owned tourism facilities and joint ventures between community and private companies, which the government would support by providing the necessary infrastructure.
President Thabo Mbeki said the park reflected the direction Africa was taking in integrating and unifying its communities towards prosperity. “We are doing this because we have understood very well that all of us are interdependent, that the success of any one of our countries depends on the success of the others”, he said.