One of the most ambitious, interesting and potentially significant political initiatives in Africa is the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) linking Zimbabwe’s second largest national park Gonarezhou in the South East Lowveld, to South Africa’s Kruger National Park and Gaza (Coutada 16 in Mozambique).
The initiative created the world’s largest animal kingdom by its size.
This consists of an enormous human development scheme, a commitment to protect fragile eco-systems across a vast land area, and an extraordinary vision of a shared economic future.
A couple of years back it had attracted the attention of foreign partners, businesses, scholars and advocacy groups, along with the inevitable critics.
In its most optimistic projections, GLTP could greatly boost the economies of several African countries and help rehabilitate Zimbabwe’s battered economy.
By then it was not difficult to imagine that its effects might ultimately expand into other Sadc countries ravaged by war and civil strife, affording opportunities for desperately needed economic development and infrastructural rehabilitation in Africa’s devastated heartland.
GLTP proffered tantalising glimpses of a significant new mechanism for regional integration, resource sharing and conflict avoidance.
But now the project has become more of a dream than a concrete reality, with many potential pitfalls and unanswered questions.
The complexity of the economic integration it envisioned was matched by few other initiatives in the region.
It was by no means certain that the park’s participating countries would be willing to surrender many of their economic prerogatives to a more centralised regional control, or look favourably upon the economic empowerment of local communities.
To facilitate tourism, the project envisioned a much freer flow of traffic along regional transportation infrastructure, diminishing state control and remuneration.
Such measures threatened the equities of some government elites.
Nor were all environmentalists happy with the commercial complexion of the biodiversity objectives.
The coordination of infrastructure, human development and wildlife conservation called for considerable sophisticated planning sophistication and high levels of managerial proficiency.
It was unclear if southern Africa could muster the requisite expertise to implement such a complex and multi-faceted plan.
Then, there was the troubling issue of security.
In a region still awash with the detritus of the liberation wars and civil wars, armed criminals, poachers and possibly even terrorists stood to gain from open borders, spotty surveillance and unrestricted movement across southern Africa, a movement facilitated by the generally good regional transportation infrastructure.
For the record, to date 285 rhinos have been poached in South Africa so far this year, and 142 suspects arrested.
Zimbabwe has reported an almost similar number of poached elephants and rhino species.
Organised poaching continues unabated in private conservancies and national parks.
Parks and Wildlife Management Authority director general Vitalis Chadenga admitted:
“The kingpins behind these syndicates have masterminded a platform that will take wildlife poaching to new levels across the whole of Africa, posing a virtually un-policable risk to mainly rhino and elephant populations in Africa.
“The use of a helicopter, a dart gun and knock-down/immobilising drugs has transformed the traditional method of poaching on foot to that of a high-tech aerial attack that is only noticed once the perpetrators have left the scene or are long gone without trace. In some instances, an aircraft has been used to guide the poachers to where the animals are while keeping an eye for signs of having been detected.”
Chadenga would want us to believe the poaching epidemic is partly caused by the judiciary failing to mete out harsher penalties against offenders.
But the honours are him and Environment minister Francis Nhema to engage the judiciary for better results.
The level of poaching leaves us wondering whether the wildlife authority has ceased to be what it used to be or not.
Judging by the increasing levels of poaching in Kruger National Park, and the ability to cross into Gonarezhou unhindered, then there might be no rhino to talk about in the near future.
The most disturbing factor is the method used by syndicates that mirrors those used by wildlife capture operators for routine rhino management.
The fact that a helicopter pilot, and there are a few implicated, could aid and abet such an appaling practice is beyond comprehension.
Further to this, the fact that highly scheduled veterinary drugs are used points to the involvement of a vet(s) or black market drug.
For their incredible size, rhinos have poor eyesight, relying mainly on their senses of smell and hearing to warn them of approaching danger. Experienced poachers are able to stalk them.
It is however clear Zimbabwe may be fighting a losing battle unless Nhema and Chadenga move a gear up by engaging other important stakeholders.
According to Dan Henk, director of the Air Force Culture and Language Center, Air University, these circumstances seemed to require a robust regional security agenda, but the conservation park planners placed little priority on identifying and resolving similar projects likely security-related dilemmas.
The limitations of GLTP in security planning were a logical reflection of its key participants. The most important planning roles for the project itself accrued to the environmental ministries of the participating countries.
Conspicuous by their almost total absence were the military, police and intelligence agencies, an exclusion that was not inadvertent.
The presence of the security agencies would have incurred a risk of “securitising” the planning, holding the developmental aspects hostage to narrowly defined concepts of state sovereignty and border security.
But the absence of security sector planners nonetheless guaranteed that important questions were not fully considered.
Southern African nationals and their partners around the world however, clearly stood to gain by the park’s success, and the issue of security was the “elephant in the living room” that could not be permanently avoided.
The real dilemma was how to get just the right amount of, and just the right kind of security.
Biodiversity is under threat from urbanisation and population growth. Regional megafauna (particularly elephants and rhinos) are vulnerable to commercial poaching.
One of the most intractable dilemmas is the inherent tension between development and conservation.
An environmental agenda appears to have little prospect for success unless it offers direct and unambiguous near-term material incentives.
Whether or not the GLTP project succeeded as envisioned by its proponents, Zimbabwe may not take credit for much of its inspiration.
Botswana is one country that has pursued environmental security through resorting to military force, having deployed its defence force into its wildlife conservancies since 1987 in a successful, long-term effort to halt egregious, commercial megafauna poaching.
The story of military anti-poaching in Botswana is the account of a government seeking to safeguard its natural resources and its population from vicious assault.
In the mid 1980s, Zimbabwe’s elephants and rhinos were severely threatened.
Networks of well-armed criminals with links to the Persian Gulf and Far East sponsored much of the slaughter, and now they are back again.
The successful use of military force in a single environmental security role, however, does not validate that usage as a universal norm, of course.
Nor does it even prove that military deployment is the best solution to the problem of commercial megafauna poaching.
But it does suggest that our security agencies can play useful environmental security niche roles in carefully defined circumstances, and should not be excluded from the discourses on the topic.