In this South African borderland wilderness, you might think you are on the margin but, as far as nature is concerned, you are in the serene centre.

Like most people, your phone is probably preferred for navigation these days. But there are still times that a paper map is essential, like when exploring the 3,000km of tar and gravel roads in the Kruger National Park, South Africa. The vast park receives over 2 million visitors each year, but most people stick to the southern quarter which is easiest to access and has the most camps and lodges. You might have to unfold the map a few times – and flip it over – to appreciate the full extent of the Kruger.

Eventually, you find the Makuleke Contract Park at the northernmost extent of the park, bordered by Zimbabwe and Mozambique. So, the Makuleke is frontier country, on the edge, beyond which lies only badlands and dragons? Ha, not quite. For the natural world, those borders are just lines on a map, to be laughed at by bird and elephant and everything between.

Gltp Peace Park Foundation Map

When we swap the political map for a natural map, it turns out that the Pafuri area is in the middle of one of largest clusters of conservation lands in Africa and not on the edge. In addition to the 20,000km2 of land protected in the rest of the Kruger to our south, we find large reserves to the east and north: Limpopo National Park in Mozambique, and Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe. In combination, this area has a name, although it is not widely known: The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, 35 000 kmof space for nature. It is one of four parks that transcend South Africa’s political borders, and one of twelve in Africa. These “peace parks” were established in recognition that conservation of habitat and wildlife requires international cooperation and linking up these areas – by removing fencing and creating wildlife corridors – will benefit migratory animals. More so, they recognize that acting in a coordinated way to protect nature, working towards shared objectives and sharing resources, can also improve cross-border relations.

The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park was established in 2000 and has enabled wildlife to move freely across the South African-Mozambique border, which is un-fenced north of Olifants river. Cooperation in fighting wildlife-crime is a top priority, and staff on the ground regularly communicate on conservation matters. An even more ambitious plan is to extend the protected zone to include Mozambique’s Zinave and Banhine National Parks, and other state and privately owned lands in South Africa and Zimbabwe, to create a conservation area of 100 000 km2: the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area. Last year, hundreds of impala, zebra and wildebeest were transferred from Kruger to help rewild Zinave National Park.

The driving force behind Africa’s TFCAs is the Peace Park Foundation, a not-for-profit with the goal to “reconnect Africa’s wild spaces to create a future for man in harmony with nature.” The foundation takes a holistic approach to creating more space for wildlife, as there is a need to engage with local communities and communal land-owners “recognizing that the participation of these communities is essential for the success of conservation initiatives”. Basically, if tourism is to be the revenue generator from nature conservation, then local communities need to be invested and share the rewards. The foundation operates the South African College for Tourism which trains people from impoverished rural backgrounds in hospitality skills and bush tracking.

The success of the Makuleke Contract area – owned by the Makuleke people– can be a model for the whole Limpopo TFCA. When you reach the edge of the map and settle into this peaceful corner of Africa, it’s good to know that you are supporting a sustainable form of tourism, one that shows humans and wildlife can share the wilderness, for the benefit of both.

Kruger Park trees view

Map: Peace Parks Foundation
Image: Dawn Jorgensen