Angola prepares red carpet for Botswana's elephants

The Culto Lake in the Angolan highlands is one of the Okavango Delta's sources and a potential rich habitat for elephants PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
The Culto Lake in the Angolan highlands is one of the Okavango Delta's sources and a potential rich habitat for elephants PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

President Mokgweetsi Masisi is due in Angola soon for further discussions on how the formerly war-torn country can help ease Botswana’s elephant overpopulation. Angola, meanwhile, has set aside US$60 million to clear a “Garden of Eden” in a landmine-ridden region. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI writes

President Masisi is planning a two-day visit to Angola soon to meet his counterpart, João Lourenço on the touchy issue of elephant overpopulation in Botswana.

Angola is part of the Kavango–Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) whose four other members, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe are grappling with high elephant numbers and human wildlife conflict.

In Angola, a 30-year civil war saw the collapse of elephant numbers and the escalation and entrenchment of poaching, particularly in the wetlands where the giants were largely based.

Today Angola is estimated to have less than 10,000 elephants – compared to Botswana’s 130,000.

Angola, however, believes it could support up to 100,000 if the migration corridors elephants use within KAZA were fully opened up for the pachyderms’ return.

Masisi has broached the subject and in his upcoming trip to Luanda, wants to move the matter forward.

“In the larger scheme of things, our ultimate and most favoured solution cannot be effected without the participation of Angola, with respect to our elephant problem.

“This is especially when it comes to significant numbers,” he told journalists on his return this week, from the African Wildlife Summit held in Victoria Falls.

The solution, Masisi is referring to, is the lowering of elephant numbers in Botswana to a level that is sustainable for biodiversity and human interaction.

It is described as “most favoured” because other now abandoned options that were considered during public consultations last year included culling.

Angola is reportedly eager to increase its elephant population, as it reopens formerly war-torn, landmine-ridden areas in its south-east. These areas, which comprise the headwaters of the Zambezi and the Okavango Delta, are rich in greenery, forests and ample water.

In fact, apart from the fact that they are packed with landmines from the war, Angola’s lush south east highlands and wetlands are a Garden of Eden for elephants, providing the perfect environment for the giants.

Some parts of the province have never been seen by outsiders for more than 30 years, as a Mmegi reporter who toured the region last year discovered.

“The area was a stronghold for UNITA rebels and after the war, it stayed undeveloped,” said Thalefang Charles.

“During our trip with National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project last year, for some of the people there, it was the first time they had seen a white person in 30 years.

“It is the last wild place in Africa, very lush, massive river systems and plenty of forest.”

Ahead of Masisi’s visit, the Angolan government has announced that it will be pumping US$60 million (P641 million) to clear landmines in specific areas of the province “so that wildlife can be conserved and so that economic development can thrive using the best models of sustainable tourism”.

According to HALO Trust, an NGO that has been working closely with the Angolan government to clear landmines over the years, an estimated 1,155 minefields remain to be cleared in the country, equal to a total mined area of 121 square kilometres. HALO rose to global prominence when its staff escorted the late Princess Diana through a cleared minefield in Huambo Province in 1997.

The US$60 million investment will clear 153 minefields in the next five years in the south-eastern province of Cuando Cubango inside the Mavinga and Luengue-Luiana National Parks.

“South-eastern Angola is one of the last wild places on Earth, but large parts of the watershed feeding the Okavango system are inaccessible to conservationists because of landmines,” HALO officials said in a statement.

“Clearing the mines is the first step towards developing a conservation-based economic model to provide sustainable development for local people.”

The NGO estimates that another US$60 million will be required to clear all the remaining minefields outside the national parks around the river system feeding the Okavango.

Tamar Ron, an environmental consultant to the Angolan government, told Mmegi yesterday that the barriers to elephants returning to Angola were not only in that country.

“It’s the landmines and poaching in Angola, but also human wildlife conflict fences in Botswana and the human settlements in the Caprivi Strip where they have to pass through,” she said.

“All these have to be managed first.”

All KAZA states have committed to help Angola capacitate itself for elephants and with the demining set to scale up, Masisi is expected to return from Luanda with solid progress on the “favoured solution”.

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