Forty of southern Africa's top experts got together for two days on March 9 and 10 to discuss scientific discoveries, current projects, and the needs and challenges involved in developing the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area. While the experts were drawn from a variety of disciplines, their special focus was on where human activities meet wildlife, and the creation of a healthy environment for humans, livestock and wild animals.
They emerged with a sense that they are finally coming to grips with the real, practical, on-the-ground issues that face conservationists as they attempt to merge countries, cultures and wildlife into the current political and conservation ideal of huge international conservation systems.
Sanparks strengthened the positive vibe coming from the meeting when they announced that they hope to host two new positions that will help South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe deal with the variety of hurdles cross-boundary conservation faces.
These include understanding the risks associated with the spread of diseases like foot and mouth and bovine tuberculosis in light of the different animal health policies and different economies in the three countries, and how to integrate communal societies and wildlife conservation into a healthy ecosystem.
"Traditional ways cannot deal with issues of large landscapes and transfrontier conservation," said South Africa's Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) representative Dr Mike Kock, adding that what is needed now is "a cross-section of disciplines discussing complex issues in a complex situation."
This is precisely what has been happening since the 2003 World Parks' Congress, when the concept of Ahead (Animal Health for the Environment And Development) was first put forward. Since then ecologists, veterinarians, social scientists, economists, human health specialists and wildlife managers from a variety of countries have been getting their heads around the different viewpoints that each discipline brings to the Ahead networking forum. "We're thinking totally out the box now."
The announcement from Sanparks that they are seeking funding to host two positions that will continue to drive Ahead into the future was wonderful news to Dr Steve Osofsky from WCS New York, who has been helping coordinate the endeavour for the last three years. "The value of this novel, multidisciplinary approach is affirmed when it is adopted by a leading institution like Sanparks."
SANParks hope to create the posts of policy integrator/programme coordinator and a research coordinator who will help keep experts from such a wide variety of fields communicating and developing policies to make the transfrontier park a success on the ground as well as on paper.
Carried up to this point by volunteers committed to the concept of a multi-disciplinary task force, the group has now gained so much momentum that it needs full-time leadership. Ahead's mix of disciplines is fairly unique, and the Great Limpopo TFCA Working Group will almost certainly become a role model for transfrontier conservation development around the world.