The middle of a dry riverbed is not the usual venue for a meeting of government ministers from three countries about to sign a landmark agreement, but the setting was perfectly apt for the establishment of Africa's newest transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) on Thursday June 22, 2006.
Meeting on the Shalimpopo Island near the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers in the hub of the proposed 1,950km2 conservation area, the ministers of environment from South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe put pen to paper and signed a memorandum of understanding between the three nations that will join a mosaic of land uses into a conservation area that crosses three international boundaries. This will be known as the Limpopo-Shashe Transfrontier Conservation Area.
About 270km2 of the proposed land for the transfrontier conservation area lies within South Africa, with Mapungubwe National Park forming the core. Also included on the South African side are the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve (established by De Beers mining company) and the proposed Limpopo Valley Game Reserve, where farms are discussing joint management of land.
In Botswana, 36 farms covering 70,000ha form the Northern Tuli Game Reserve, a livestock-free zone dedicated to game ranching and commercial photographic safaris. The game reserve has three upmarket lodges and a number of tented safari camps. In Zimbabwe, less of the proposed land is currently used for conservation, although the Tuli Circle Safari Area (41,100 ha) and two large commercial farms (Sentinel Ranch and Nottingham Estates together 47,000ha) have abundant wildlife.
According to information supplied by South Africa's department of environmental affairs and tourism, the rest of the land (148,000ha) that Zimbabwe intends to incorporate into the TFCA is communal lands, occupied by about 12,000 people; 14,000 cattle; 41,000 sheep and goats and 3,900 donkeys according to censuses carried out between 1999 and 2001.
The Limpopo-Shashe TFCA will be important not only for its conservation value, but also for its cultural heritage, being the ancient home of one of Southern Africa's most thriving ancient civilisations that flourished for six centuries.
At the signing of the agreement the environment ministers said that the initiative will not only conserve cultural and natural diversity, but will integrate conservation with development, providing jobs and generating revenue for people living in the area. "Improving the lives of rural communities will in turn contribute towards biodiversity conservation by demonstrating the economic and social advantages that can be achieved through conservation."
SA's environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said that in the development of Mapungubwe his department has spent R120 million building infrastructure using social responsibility funding, as well as spending R30 million buying land.
- Mapungubwe National Park lies on the confluence of the Limpopo and the Shashe Rivers.
- It was formerly known as Vhembe Dongola National Park.
- It was declared as a World Heritage Site in July 2003.
- The park is named after the Mapungubwe Kingdom, which is South Africa's oldest known kingdom, dating from the Iron Age. It predates both Thulamela (in the Kruger National Park) and Great Zimbabwe.
- The Mapungubwe National Park has archaeological sites dating from the Early Stone Age (older than 250,000 years) to the present, including several San rock art sites.
- The Golden Rhino was unearthed in Mapungubwe, and ranks as one of the most important artworks in sub-Saharan Africa.
- The culture of the Mapungubwe Kingdom is thought to be based on trade in gold and ivory with people from the East Coast, and is the origin of similar societies fur ther north in Zimbabwe.