Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Into the Wild: The Magadigadi Pans

Khubu Island, in the Magigadi Pans of Botswana. The island was originally populated by a San Bushman people which followed the Leopard Scorpi tradition, and then later in the 1500 and 1600s by a vassal state of the Great Zimbabwe Empire called the Monomatapa. The proposed Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (TFCA) will encompass an area the size of Italy through five African countries. The park's core area is centered around the Okavango River and the Delta, which currently has only limited protection.

Into the Magadigadi Pans- Community Based Conservation.

We made it out of Johannesburg on Sunday the 10th of April, traveling in the Hog, my Toyota Landcruiser Diesel 4x4, which is one of the most economical and hardy 4x4s in the world. If anyone has an electrical 4x4 that can drive at least 200 miles in one charge, I would much rather use that, but for now this is our moving platform.

Martin and Carl, my two travel companions, arrived at my garage at around 9am, but it took us about three hours to get our packing system set up and get on the road. We arrived at the Botswana border at around 4pm, and headed up to the farm of a friend where I had worked before on a solar energy project. See that story here.

The next morning we awoke to the sound of goat bells clanking in the still air, and we had coffee with some other farmers in the area and talked about the recent rains, which have been very good. In Botswana the currency is called Pula, which means rain. Clearly in a desert country like this one rain is everything. But the rains which everyone lauded however might complicate the road ahead for us. We are headed into the Magadigadi Pans, a place which fills with water in the rains and becomes one of the most important areas for waterbirds in Africa. We are also trying to get into the top of the Okavango Delta, and already our contact there has suggested in a text message that we may not be able to drive there at all, but she will try to arrange a boat along what is usually a dirt road. So the talk with the farmers was hopeful for Botswana, but slightly disturbing for three adventurers who have only one car and eleven days to travel thousands of Kilometers on rough dirt roads which now may be impassable.

We are returning to the Kaza Park area to investigate further the long-term project I am doing about this most grand of conservation projects for television documentary I am making with LinkTV.org in the United States. The documentary explores how the project is evolving, and the future of tourism and development in Africa, and will answer questions like: How will communities live with wild animals? How will they benefit from tourism? How will the Park change what is happening on the ground today?

On Khubu Island, the Magadigadi Pans’ main tourist attraction, the community has been involved in a local tourism project for eleven years. The Peace Parks Foundation, who is facilitating the dialogue between the five countries that are part of the Kaza Park, brought the Khubu Island community members to the latest planning session in Botswana’s capital Gaborone, in order to learn more about how they have created one of the most successful projects of its kind. So we are headed there today to find out from the main guide there, nicknamed Dragon, what role communities like his might play in the greater KAZA Park.

So after a long day on the road, and a night in the Pans, we arrived at Khubu Island, happy to find the road clear of the great pools of water that collect here during the rains. The place is treacherous for driving at the best of times, but when water permeates the pans, even solid flat soil can become quicksand under the vibrations of the Hog’s tires.
What we learned at Khubu is encouraging, and if these lessons can be learned by the KAZA park creators, then there is a good chance this huge project will be successful.

The fees at Khubu Island go strait to the community, and under a large Baobab tree, Dragon explains how the community would like to see the KAZA park benefit them. The first way, they want to see more wild animals in their area. This is surprising, since most rural communities in Africa are at odds with wild animals. Dragon explains that in fact, many of the people who were responsible for the decline of the wild animal populations around the island were now sorry they had killed them. He and the other community members want more tourists, they can see how tourism money has assisted them, and they know that with lions and elephants and large game in the area, they would have even more visitors. The visitor fees provide cash for a local school, a clinic, and a cellphone tower for communication. It’s very encouraging to find on the ground an “ownership” feeling over the tourism resources in the area, and a willingness to embrace greater conservation measures in order to bring in more cash to an isolated community like this one. Most importantly, Dragon explains that ten years ago, the community had no interest in seeing wild animals in the area and instead wanted more goats and cows on low interest loans from the government. That this is not the case today speaks volumes about the success of this community based tourism model that will hopefully be replicated and be pivotal for the future of the KAZA park.

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