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Conservation on a different continent

By Michele Hofmeyr
Scientific Services, Skukuza

During September, a high level delegation from SANParks, led by CEO Dr David Mabunda, attended the Parks, Peace and Partnerships Conference held in Waterton National Park, Alberta, Canada. The theme of the conference was “Celebrating 75 years of tradition and international co-operation”. Conservation across international boundaries is nothing new in Canada and the USA. One of the first conservation initiatives to span international boundaries was set up between Waterton National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in the USA in 1932. In 1931, following the First World War, some 100 members from various Rotary Clubs met and formed a petition for their respective federal authorities to join these two national parks in the name of peace. The rest, as they say, is history and this year the peace park celebrates 75 years in existence. Both parks are administered separately by their respective countries but share some of the most spectacular terrain on the continent. So it was fitting that this peace park, which has become the symbol for international goodwill and friendship, be the venue for a conference on international peace parks issues.

Due to the profile SANParks has in developing trans-frontier conservation areas throughout southern Africa, the conference was the ideal opportunity to present, to an international audience, issues surrounding trans-frontier conservation in our region. Danie Pienaar, Head of Scientific Services in Skukuza, Kruger National Park, talked about drafting a joint research policy with the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) in Mozambique, while Dr Freek Venter from Conservation Services in Skukuza provided background on conservation operational issues, also in the GLTP. Piet Theron, Head of Transfrontier Conservation Areas at SANParks head office, and Dr Mabunda presented a joint paper on SANParks involvement with Transfrontier Conservation Areas in South Africa. The conference included delegates from 35 countries and South Africa was well represented by groups from both Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Peace Parks Foundation. “These conferences are the ideal place to meet people from around the world and learn from their experiences with trans-boundary conservation issues, explained Mr Pienaar. “We hope we can also help other nations with their own conservation issues by sharing our experiences with them,” he added.

The SANParks delegation took the opportunity to visit other national parks in the USA and Canada and were impressed by what they encountered. The group first visited the Grand Teton, which borders on the well-known Yellowstone National Park. Although Grand Teton is not a national park, it is a managed conservation area and has high numbers of visitors, especially during holiday periods. The next stop was Yellowstone National Park. This park has many active hot water geysers which create a misty landscape due to the rising steam. Access to view the geysers is along wooden boardwalks and there are clear signposts with information on the animals, ecology and the role of geysers in the landscape. The group had the chance to view bison, elk, moose and even a coyote. The striking difference between Yellowstone and the Kruger National Park (KNP) is that visitors are permitted to get out of their vehicles to get a closer view of the wildlife. The park also caters for high numbers of people as there are no gate quotas that limit the number of visitors entering the park. En Route to Waterton National Park in Canada, Dr Mabunda and Dr Freek Venter spent a morning giving lectures and interacting with students from the University of Montana in Missoula. Prof Wayne Freimund from the University kindly arranged for their travel and conference expenses to be covered by his research faculty in the Wilderness Institute.

The group stayed in the town of White Fish on the outskirts of Glacier National Park where they attended a true western rodeo! They spent a day driving on the limited road network and enjoying the hills and mountains of this scenic park. “You can see the effects of global warming in a park like this” says Danie Pienaar,” the glaciers, that are the namesake of this park, are shrinking and will disappear in the next decade”. The park, although only a quarter of the size of Kruger National Park, deals with over two million visitors per year and this is mainly in the summer months as heavy snow falls close the park in winter. “The park is very efficient at managing visitors and makes a big effort to educate people with well-equipped visitor information centres and signs in strategic places” Mr Pienaar went on to explain.

Freek and Piet continued into Canada after the conference and visited Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Parks. These parks have the Trans-Canada Highway going through them and small towns like Banff occur inside them. The Canadians build impressive over- and under-passes for animals to cross the highway. Movements are monitored carefully and approximately 80 000 animals have made use of these facilites.

The chance to see how other countries manage their conservation areas is highly beneficial as they often have novel approaches that can be applied to local conservation initiatives.

Photos courtesy Danie Pienaar and Dr Freek Venter

Group photo at Glacier National Park entrance: L to R Piet Theron, Dr David Mabunda, Dr Freek Venter, Prof Wayne Freimund from University of Montana, Missoula USA, Prof Rob Fincham from UKZN and Danie Pienaar.