Countries in political conflict may turn to nature as a reason for opening up their borders. Host Steve Curwood speaks with John Hanks, director of the Southern Africa Transfrontier Conservation Areas, about several peace parks proposed in the recent World Parks Congress.
CURWOOD: The borders between India and Pakistan, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, and North and South Korea are political walls for countries that have seen years of bitter conflict. But delegates to the fifth World Parks Congress are trying to break down those barriers by creating “peace parks.” Peace parks are designed to open up large tracts of land to protect wildlife and be jointly managed by both sides of the border.
John Hanks attended the Congress in Durban, South Africa. He directs the Southern Africa Transfrontier Conservation Areas and joins me now from Cape Town. Welcome.
HANKS: Good day, Steve, it’s good to join you.
CURWOOD: You’ve been working in the field of peace parks for quite some time. How do you define a peace park?
HANKS: It really is a trans-boundary protected area, that two countries come together, they open their boundaries so that animals and people can move freely across the boundaries. And before you can do that, of course, you have to have peace. And then as a result of that, people say, well, let’s make that an objective of the park – in other words, the promotion of peace and cooperation between two countries. So that, in a nutshell, is what a peace park is.
CURWOOD: You were able to listen in on a number of conversations there in Durban. Where are the most challenging areas for proposed peace parks, do you think?
HANKS: Well, people are talking about where we could take this further, and obviously there’s interest in places where there is conflict such as North and South Korea and Kashmir, obviously getting India and Pakistan involved. But that’s only going to work there if both sides of the border make a genuine commitment to making this happen. And I think in those two areas there’s still quite a long way to go. I think anyone working in this field loves to have a challenge. And if you look at what we could do if a peace park was established in a very sensitive border area – and let me stress also a very important area from the environmental conservation point of view, such as Kashmir – if we could get something going there it really, really would be most exciting.
CURWOOD: What do you see as the specific challenges, both politically and ecologically, that need to be overcome in order to make these peace parks work?
HANKS: Yes, I think you’ve got to have buy-in at so many different levels before it works. Obviously, if you’re going to open the boundaries and have this level of cooperation, you’ve got to have an agreement right from the top. And here the heads of state must really say they want this thing to go ahead. And then there’s a whole host of government departments that need to be involved. A lot of people think it’s just a question of two conservation organizations getting together and saying, well, let’s open the boundary. But think about what you are doing. You’re removing fences, you’re removing the barriers that in some cases have been there for years. So you’ve got to bring in veterinary issues, you’ve got to bring in health issues, you’ve got to look at customs, at immigration. And then you’ll think you’ve got all those lined up and right at the end the Minister of Defense will put his hand up and say, well, nobody’s consulted me. It doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes it can take, perhaps, four, five, or six years before what is a vision becomes a reality.
CURWOOD: You’ve been spending a lot of time working on this. What are you most excited about right now? What are some of the prospects that make you get up in the morning?
HANKS: Oh, gosh. I think I wouldn’t be doing this job if I wasn’t enthusiastic. I’m very excited about one particular initiative that involves the Okavango Delta and it’s catchment comes from way up in the Angolan highlands. Now we’re developing a particular transfrontier conservation area that will help link together Zimbabwe, Botswana, what’s called the Caprivi Strip, which is a long stretch of Namibia which goes out towards the Victory Falls, nearly, Angola, and Zambia. Why it’s so important is that in the northern part of Botswana we have the biggest contiguous population of elephants in the whole of Africa, some 120 thousand elephants. But unfortunately they’re becoming more and more restricted, and we’re working on the elephants in Botswana by immobilizing them with drugs and fitting a number of elephants with collars that are linked to satellites. And what we’re finding is that the elephants have a very restricted corridor where they can move out of Botswana, into Namibia, and up north back into Angola, and hence back into Zambia. But before they can do that, a key part of this area is a bottom corner of Angola. And as you might know, Angola has just come out of some 30 years of civil war, and the country is absolutely full of landmines, in fact, an estimated 10 million unexploded landmines. And what we’re looking at is seeing what we can do to de-mine a key corridor in the bottom corner of Angola so that the elephants can start to move back, other animals can follow, and eventually, of course, tourism can follow them, as well. And I never thought, when I did my training as a zoologist, I would end up getting involved in de-mining programs in Angola, but that’s a key part of what we’re doing.
CURWOOD: John Hanks is director of the Southern Africa Transfrontier Conservation areas. Thanks for speaking with me today.
HANKS: It’s been great to join you, Steve. Thanks very much.
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