Into Africa with the reserve that knows no frontiers

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Straddling five countries, Kaza is the world's biggest wildlife park

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It's not your average park. Entering from the west in Angola it would conservatively take you more than a month of continual driving to come out the other side in eastern Zimbabwe – assuming that any vehicle could withstand the journey.

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It is 15 times the size of Tanzania's epic Serengeti reserve and home to the largest population of elephants on the continent. And yet few people working outside African environmental circles will have heard of Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, or Kaza for short.

Straddling five countries and 36 national parks, making it the largest nature area anywhere in the world, Kaza was made a legal fact last month as Angola, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe signed up to the most ambitious scheme of its kind.

The conservation area will link up a who's who of southern African safari stars from the Victoria Falls to the Okavango Delta and the Zambezi, Chobe-Linyanti, Kwando and Cuito river systems. The reserve's flora is equally phenomenal with at least 3,000 species as well as more than 600 bird species across savannahs, woodlands and wetlands.

The legal establishment of the reserve has been warmly welcomed by conservationists: "Eco-systems don't respect political boundaries," said Dr Deon Nel, head of the biodiversity unit at the World Wide Fund for Nature in South Africa. "In order to fully conserve eco-systems we need to look beyond these boundaries to processes, like migration routes that work on a larger scale. Many of these processes are lost in national parks."

Experts have pointed out that fragile eco-systems will be more resilient to threats such as climate change if they are not fractured by political borders that prevent high-impact animals such as elephants from ranging across larger areas.

While the scientific benefits of the trans-frontier dream have long been accepted, the political agreement has been slow in arriving. The concept of a Southern African wildlife sanctuary was presented at a regional talking shop as long ago as 1993, but 10 years on Namibia's then President, Sam Nujoma, was still describing it as a "golden opportunity" that hadn't been seized.

Turning the mosaic of national parks, hunting reserves, conservation areas and rivers into a network has focused on the so-called "four corners" region: the point at which Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet, around Impalila Island in Namibia. Angola, which early on was still emerging from a disastrous civil war, was included because of its importance as the source of most of the regions' rivers.

The treaty signed in the Angolan capital Luanda in August created a reserve roughly the size of Sweden at 450,000 square kilometres. The governments involved are primarily interested in the tourism potential of the leviathan they have created.

Namibia's Environment and Tourism Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, said: "Conservation will be a vehicle for tourism, thus bringing about socio-economic development in this region."

However, much of the immense land area covered by the agreements lacks the infrastructure at present to absorb many more tourists.

Modest grants by the Dutch and German governments have helped set up an administration for Kaza with offices in Botswana, but feasibility studies have suggested that while the long-term benefits of the joint venture would be considerable, hundreds of millions of pounds of investment in roads, airports, accommodation and park authorities will be necessary to realise them.

The challenges in the meantime are considerable. One of the first items on the agenda is an appeal for funds for the removal of land mines that still litter the area gazetted within Angola – a lethal hangover from the civil war.

"There's a whole lot of things that need to be happen to make this real," said Dr Nel. "But we must start with political agreements and a legal understanding which has to be followed up with the commitment of resources from the governments involved."

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