South Africa’s Tembe Elephant Park is undergoing a test phase to decide whether transitioning to an unfenced park is a plan which can and should be brought to life. It raises critical, fundamental questions: how can wildlife, landscapes and communities benefit from removing the fences dividing it from Maputo National Park in Mozambique, and what are the potential risks and challenges involved once the two areas become one? 

Dropping the fences which keep protected areas contained, and separate from each other, is a complex call to make. Decision-making on this scale – which sometimes transcends national borders – first demands a feasibility study into whether removing these fence lines can create positive impacts for both people and wildlife – benefiting communities and conservation.   

“Ecologically, being able to have a continuous protected area within this greater landscape of the transfrontier park is incredibly important,” says Catheriné Hanekom, District Ecologist at Ezemvelo – who co-manage Tembe.You need species to move; you need gene flow between the two protected areas.” Boosting biological and genetic diversity, throughout both protected areas, brings immeasurable benefits to the greater ecosystem; this means healthier and growing wildlife populations which can more effectively restore and balance the landscape. At the same time, she continues, “There are huge benefits to having a unified protected area that spans borders of countries. For example, looking at tourism – people can earn money when more visitors come to the parks.” 

The Challenges of Transboundary Conservation 

At 300 km² Tembe Elephant Park, a beautiful sand forest ecosystem in the middle of unspoiled bush, is a modest but important component of the Lubombo transboundary landscape. “The park is already pushing at the seams because the area is quite heavily stocked, and there’s nowhere for the animals to go. There are communities to the east, the west and the south, but there’s a large transfrontier area to the north with plenty of space into which animals can potentially migrate” says Richard Davies, in charge of Business and Enterprise Planning at Peace Parks. 

However, the potential conflict between humans and wildlife under these circumstances is a serious consideration. “The communities are worried that if animals like elephants and lions move, they are going to get into community areas,” says Richard. “And these are issues which we would need to explore: how we can mitigate them?”.  

The study, funded by USAID through their SPEED project, must provide evidence that peaceful coexistence is possible without fences. If this is the case, a transfrontier park can afford opportunities over and above the abundant ecological advantages. 

Extending Conservation Success to Communities 

In southern Africa, protecting wildlife and their habitats without threatening the lives and livelihoods of communities is a major challenge. By removing fences, there is great potential to resolve some of the issues surrounding conflict and income for people living within and near protected areas.  

Tembe itself has already become a resounding community conservation success story, a testament to the care and pride the Tembe people take in a project that continues to uplift their community in many ways. The prospect of alleviating poverty and extending this empowerment to communities in and alongside Maputo National Park is compelling. “The main goal here really is biodiversity and, if biodiversity wins, the communities and the local economies are ultimately going to benefit,” Catheriné concludes.  

Peace Parks’ 2050 Vision is to secure 980,000 km² of functional transboundary landscapes. Feasibility studies like these help us work towards achieving this vision. Visit Lubombo – Peace Parks Foundation to learn more about this magnificent transboundary landscape.