At its essence, southern Africa’s Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area is a study in convergence, confluence and coexistence. Connecting vast savannahs, grasslands, marshes, woodlands, saltpans and scrublands across parts of five nations, the 106-million-acre region known as KAZA lies in Africa’s Kavango and Zambezi river basins where Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe converge.
Established in 2011, KAZA brought each nation’s government together to work in tandem with environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Peace Parks Foundation to create what remains the world’s largest transboundary conservation landscape. Their shared ambitions—to protect the region’s wildlife, strengthen local communities and ensure they benefit from wildlife on their land, and promote a premier sustainable tourism experience to help underpin those efforts—also reveal how interconnected each goal is to ensuring KAZA’s success.
Here, a look at how the unprecedented endeavor benefits African wildlife, local communities and travelers alike—and how visitors can contribute to KAZA’s mission while on Natural Habitat Adventures’ Secluded Botswana Safari.
KAZA’s Benefits to Wildlife
Given its immensity and the scope of flora and fauna it shelters, KAZA plays a starring role in sustaining Africa’s biodiversity. Spanning an area roughly the size of France and connecting more than 20 national parks, KAZA is home to some 3,000 plant species, including 100 endemics, 600 bird species and 130 types of reptiles. The region also sustains some 200 mammal species, including a host that requires ample room to roam, such as lions, cheetahs, plains zebras, wildebeest, buffaloes, African wild dogs and the continent’s largest contiguous population of elephants. In fact, nearly half (an estimated 225,000) of Africa’s endangered elephant population resides in the KAZA region.
Roaming megafauna such as African elephants, of course, aren’t aware of national borders, which is why transboundary cooperation among KAZA’s participating countries is so critical. It’s also why WWF has focused much of its attention on securing defined cross-border wildlife dispersal areas based on current and historical migration routes.
“The enormity of this landscape is beyond comprehension, and the freedom wildlife has to roam through these corridors and across national boundaries is the essence of wilderness,” says Court Whelan, Nat Hab’s Chief Sustainability Officer. “It’s all made possible,” he adds, “due to the amazing work WWF and others have done to create KAZA.”
The region’s Kwando River dispersal area, for instance, allows for unfettered passage (read: no roads or border fences) through portions of four KAZA countries, including Angola—where elephant populations largely disappeared after decades of war and poaching—and Botswana, long a model of ecotourism and an area where elephant populations are relatively high. Another corridor, the Hwange-Makgadikgadi-Nxai Pan dispersal area, links popular wildlife and tourism areas in Botswana with elephants’ upriver habitat in Zimbabwe.
Additional KAZA-wide initiatives, buoyed by WWF efforts at both the local and national levels, include combatting commercial poaching, preserving wildlife habitats, and conducting elephant surveys. Toward the latter goal, in July 2022, partner countries plan to launch a coordinated, four-month-long aerial survey that will help inform a collective management plan for KAZA countries, whose collaborative efforts seem to be paying off: According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the number of the region’s savannah elephants are currently stable or increasing.
KAZA’s Benefits to Local Communities
In a region that’s also home to some 2.6 million people—many of them subsistence farmers—coexistence is key. It’s why WWF also works to strengthen local communities and partner with them to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Those free-roaming elephants, for instance, can destroy crops, and top predators like lions can pose threats to livestock as well as humans, both to their livelihoods and lives. Fortunately, integrated approaches to managing human-wildlife conflicts in KAZA have led to significant decreases in livestock killings, according to WWF, which also partners with communities to manage the region’s precious water resources so that both wildlife and people have access. Strategies range from employing rainwater harvesting and low-water farming techniques to flagging threats posed by hydroelectric dams.
Protecting wildlife while simultaneously engaging and strengthening local communities also pays dividends: Well-managed wildlife conservation ultimately brings in valuable tourism dollars to help fund both efforts.
“By involving local communities, you’re incentivizing conservation via the financial return to the community,” says Whelan. “Tourism creates jobs, careers and tremendous opportunities. Thus, you’re creating stakeholders who live in the very areas you’re visiting … and who will vehemently help protect the wildlife and ecosystems you’re striving to preserve.”
It’s equally imperative that such tourism also be done well. KAZA’s joint venture lodges, for starters, distribute funds among local communities and investors, and visits to community-run conservancies help create steady, and sustainable, employment for community members. Also essential: opting to travel with sustainable tourism providers such as Nat Hab, which designs its itineraries in conjunction with WWF, offsets 100% of carbon emissions from each trip and employs some of Africa’s top naturalist guides and Expedition Leaders.
KAZA’s Benefits to Travelers
KAZA’s outsize benefits extend to travelers, as well. Journeys here let visitors experience a who’s-who list of classic African landscapes, iconic wildlife species and a range of Indigenous cultures. On Nat Hab’s Secluded Botswana Safari, travelers soak in sprays from Victoria Falls in Zambia and track white rhinos with a local guide in Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park before connecting with locals in a nearby village. Later in Botswana, boating tours in Chobe National Park often lead to elephant sightings in the hundreds and mokoro (traditional dugout canoe) safaris in the Okavango Delta, the planet’s largest inland water system and the “beating heart of KAZA,” offer intimate glimpses of its myriad avian residents and novel wildlife like water-adapted antelopes. During stays at Gomoti Tented Camp in the Okavango Delta’s Santawani Concession, Nat Hab guests can also explore an immense, private community-owned reserve with opportunities to spy leopards, cheetahs and lions, and learn about wildlife conservation with a local researcher.
Wherever you are in KAZA, however, count on being wowed and perhaps at a loss for words: “The sense of awe is truly indescribable, but I’ll try,” says Whelan. “When in these areas, you have a feeling of remoteness and wilderness that is unlike anywhere else on Earth.”
Here’s to keeping it that way.