Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Paradise lost?

The last blogpost, 'Victoria Falls - A Fragile Power', is the text of an article written by Sally Wynn and originally published 20 years ago in Africa Geographic magazine. It is critical of developments around Victoria Falls, developments which have continued in the years since it was first written, notably with large areas being fenced off for the operations of captive animal interactions

Other recent developments include the Wild Horizon's Gorge Swing site below the Victoria Falls Hotel, which now dominates the second gorge following recent expansion to accommodate a restaurant overlooking the gorge - including the clearing of a large section of bush for a coach and car park.

When Sally Wynn wrote her article on the Falls, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge had just recently opened (in November 1994) - note her comment: "Victoria Falls Safari Lodge, for example, is built on land originally set aside as a wildlife corridor from the Zambezi National Park to the river. This has created a whole new problem - keeping potentially dangerous large animals at a safe distance from tourists."

Over the two years I've been running this blog I've recorded many human-animal conflict events in Victoria Falls, including most recently a whole heard of buffalo chased into the town by lions. Some of these events have resulted in human deaths, including one which tragically occurred at VFSL itself. 

African Albida, who operate VFSL, have just launched another large development, Santonga, on virgin land adjoining the lodge, and with stories circulating of planned hotel developments on neighboring land along the river at this point, an essential wildlife corridor that has allowed animal movement to and from the river will be almost completely blocked. In fact it will complete an arc of development encircling the falls on the Zimbabwean side, and preventing larger animals accessing the Big Tree/Zambezi Drive area just above the Falls, which to this day frequented by elephant and buffalo and part of the magic of Victoria Falls. It may even result in the reduction of wildlife visiting the famous VFSL waterhole, as it is located on this wildlife-corridor, and will probably result in more potentially fatal human-wildlife conflict events whilst animals try to find new routes to and from the river.

The Santonga development was recently described by Tourism and Hospitality Industry Minister Walter Mzembi as a biodiversity' project and by reporters as a 'conservation park'. It appears to have little biodiversity or conservation value by any traditional definitions of either word. However it does sound more like a theme park with captive animal interactions. When will tourism operators in Zimbabwe (and Zambia, who are planning similar captive parks on their side of the river) realize that tourists want to see Africa's wild animals in the wild, not enslaved into novelty tourism activities - they can see captive animals in zoos and safari parks in their own countries. And even these are going out of fashion and struggling to survive.

Ironically Africa Albida and VFSL have repeatedly been the winner of 'green' eco-awards over its first 20 years (given, of course, by the tourism industry rather than by conservationists!). Much of this has been in valid recognition of its support for local anti-poaching initiatives. It is a reputation, however, about to be destroyed, together with the degradation of a significant element of the  ecological value of the immediate Falls.environment.

Victoria Falls is a unique and fragile ecological environment, one that is being suffocated, bit by bit, by the ever growing demands for development
, part of what Mzembi hails as the creation a 'Niagara' - a US$30 billion economy around Victoria Falls - and including a 'Disneyland in Africa' development next to the Victoria Falls Airport.

Together with the development of the Batoka Gorge Dam, a project which threatens to flood the rapids below the Falls, these  natural wonder of the Victoria Falls is slowly being despoiled, despite all the designations designed to protect it. 

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