The inconsiderate behaviour of tourists has led Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park to lose its unique selling point – unescorted walking.
Until now, the game sanctuary has been one of a very few in Africa that has allowed visitors to wander about unguided in big game territory. The practice has been marketed as one of the park’s exceptional experiences. While the danger of encountering predators immediately springs to mind, defenders of unguided walking say there have been few incidents in relation to the number of tourists who participate in the activity.
But concern about increasing unsanctioned and uncontrolled human behaviour has led the Zimbabwe Parks & Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) to ban all unguided walking. Flouting of the rules runs a whole gamut from chasing and crowding animals, to unlicensed tour operating and commercial photographers, to off-road driving. The culprits appear to be a small minority, but incidents have grown along with the park’s popularity.
The restriction has pre-empted concerned private sector’s efforts to introduce self-regulation and thereby avoid a blanket ban on walking, reducing Mana Pools to another “typical game park”, says the Zambezi Society, a non-profit organisation committed to conserving the wildlife resources of the Zambezi River.
With the Lower Zambezi Tour Operators Association (LZTOA) and other stakeholders, the society began working on a collaborative set of recommendations some months back, aiming to present a reconstituted code of conduct to national park authorities. States PRO Sally Wynn: “The plan was that all park visitors would be required to read the code of conduct and sign that they agreed to abide by it. This signature would then make them liable for a fine or other such disciplinary measure, if they were found to have breached the code.”
But Wynn says while consultations were afoot, the Zimbabwean parks authorities came under pressure from the country’s armed forces to tighten security, following a time-consuming and expensive rescue attempt on Mount Inyangani in the Eastern Highlands last year, where a mountain-walker disappeared without trace.
While visitors will now have to take their walks accompanied by a ranger or professional guide, the ZPWMA’s stretched resources also come into play; it is unlikely to provide sufficient guides for this purpose. Guidance will come at a cost too – US$25 a day for groups of three to six and US$30 per hour for smaller groups (non-resident rate). Visitors will, however, be permitted to bring a professional guide with them during their stay.
Founder of Bulawayo-based African Bush Camps, Beks Ndlovu, says the ban is a great pity. “We do, however, understand the reasoning behind the ban, based on the abuse that has taken place by certain visitors in the past and the affect this has had, not only on the wildlife but also on the enjoyment of other guests visiting the national park.”
Despite the ban, the Zambezi Society will be pushing ahead towards compromise. Wynn told Tourism Update there was merit in finalising and implementing the code of conduct, together with the parks authority, so that a more controlled framework for responsible public walking could be re-instated. The society has posted a detailed statement on its website.
A spokesperson for Goliath Safaris, which operates in Mana Pools, also sounded a note of optimism. “We know that through continued dialogue with National Parks, the Zambezi Society, which represents the public, and LZTOA representing operators, this matter will be resolved in a manner that will continue to preserve Mana’s World Heritage Status and its reputation as one of Africa’s finest national parks.”
Ndlovu, however, cautions that a positive outcome could be some time off. “Knowing the limited resources that National Parks has today, I do not believe that there is a sound resolution at this stage. However, with access to better resources in the future, there would be potential for a sound resolution to satisfy all parties.”