Geopolitics, Wildlife, and Tourism: Botswana’s Tuli Block
Geopolitical conflicts often prove as harmful to wildlife as they do to humankind. Occasionally, however, discord between states can turn a border zone into a “no-man’s land” where wildlife can thrive. The prime example of such an unintentional reserve is the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) separating North from South Korea, a 2.5-mile (4 km) wide strip of land noted for its diverse and plentiful fauna. Many other examples are found in the historical record, particularly in aboriginal North America, were buffer zones between the territories of competing tribes were often noted for their abundance of wild animals. In some parts of the world, faunal legacies of long-vanished geopolitical buffers still exist. One example is Botswana’s Tuli Block, a wildlife-rich strip of land along the country’s southeastern border with South Africa.
The Tuli Block originated in a three-way struggle during the late 1800s among British colonialists, White Afrikaner herders (Boers), and the indigenous polities of southern Africa. At that time, the Tswana people were forging a kingdom in the region; Afrikaners were pushing north in search of new grazing lands; and British imperial agents were scheming for expansion. In 1885, Britain established a protectorate over Tswana-speaking Bechuanaland, the territory that would eventually form the core of modern Botswana. Tswana kings (or chiefs) continued to rule under British advisement, although their power would soon be whittled back. In 1895, concerned about the incursion of Afrikaner immigrants into his domain, King Khama III ceded a section of his borderlands to the British South Africa Company, the ambitious firm founded by the empire-builder Cecil Rhodes. Khama III figured that Rhodes could keep out the Boers, while Rhodes reckoned that the land would make a good route for his envisaged “Cape to Cairo” railroad.
The Tuli Block proved too rough and rocky for railroad construction. Before long, the company sold the land to White commercial ranchers in vast tracts—large enough to leave room for both cattle and wildlife. But livestock production proved only marginally profitable even in good years, and suffered deeply during recurrent droughts. Eventually, land owners turned to a new source of livelihood: game ranching. As originally envisaged, game ranchers would supplement their cattle operations by charging tourists to see—or shoot—wildlife on their property. In a short time, the “game” side of most ventures became more profitable that the livestock side; currently, as one travel-oriented website puts it, “Cattle ranches are fast becoming an endangered species with wild animals becoming the norm.” Most proprietors now manage their properties to enhance habitat rather than stock. As the Botswana Game Ranching Handbook puts it, “In terms of enterprise diversification, game ranching offers a better alternative than livestock farming. Ranchers can sell game for hunting, use their ranches for photographic safaris, game viewing, education and tourism.”
The Tuli Block has not featured prominently in Botswana’s tourist promotion literature, which tends to focus on large national parks and wildlife reserves farther north. But tourist authorities are now reassessing the region’s potential. Owing to its proximity to South Africa, the Tuli Block can attract relatively large numbers of short-term visitors. Local game ranchers hope that infrastructural investments will enhance their tourism operations. Poor cell-phone reception and treacherous roads are considered major impediments. Many Tuli visitors, however, appreciate the adventure afforded by the rough environment.
As most of the Tuli Block remains in private hands, ranches occasionally change hands. Several parcels appear to be currently on the market. One is a 17,287 hectare (42,000 acres) plot that features “two large old-fashioned ranch homesteads with pools…, 25 fully developed boreholes and 8 large earthen dams to supply water for the game.” Its resident wildlife are reported as follows: “Impala 3,000, Blue Wildebeest 150, Red Hartebeest 40, Eland 60, Zebra 100, Gemsbuck 30, Waterbuck 300, Kudu 1,000, Giraffe 15, Leopard 20, Bush pig 30, Blesbuck 30, Warthog 300, Ostrich 7, Bushbuck 50, Klipspringer 20, Spotted Hyena 25, Cheetah (nomadic), and Hippo 15.” The asking price is a mere $6,325,000. (In Palo Alto, California, that sum might get you one acre, four small houses, two robins, three sparrows, and a rat.)
Tuli Block game ranchers face several challenges in managing such large territories. Invasive cactus species have degraded large areas of land; removing such plants is laborious and unpleasant. Owing to the abundance of elephants, tree trunks must be wrapped in wire if substantial groves are to survive. Wildlife numbers must also be monitored if management plans are to be accurately followed. Yet labor in the sparsely settled Tuli Block is in short supply, and ranches often operate on thin margins. One strategy is to turn to well-off young people from wealthy countries who are eager for adventure, keen to do their part to conserve habitat, and willing to work for free. International service-learning organizations arrange such trips; one group, Projects Abroad, is currently running a conservation project in the Tuli Block, just over the Limpopo River from South Africa. As it happens, my seventeen-year-old son participated in the project this summer. He had a tremendous experience and was thrilled by the abundance and diversity of the local wildlife, although he did complain about the cactus cutting.