In Angola, the Duke of Sussex joins quest to eradicate landmines

Clearing mines in the Okavango region is ushering in a new era of wildlife protection and ecotourism in one of the last wild places on earth.

Published 13 Oct 2019, 08:59 BST
Angola was heavily mined during decades of civil war. Now, the goverment has partnered with conservationists ...
Angola was heavily mined during decades of civil war. Now, the goverment has partnered with conservationists to clear two national parks in the hopes of attracting wildlife and tourists. Experts with the HALO Trust, a demining organisation, painstakingly extract land mines and remotely detonate them.
Photograph by Cory Richards, Nat Geo Image Collection

Early one morning in late September, the hum of a metal detector fills the air in a sparse field. A man in a plastic face shield and blue armored vest is crouched near the ground, scanning the wand over a metre-wide lane. He carefully marks the clear path with red-painted sticks: Inside is safe, outside is potentially deadly. He works in a former battlefield in a remote corner of southeastern Angola where rebel troops staged their final clashes at the end of a civil war nearly two decades ago. Today, it’s a heavily mined national park. Peering over the de-miner’s shoulder is Prince Harry, the Duke of Sussex.

Angola, which spans nearly half a million square miles along Africa’s west coast, was mined during its 27-year civil war. When it ended, in 2002, the country doubled-down on oil production and neglected its vast parks and diverse wildlife. Now, in the wake of falling oil prices, Angola has begun to open to conservationists and tourists. In June, the government pledged £52 million for the first major demining of a protected area. Over the next three years, a demining NGO called HALO Trust, will clear this minefield and 152 others across more than 30,000 square miles in Luengue-Luiana and Mavinga National Parks. The effort will usher in a new era of ecotourism and protection for one of the last and most endangered wild places on Earth.

Also at stake is the survival of the Okavango River, which runs from Angola to Botswana and feeds the ecosystem of this part of southern Africa, and the survival of the continent’s famous elephants. If caution isn’t paid, clearing the land of mines could open the parks to poachers and corporations, putting the wildlife and wilderness in more danger. With enough protection, these parks could be one of the few refuges left for wildlife, including those that fled the war years ago. Tourists who take luxurious vacations in neighbouring countries could come to safari. But right now, both the animals and tourists know it’s not safe.

Prince Harry’s visit to Angola was his most personal stop on a whirlwind four-country tour of southern Africa. Twenty-two years ago, his mother, Princess Diana, walked through a cleared minefield in Angola and propelled the issue of landmines, which have killed an estimated 88,000 thousand people in Angola, to the world stage. Later that year, 122 countries signed the Ottawa Treaty, a pact to rid the world of landmines by 2025.

The site of her walk, in a city called Huambo, now sports new buildings and a neat row of young trees where there once were mines. Prince Harry’s minefield, an hour-and-a-half flight away, was the scene of the worst battle in Africa since World War II. It’s the most heavily mined province in Angola. Landmines are laid to slow an incoming enemy, but they’re often left in the aftermath and continue to maim and kill long after war ends.

Just beyond a sprinkling of trees, government ministers, ambassadors, and wealthy donors crane to see the minefield’s edge and the historic moment: Prince Harry thanked the de-miner, straightened up, and strolled down the newly cleared path, just as his mother had two decades ago. Tall signs sporting skull-and-crossbones and the warning “PERIGO MINAS!” (“Danger mines!”) flanked the way. The pictures would soon be spliced next to the iconic photo of his mother and splashed on front pages across the world, drawing, he hoped, much-needed attention and funds.

Starting in the floodplains of Angola, water trickles into two rivers that converge to form the Okavango, which then flows into Namibia and Botswana. The Okavango feeds a tourism industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars to Angola’s southern neighbor, Botswana. The river has turned the entry city of Maun into the country’s tourism capital. Some 60 lodges and camps cater to the delta’s visitors. Angola—the source of it all—reaps few rewards. The survival of these economies and ecosystems, which about a million people rely on, rests on the protection of the Okavango basin.

A day earlier, in Botswana, Harry sat in the backyard of his old friend Dr. Mike Chase, the founder of Elephants Without Borders. Chase lives in Kasane, the gateway to Chobe National Park, and a sign outside his gate reads “Elephant Corridor.” In his yard, he raises orphaned elephants.

Earlier that day, the prince had joined an anti-poaching unit who patrol the river dividing Botswana and Namibia for criminal activity. Botswana, with its large swathes of protected land and armed rangers, has long been considered a refuge for elephants. Up to 130,000 savannah elephants call it home—one third of those left on the continent.

An African elephant wades into the floodplains of the Okavango River Basin, which feed downstream into the Okavango River. The basin area is currently unprotected. Conservationists warn its preservation is vital for the survival of the ecosystems that rely on the river.
Photograph by James Kydd, Nat Geo Image Collection

Chase was worried. Earlier this year, his organisation revealed that Botswana had a poaching problem. Elephants had been killed and their tusks sawn off—likely sold to the Asian market, where the tusks are believed to have medicinal properties. An aerial survey observed more than a hundred dead elephants around the Okavango delta region; about 90 percent of them had been poached. (These findings have been the source of contention with the conservation community and government).

A growing population of elephants, thanks to conservation efforts, has forced some of the five-ton animals out of protected zones. Areas unaccustomed to sharing land with them have come into conflict with the potentially destructive and dangerous creature. To add to the pressure, Botswana lifted its ban on trophy hunting earlier this year, opening up the country to sport hunters. To relieve the pressure on Botswana, Chase believes that 50,000 of Botswana’s elephants should head north—once Angola’s parks are ready to safely house them.

The Cuito River converges with the Cubango River in southern Angola to flow into Namibia and Botswana as the Okavango River.

“What we would like is for them to do a 180 and turn back north into Angola” Chase said. “Because a lot of our elephants are essentially—”

“Refugees.” Prince Harry chimed in. Via satellite collars that track the elephants’ movement, researchers have watched as they reach the open northern border of Botswana and turn back, seemingly sensing danger from the mines and poachers. “You can’t just randomly select the nearest elephants to the Angolan border and say these ones want to go home. The only way to do this is to create that corridor, making sure it’s safe. They won’t go anywhere they know is not safe.”

After the war ended in 2002, Angola assessed its damage. Fighting is dangerous for wildlife caught in the crosshairs, but it keeps poachers at bay. As a young researcher, Chase watched as elephants began “a long walk to freedom” from Botswana, through Namibia, and back to Angola just one year after the war, but they were soon chased out again by poachers. He thinks they will return. “I’m confident that Angola is the promised land for Botswana’s wildlife and elephants,” he says. And if not? It’s an ominous sign. “If we can’t save the African elephant what is the future for Africa’s wildlife?”

In post-war Angola, it has been hard for environmentalists to compete for funding against other humanitarian issues, from health care to food aid. For years, environmental posts were given to opposition parties and shoved to the backburner, says Vladimir Russo, a leading Angolan environmentalist. Only a handful of environmental education and conservation NGOs remain. But recently, the government has made fresh commitments, including the £52 million demining pledge.

Demining, warns Russo, is only the beginning. “If you demine areas and open corridors for animals and people—but there are no patrols—we will see a wipeout of the animals coming back,” says Russo. “Elephants are being killed as we speak.” Effectively protecting wildlife in these remote areas requires well-trained rangers to patrol for poachers, planes, drones, and vehicles that can handle the difficult terrain. Russo believes the Angolan government can’t do it alone—not without buy-in from an international organisation like African Parks, which manages embattled parks across the continent.

The Angolan government is discussing these partnership options as it begins to tackle the southeastern region. At the same time, oil—the country’s main export—has been dropping in price. The government sees this region as a way to diversify their economy with ecotourism. “How we can take a profit without damaging [the environment]?” asks Dr. Paula Coelho, the minister of environment. In September, the government appointed a new agency to ensure the Okavango region is protected and profitable. Dr. Coelho says the region will need everything from renewable energy sources to local education programs to tourist camps.

In 1997, Princess Diana strolled through the city of Huambo, in Angola, which had been heavily mined during the war. This area is now a busy central street.
Photograph by , Nat Geo Image Collection
In September, Prince Harry walked through a recently cleared minefield in Dirico, Angola, following his mother's footsteps in the push for eradication of mines.
Photograph by Dominic Lipinski, Getty

Right now, it is unclear what wildlife remains in these parks. A 2016 study estimated only 10 to 30 lions are left, and there are likely cheetahs, elephants, lions, and other large mammals. A national inventory of wildlife is currently underway, says Dr. Coelho, who was recently surprised to learn that giraffes had moved into the parks.

The Luengue-Luiana and Mavinga National Parks, which will be demined over the next three years, are part of the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area (KAZA). The cross-border initiative, which formed in 2011, spans national parks across five countries and is one of the largest protected areas in the world.

“The government [Angolan] is creating conditions so that local communities can start to benefit more directly from wildlife,” says Kai Collins, director of National Geographic’s Okavango Wilderness Project, which has spent five years surveying the ecosystem of the river. Above the two KAZA national parks in Angola is the unheralded and unprotected lifeblood of southern Africa: the greater Okavango basin. This is where the Okavango River begins. Right now, it’s threatened by natural resources extraction, landmines, and new development projects. Animals are being killed for bushmeat and large fires are sweeping across the region. To demine all the minefields around the river systems that feed the delta will require an additional £52 million, Collins says.

Prince Harry used his visit to urge his well-heeled international audience not to leave the job of protecting the Okavango half finished. The previous night a few dozen guests had slept in a luxurious tented camp next to the Cuito River, just a few miles away from the minefield. If the evening was a test for tourism, it went smoothly. But without cell reception, the logistics took months to arrange. Right now, the easiest way in—other than private plane—is by taking a boat from Namibia. Inside, the roads are so rough that four-wheel drives have trouble navigating and large trucks are often deployed to rescue them.

But it was easy to see the potential for adventure tourism: Visitors slept in tents near the river’s edge, not far from where a nine-foot crocodile had recently been spotted. They ate steak and ice cream trucked in from South Africa and drank beers around a bonfire. With no light pollution, the sky was crammed with stars.

The next morning, shortly after walking through the cleared minefield, Prince Harry stood in front of his guests and made a plea: “Just as these rivers extend for miles, so must this project extend far beyond [here],” he said. “Outside of the national parks, large parts of this crucial watershed also need to be cleared of landmines."

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