Five Southern African nations on Thursday agreed to form the world's largest international conservation area in an effort to protect nearly half of the continent's elephants and a vast range of animals, birds and plants, many endangered by poaching and human encroachment.
At a ceremony in Namibia on Thursday government ministers from Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe put their official seal on a cross-border treaty set to combine 36 nature preserves and surrounding areas.
The World Wildlife Fund said the countries will cooperate on measures to allow animals to roam freely across their borders over 170,000 square miles (440,000 square kilometers), almost the size of Sweden.
The Kavango Zambezi area includes the Victoria Falls World Heritage site in Zimbabwe and Botswana's famed swampland of the Okavango Delta.
Conservationists say historical migration routes of animals have been curtailed by national borders and man-made conflict. The decades-long civil war in Angola saw elephant herds, notoriously skittish to gunfire, fleeing far from their own habitats.
Already, Botswana is dismantling a fence on its border with Namibia after steps were taken to curb the spread of animal diseases.
According to the treaty put into effect Thursday, the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, known as KAZA, is home to about 45 percent of Africa's elephants. Along with other game animals, it has a rare heritage of at least 600 species of birds and 3,000 species of plants.
Previous attempts to set up massive cross-border conservancies in Africa have failed largely because impoverished local communities weren't engaged to help before governments signed up, said Chris Weaver, the World Wildlife Fund's regional director in Namibia.
"This is very different. It has a very strong community focus," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
He said local communities are getting jobs and revenue from tourism in return for their role in protecting the environment.
An independent secretariat has been established to coordinate work between state wildlife authorities and community groups across the region. The German KFW development bank plowed $40 million into getting the KAZA conservancy up and running, Weaver said.
Last year, he said, rural Namibians earned some $700,000 from their own conservation-related activities. The money went toward further training, transportation, water supplies and improvements for schools and clinics.
Weaver said in recent history wildlife and nature preserves traditionally belonged to state governments. That had encouraged poachers to steal animals from the state, a distant and alien owner.
Now the KAZA conservancy offered tangible benefits across the board to communities and member countries.
"It is good news for conservation in southern Africa," Weaver said.