A South African private company has said that it has plans to take over a string of national parks throughout Africa.
By Martin Plaut
Sub-Saharan countries said to benefit from the plan are Zambia, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique.
The plan will benefit Zambia, Malawi Mozambique
The scheme, which is the brainchild of a Dutch multi-millionaire and nature conservationist, Paul van Vlissingen, has won the support of an extraordinary range of groups and individuals, including former South Africa president Nelson Mandela, the US State Department and even the World Bank.
The plan came about after Paul van Vlissingen had a discussion with Mr Mandela in 1998.
Mr Mandela told him that Africa had so many other priorities, including education, social services and treating HIV/Aids, that there were few resources left over to provide for the continent's wildlife.
As a result, many game parks are being badly neglected, offering little to nature conservation or to the people of Africa.
The Dutch tycoon, whose family runs the Makro chain of wholesalers, came up with an initiative designed to save Africa's ailing game reserves.
Many, he argues, exist only on paper, with underpaid rangers looking after parks that have been hunted bare by poachers.
The scheme was to found a private company, African Parks Management and Finance Company, to take them over.
Although it is a company, it is designed to bring together public and private resources, says Mr van Vlissingen.
"The state could bring in expertise, scientists, animals from other national parks and land, and I could bring in management expertise and the drive to make it go," he explains.
Critics say that the scheme is "ill-conceived"
Mr van Vlissingen claims the Marakele national park which the company runs north of Johannesburg has been a success, with a number of rare species now well established.
Now he is looking further afield and he already has a contract to run two parks in Zambia, Sioma Ngwezi and Liuwa Plains.
Sioma is described by the Zambian tourism authorities as "completely undeveloped and rarely visited", and there is clearly much for the company to do.
But the plan has not been without its critics. In April, a Zambian opposition member of parliament declared the deal as "ill-conceived, null and void".
Speaking at the press conference in Lusaka, Livingstone MP Sakwiba Sikota said people behind the proposed management of the parks by African Parks should be exposed and investigated.
Mr Vlissingen fears that "Africa's wildlife will be wiped out in less than a generation"
"This is an ill-conceived agreement, it borders on theft and plunder of the resources of the people of Barotseland and should be thrown out.
"No company should be given absolute rights over the people's natural resources unless it is owned 100% by the people of Barotseland themselves," he said.
In Malawi the company has a 25-year management agreement to run the Majete, a government-owned reserve in the south of the country.
Here again the park is in a poor state.
Malawi tourism authorities say the park recorded many species, including elephant, sable, kudu, hartebeest, waterbuck, bushbuck and duiker.
"But few remain owing to heavy poaching, so it is best to forget about mammals and appreciate the reserve simply as a beautiful wilderness area," the authorities say.
African Parks is currently negotiating to take over other nature reserves in Mozambique, Uganda and Kenya. Mr van Vlissingen accepts that his plans are not only radical, but stir up controversy.
Africa's national parks are said to be neglected
But he promises that although his company will be run along commercial lines, profits will be ploughed back into the countries in which they operate.
He believes that unless a radical approach to game conservancy is adopted, Africa's wildlife will be wiped out in less than a generation.