March 18, 2002

Airport for Swaziland?

The Swazi government is planning to build an international airport to increase tourism - in the process sacrificing a large proportion of the game the tourists will be coming to see.

The proposed R1,4-billion Millennium Airport near Mpaka in eastern Swaziland will be next to the Hlane and Mkhaya game parks, "the two most popular parks in Swaziland", says tour guide Douglas Dube. "The effect of the airport will spell disaster for the country's fauna ecology, eastern lowveld environment and tourism." All game birds, including several rare species, will have to be exterminated to ensure planes' safe landings and departures. "A large bird or flock of smaller birds can collide with a propeller or be sucked into an engine, so local bird populations are the first to go when a new airport is built. This is standard throughout the world," says Ted Reilly, executive director of Big Game Parks of Swaziland, which include Hlane and Mkhaya. Reilly, like other conservationists, is alarmed that no comprehensive environmental impact assessment for the airport has been undertaken. Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini announced the airport in 2000 as a way to boost tourism.

Hlane Royal Game Park, the largest reserve in Swaziland, is the site of King Mswati's annual traditional hunt, conducted with his warrior regiments. Mkhaya Game Reserve, 50km south, is a secured facility where endangered species are protected. "Hlane has the largest density of tree-nesting vultures in all of Southern Africa," says Reilly. "They prefer the lowveld environment. There are 160 nests currently in Hlane and 28 in Mkhaya. The adults and their offspring will be exterminated before the jets come."

Conservationists are not convinced that all the birds can be captured and transported elsewhere, or when released elsewhere will not return home. Another unknown will be the effect on the game parks' ecology when birds are eliminated. The rodent population will likely proliferate. Seasonal birds that depart the parks for northern destinations will suddenly go missing from their winter habitats. "Even if the birds are not removed, the jets will get them," says Ara Monadjem, a biologist at the University of Swaziland whose speciality is nesting raptors, of which there are 200 breeding pairs in the greater Hlane area. "We have five breeding pairs of the martial eagle. If just one is knocked dead every year by a plane, the population is soon extinct."

Ironically, the anti-poaching Swaziland Game Act carries stiff penalties for killing a listed species, which includes the parks' bird populations. Last week a hotel owner in Lavumisa was sent to prison for five years for possessing two rhino horn, which he attempted to sell to undercover game rangers. But conservationists fear the law may be amended or ignored "for the greater public interest of a new airport" once the money interests press ahead with development. They say that against their protests Hlane was cut in two by a highway so the trucks of a neighbouring sugar plantation could have a more direct route to market. "Hundreds of impala, warthogs and other animals are slaughtered each year crossing this highway," says Reilly. Meanwhile, in Hlane, tourists enjoying sundowners on the shore of a pond thrill at the sight of a flock of cranes rising into the sky, silhouetted against the sunset. But, perhaps, not for long. (MAIL&GUARDIAN)

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