How Africa’s largest Cold War battlefield could become an elephant sanctuary (Angola)


Roland Oliphant, The Telegraph

Date Published

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It was the biggest battle fought on African soil since the Second World War: a titanic clash in a civil war that left swathes of Angola covered in landmines and devastated the country’s once thriving wildlife. 

Thirty years on, the battlefield of Cuito Cuanavale in southeastern Angola is at the centre of a plan to bring home thousands of “refugee” elephants who fled the fighting and its deadly legacy.

“The elephants might not speak Portuguese or carry passports, but they want to come home,” Paula Coelho, Angola’s environment minister told The Daily Telegraph in an exclusive interview.

Her plan, which has won backing from the Duke of Sussex, will see Angola plough $60 million (£47 million) of its own money into clearing 153 mine fields around the headwaters of the Okavango River over the next five years. 

The initiative is backed by the Halo Trust, the British demining charity, which has promised to match the Angolan investment to clear further minefields.  

There are only about 3,300 elephants in Angola today, according to a 2016 study.

That is a fraction of the 250,000 elephants, or roughly half Africa’s surviving population, estimated to live in the Kavango and Zambezi (KOZA) river ecosystem, a sprawling landscape of river, swamp and savanna that includes Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, as well as a large chunk of southeastern Angola.   

Clearing the mines, it is hoped, will ease the pressure on neighbouring states that saw Botswana controversially lift a five-year ban on hunting the beasts last month. 

Ms Coelho, a career civil servant who was appointed environment minister just two years ago, described the project as a part of a plan to diversity the country’s oil-dependent economy.

Clearing minefields, she hopes, will boost tourism, agriculture, and living standards as well as saving human and animal lives. It is also a PR exercise, designed to prove to foreign governments and investors that Angola has moved on from what she calls an era of “kleptocracy.” 

“Angola has for a long time been seen as a closed paranoid authoritarian country. Now this is all out,” she told a gathering that included Rory Stewart, the international development secretary, at Chatham House last week. “Angola knows its needs to develop and preserve its environment. We are looking for assistance.”

She has made Britain the focus of her environmental diplomacy, partly, she says “because it cares.” She cites the Duke of Cambridge’s address to an Illegal Wildlife Trade conference in London last year as an example of “commitment to the world.”

Angola is one of the most active members of the Elephant Protection Initiative, a British-backed alliance of African governments committed to ending the ivory trade.

Ms Coelho says she has requested funding and assistance with equipment, training, and the other paraphernalia of building a viable wildlife tourism industry. 

The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural affairs has contributed £327,000 to a project developing investigation and prosecution capacity to crack down on the illegal Wildlife Trade in Angola.  

While deminers including the Halo trust have cleared more than half of them, they continue to pose a threat to civilians.  The 1987-1988 battle of Cuito Cuanavale saw Cuban-backed government troops clash with UNITA rebels and their South African allies in what would become the climatic battle of the Cold War in Africa. 

The struggle, which ended indecisively but eventually led to a South African withdrawal, saw both sides lay extensive mine fields across south-east Angola. 

There is strong evidence that elephants, like humans, remember and refuse to return to mined areas.  Satellite collars fitted to elephant matriarchs who lead herds in neighbouring countries show they regularly troop north from Botswana and Namibia into Angola, only to stop short and turn back just inside the border. 

“They can go further east but they will not go further north” said Ms Coelho. “They stay there. They might sometimes cross the river, but then they stop.”

Time, she says, is of the essence. 

Botswana, which is home to about a third of the elephants in Africa, has said it is struggling to manage its own vast elephant population and has lifted a five-year ban on hunting. 

The government there argues that limited hunting is necessary to help manage increasing incidents of human-elephant conflict. 

“There is no doubt there is pressure on the land in neighbouring countries,” said Ms Coelho. “If we can open the green corridors to Angola, we can be part of the solution.”