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New visa to free up travel in world's largest conservation zone

From Aja Harris and Oliver Joy, CNN
updated 8:15 AM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is considered the world's largest wildlife preservation. It spans five African nations including Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana. The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA) is considered the world's largest wildlife preservation. It spans five African nations including Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
KAZA Conservation Area
  • KAZA conservation area spans Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana
  • It is home to rhinos, lions and world's largest population of African elephants
  • The five countries are working to make it easier to cross borders

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Chobe National Park, Botswana (CNN) -- There are few places in the world that conjure the same kind of imagery as the Chobe National Park in Botswana.

Drifting through the savannas, torrents of water wind-off into a sunlit horizon; cheetahs stalk their prey as flocks of gazelle prance through the long, parched grass; and African elephants traverse hundreds of miles in search of greener pastures and fresh watering holes.

Poniso Shamukuni, a professional guide at Botswana's Chobe Park, said the country's environment and wildlife is like no other.

"I enjoy seeing the biodiversity and I enjoy seeing the natural resources," he added, "when tourists are really into it... taking pictures of animals, I also enjoy that."

An oasis of wildlife, located in northern Botswana, Chobe is part of an international conservation region in southern Africa, spanning five countries and nearly 440,000 square kilometers. The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area -- known as KAZA -- is a partnership between Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.

Read more: Namibia: A wildlife photographer's paradise

Twice the size of the UK and larger than Germany and Austria combined, KAZA is considered the world's largest wildlife preservation. The area draws tourists from all over globe and is also home to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, located on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

To protect the region's natural beauty and attract tourists and investors worldwide, international cooperation between the five countries aims to pool resources to preserve each nation's delicate ecosystem while also opening borders.

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But visa restrictions mean that traveling between countries is an exasperating and tricky affair for visitors.

Read more: Could South Africa's horn sale end rhino slaughter?

KAZA program manager Frederick Dipotso said the process is also very expensive, with tourists currently required to apply for visas at border gates.

But Dipotso is confident member governments can eventually come to an agreement.

He said: "The KAZA visa is meant to have a one-stop shop where you get your visa and then you can easily travel to Angola ... Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe."

The organization is now working with Zimbabwe and Zambia on a pilot visa. Dipotso added: "We expect the pilot to be completed by end of February 2014."

Read more: Kenya implants microchips to fight poaching

An international pact would allow visitors to experience the full extent of Africa's natural wonders.

Tourists visiting KAZA can see the continent's "Big Five" of leopards, rhinos, buffalo, lions and the world's largest population of African elephants, as well as 650 different species of birds and 160 types of fish.

Safari holidaymakers also have the opportunity to spot rare creatures roaming the region's dusty plains, including the black rhino, cheetahs and African wild dogs.

Read more: Botswana economy set to sparkle after diamond deal

Shamukuni, who leads expeditions into the park every day, said: "October and November are the biggest months, that is when we see a lot of tourists coming just before the rainy season."

Covering 36 protected areas, KAZA also plays a vital role in the war against poaching as the organization seeks to engage and employ local communities in return for preserving the wildlife.

Dipotso said KAZA has a good chance of being successful in the future because of the area's lack of mineral wealth, meaning few international disputes over territory are likely to arise.

Botswana is a very safe country... our economy is doing well. We're politically stable and lots of tourists want to go to the places where they feel it's safe.
Poniso Shamukuni, Chobe Park guide

He added: "Currently there are no minerals; minerals sometimes take priority over conservation."

Dipotso said that tourists, predominantly from Europe and Asia, have nothing to fear when it comes to past political turmoil or violence in member KAZA countries, notably in Angola and Zimbabwe.

He added: "Things are quite calm... throughout the KAZA Partner countries; perhaps there has not been proper communication on the stability of the region."

Read more: Helicopters versus drones: the cost of Rhino warfare

Botswana in particular is considered one of the most stable and safe countries for tourists in Africa. The country has a blossoming economy and financial services industry with GDP per capita -- an indicator of a country's living standard -- one of the highest in Africa.

Shamukuni believes Botswana's growing international reputation is key to attracting more visitors.

"Botswana is a very safe country," he said. "As a country our economy is doing well. We're politically stable and lots of tourists want to go to the places where they feel it's safe."

CNN's Stephanie Ott contributed to this report.

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