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What does transboundary conservation mean and why does it matter?

Nature doesn’t adhere to man-made boundaries. Take the plains zebra, which migrates each year between the Chobe River floodplains in Namibia and Nxai Pan National Park in Botswana; or the Danube river, which winds from Germany to Ukraine, providing drinking water to about 20 million people along the way. Both cross international borders on their journeys, and both need to be protected. But no one country can completely protect something that isn’t entirely under their control.

Transboundary conservation means countries that share natural resources work together to manage them wisely, for the benefit of all. It sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s not easy when valuable resources, behavior change, and politics come into play. Two countries sharing an ecosystem may have a history of conflict or injustice. There could be competing national priorities or disagreements on how to proceed.

WWF helps facilitate this collaboration all over the world as a third-party advocate for nature. We consult with government leaders, bringing scientific expertise and plans for action moving forward. It’s not an easy job, but successes in transboundary conservation can mean the difference between destruction and protection of some of the world’s most valuable resources.

To see a transboundary conservation success, look to the Pantanal. It’s the world’s largest tropical wetland, stretching through three South American countries. The Pantanal’s 42 million acres are home to more than 4,700 plant and animal species including jaguars, caimans, and hundreds of native and migratory birds. The Pantanal protects millions of people from floods each year by soaking up water during the rainy season like a giant reservoir, and slowly releasing it during the drier months.

In recent years, the Pantanal has faced threats from unsustainable infrastructure development, pollution, and deforestation. In 2018 after years of collaboration, Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay signed the Declaration for the Conservation, Integrated, and Sustainable Development of the Pantanal. This landmark agreement commits the nations to devising and implementing coordinated plans, ensuring all development of the Pantanal is sustainable. They also all committed to maintaining the quality and quantity of water in the Paraguay River Basin.

Transboundary conservation also works for sustaining wildlife, as seen in Africa’s Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). Here, five countries—Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe—work both independently and collaboratively to manage the conservation area made up of protected areas, communal lands, private lands, and game reserves. More than 200 different mammal species call this place home, including almost half of Africa’s elephants.

In 2011, the five nations established KAZA with a shared vision to conserve wild expanses. They recognized the value in protecting species—for the good of wildlife and the communities that rely on tourism as a source of income. At 106 million acres and roughly the size of France, KAZA is a model for transboundary conservation across Africa and the world.

Today, as environmental threats continue to grow in scope, transboundary conservation is more important than ever. We must work together to save our shared resources and push beyond borders to protect the planet.