Victoria Falls under serious environmental threat

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The World Heritage status for Victoria Falls is under siege after hotel companies and environmental groups voiced their concerns on plans to
increase flights over the falls.

At present there are only 6 flight operators but an additional eight
is planned. Their argument is that an increased number of aircraft would damage the environment, worsen noise pollution, harm wildlife and lead to the cancellation of Victoria Falls’ World Heritage Site status.

Already two hotels have made formal complaints to World Heritage
Commission in Victoria Falls. “Daily we have to endure the noise and constant irritation from these aircraft which fly directly over and above the Victoria Falls Hotel” wrote K. Snater of Victoria Falls Hotel.

UNESCO had declared a 30 kilometer radius of Zimbabwean and Zambian
territory around the Victoria Falls, a World Heritage Site, in 1989. Victoria Falls is an international tourist draw card for Zimbabwe.

The heritage status came under severe threat in 2006 when the Zambian
government awarded 220 hectares of land in the 66 square kilometre Mosi-O-Tunya National Park at a cost of US$ 9 million, plus an undisclosed recurring levy, to South Africa’s Legacy Group Holdings for development over a 75-year period under a tourism concession programme.

Guests at the five-star Kingdom and Victoria Falls hotels where the helicopters fly just above the hotels during their flights over the rainforest say it is “a nuisance”. If the additional eight operators are given licences, it means 16 more helicopters, taking two from each operator, and if Zambia gives eight more licences it means 32 helicopters plus the existing seven. It
takes the whole number to 39 helicopters.

For environmental conservation reasons, only seven aircraft from both
Zimbabwe and Zambia are currently allowed at any given time to operate
over the rainforest adjoining the world-famous falls.

This is meant to preserve the delicate environment, curb noise pollution from the helicopters and protect the teeming wildlife.

Five of the seven helicopters fly from Zambia while the Zambezi Helicopter Company based in Zimbabwe has two. But eight potential helicopter operators have applied for licences to offer flights over the falls and the rainforest.

In this light, existing operators have written to the World Heritage Site committee, the local municipality, CAAZ and conservation group Environment Africa expressing their concern over the idea of increasing the number of operators.

Environment Africa manager Nhamo Chuma said the issue of helicopters,
if uncontrolled, will pose the single biggest threat to the falls’ status as a World Heritage Site. “The last thing this destination can afford is more negative publicity about the increased number of helicopters. Whatever decision is made should be done with environment conservation in mind, otherwise we will lose it,” he said.

Helicopter rides in Victoria Falls — also known as “the flights of the angels” — are popular with tourists, who pay amounts ranging between US$120 and US$200 for a 15-minute flight. The phrase is attributed to British explorer David Livingstone who once described the falls as: “A sight so wonderful that angels must have gazed down on it in flight”.

The noisy choppers fly slowly at a low level over the magnificent waterfalls, giving sightseers an opportunity to enjoy the unforgettable view and capture photographic souveniers. Microlights and other fixed-wing aircraft are also available to adventure seekers.

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