Stone-age artefacts and more recent Iron Age implements at many sites provide evidence of a very long and almost continuous presence of humans in the area making up the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Early inhabitants were San hunter-gatherers who left numerous rock-paintings scattered across the region, while Bantu people entered about 800 years ago, gradually displacing the San. The available evidence suggests that humans occurred at low density and were mostly confined to the more permanent river-courses. It is reasonable to assume from the continuous presence at some sites (Pafuri, for example) that humans and wildlife existed in harmony, with no major impact of humans on wildlife or the reverse. The arid nature of the environment, together with an abundance of predators and diseases (e.g. malaria) would have played a role in preventing large-scale human population growth and settlement. Nevertheless, sophisticated cultures already existed by the 16th century, as evidenced by the Thulamela and other ruins near Pafuri.
Reaching back as early as 1505, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to establish a permanent presence in what is now southern Mozambique, but confined themselves mainly to the coastal areas.
Their influence - as well as that of earlier Muslim Arabs who controlled the coast in early centuries - on the remote interior was limited initially to gold trading routes with the Munhumutapa Empire in Dzimbabwe (now Zimbabwe), large scale ivory trading from the 16th century onwards, and slave trading up till 1860.
The discovery of gold around Barberton and Pilgrims Rest in the latter half of the 19th century attracted large numbers of Europeans closer to this area, with sustained and increasing hunting pressure on wildlife for sport, food and trade. The massive destruction of game, together with the effects of the Rinderpest outbreak of 1896, led to the proclamation in 1898 of the Sabi Game Reserve in the then Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek (now South Africa). In 1926 this Reserve was greatly expanded into the current-day Kruger National Park.
In Zimbabwe the Gonarezhou Game Reserve, meaning “the home of the elephant”, was proclaimed in 1934, and later upgraded as the Gonarezhou National Park in 1975. As the name implies, it provided habitat to large herds of elephants, which were decimated during Zimbabwe's war of liberation, civil strife in bordering Mozambique, and drought during the 1980's. In later years community-based natural resource management in the form of the CAMPFIRE initiative was established with varying degrees of success in communal areas around this park. The outcome nevertheless has been that large areas in south-eastern Zimbabwe are still successfully managed as wildlife conservancies with tourism and game-farming as the main sources of income.
The Banhine National Park and Zinave National Park were originally proclaimed as hunting areas (Coutada's) in 1969, but both were upgraded to national park status in 1972. Limpopo National Park existed as a hunting concession area since 1969 and was not upgraded till 2001.
Civil war in Mozambique during the 1970's and 1980's resulted in a complete breakdown in the management of these wildlife sanctuaries and near-complete destruction of large mammals. The habitat remains in good condition however, so that re-establishment of game from Kruger National Park and other source-areas would be a viable and desirable exercise and therefore a game translocation programme was started in 2002 with over 4,500 animals having been relocated from Kruger National Park to Limpopo National Park to date.
The civil war in Mozambique also resulted in major social disruption with large-scale movement of people out of the area where the Limpopo National Park is presently situated. With peace again prevailing, people have been moving back into the area.
One of the main goals in the establishment of a TFCA is that the local communities will benefit from the increased eco-tourism to the area. This, in turn, is dependent on the communities’ involvement in the development of the park. The development of the Limpopo National Park therefore started with community consultations and with the dissemination of information about the envisaged transfrontier park. Two focal areas for resolving community concerns have been identified, namely realignment of the national park boundary along the Limpopo River and the development of a voluntary resettlement and compensation plan. Additionally, communities living in the Park’s buffer zone benefit from a 20% in Park revenues.
That conservation is a viable and legitimate form of land use, is amply demonstrated by the fact that the Kruger National Park is one of the top five attractions for tourists in South Africa, annually attracting over one million visitors to enjoy its wildlife and scenery, and generating income amounting to millions of Rands, sufficient to sustain itself independent of government support. This example of conservation as a successful business enterprise is equalled by other examples such as the Mala Mala and other private game reserves which also form part of the Transfrontier Park and that generate substantial profits by serving as prime destinations to foreign visitors.
In South Africa, the Makuleke people have reclaimed the northernmost reaches of the Kruger National Park (land between the Luvuvhu and Limpopo rivers) from which they were removed in 1969 to make this area part of the Kruger National Park. Realising the benefits to be gained from conservation, the Makuleke community decided that the land would remain in conservation and that they would further develop the area for its tourist potential. Two luxury eco-lodges - Pafuri Camp, operated by Wilderness Safaris, and Outpost Lodge - now stand on their 24000 hectares and from the money first generated, the community was able to electrify three villages, build a school, and upgrade five others. The Makuleke are closely related through family ties and culturally to the Sengwe people who live just north of the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe. They, and many of those living along the Limpopo in Mozambique, are Shangaan speaking.