Ndumo signals red alert for conservation

Many South Africans have never even heard of Ndumo Game Reserve. Remote and undeveloped, the KwaZulu-Natal reserve attracts relatively few  tourists. Yet it is now the focus of a dispute that could make or break the future of conservation in South Africa. 

Ndumo Game Reserve is a small reserve of around 10,000 hectares on the Mozambican border in Maputaland. Proclaimed in 1924 for the protection of hippos, it is now recognised as a site of international importance by the Ramsar treaty for conservation of wetlands. It is famous for having the highest bird count of any park in South Africa and protects the last intact strip of the Pongola River. It is pivotal to the creation of the Lebombo Transfrontier Conservation Area between South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique.

But Ndumo also holds some of the only fertile agricultural land in the area – the Pongola floodplains. A land claim lodged for 1,200 hectares of the reserve was settled in 2000. Like most land claims in protected areas, it restored ownership without occupation. In June 2008, members of the Mbangweni and Bhekabantu clans, who live in the corridor between Ndumo and Thembe Elephant Park, tore down the entire eastern fence and entered Ndumo. They wanted the land for farming.

The reserve’s fate sits with KwaZulu-Natal MEC for agriculture and environmental affairs, Mtholephi Mthimkhulu. Although he condemned the land invasion, Mthimkulu said something had to be done for the people. ‘They can’t use the land which they are living on now for agricultural purposes – and the arable land is in the reserve.’ He also said the communities’ situation was ‘a manifestation of many years of colonialism’. In September 2008, Mthimkhulu had not yet announced his decision. Conservationists fear he might deproclaim part of Ndumo.

This could spell doom – not only for Ndumo but for other parks in South Africa, they believe.  ‘If you start giving away protected areas, it could start a landslide,’ says Di Dold, environmental co-ordinator for the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa in KZN. ‘The politicians see the issue as part of the old apartheid regime,’ says Tim Condon, who started the Zululand Wildlife e-Forum to raise awareness of the threat to the park. ‘But the huge problem is getting people to understand conservation and why there should be a game reserve.’

According to Dr Japhat Ngubane, who worked in Maputaland and studied co-management of parks, this is because of the way land reform has been applied in conservation areas. ‘The model we are currently using does not get the full benefit and full ownership of the land to the people,’ he says. ‘Ndumo will be a hotspot until we hand it over to the people and make sure they have the capacity to manage it. We have to devise a model which will benefit people – not just in rands and cents, but in pride and ownership.’

Ken Tinley, who worked as a ranger at Ndumo with conservation veteran Dr Ian Player, believes such a model already exists at Phinda Private Game Reserve 150 kilometres south of Ndumo, where community equity, income generation, education and health care are primary concerns. However, it seems doubtful an appropriate model will be adopted at Ndumo. ‘I don’t think there’s the political will,’ says Ngubane.

Whether the people living in the Mbangweni corridor have any right to claim ownership of Ndumo is also in question. Paul Dutton, an environmental consultant who was officer in charge of Ndumo from 1965 to 1972, says he has photographic evidence that the Mbangweni corridor was unoccupied at the time because of marauding elephants. After it became an elephant-free zone, Mozambican refugees were given permission to occupy the corridor in the late 1970s. ‘They certainly do not represent the communities that were moved out of Ndumo Game Reserve,’ says Dutton. In fact, if the Lebombo Transfrontier Conservation Area goes ahead, the communities may have to move out of the corridor so the parks can amalgamate.

For a small park, Ndumo is highlighting a lot of big issues in conservation. ‘We don’t have enough conservation areas in South Africa, and the pressure on wildlife is only going to increase with the population,’ says Janet Cuthbertson of the Zululand Wildlife e-Forum. Ndumo shows that unless we change people’s attitudes and the way we involve them in conservation, they will forever look at game reserves as empty land they could use.

Originally published in Getaway Magazine in October 2008.

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