Growing wildlife economies

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Franz Fuls visits a community game reserve that provides a living model of how the rural green economy can work.

Locals are employed as field rangers to patrol at Somkhanda game reserve.  (Franz Fuls)

Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa launched the South African Green Economy Modelling report last year at the Somkhanda game reserve, setting it as an example of how rural communities can benefit from investing in wildlife economies.

Somkhanda, in northern KwaZulu-Natal, is part of the Farming the Wild initiative supported by the Green Fund. The fund provides catalytic financing to facilitate investment in greening projects such as Somkhanda. The reserve was created by the Gumbi community after they successfully claimed 32 000ha of land near uPhongola in 2005.

The community chose to place 12 000ha of their land under conservation, with the remainder set aside for human settlement and communal activities. Named after an ancestor of the Gumbi people, Somkhanda has become a flagship project for conservation-based community development.

It is directly responsible for employing 75 people, 15 of them in temporary positions and all recruited from the local community.

Nkosinathi Mbhele is the trainee reserve manager. When a neighbouring community felt that Somkhanda had neglected them, it was Mbhele who brokered a successful deal and built the relations needed to ensure mutual benefit for the reserve and the community.

Rather than using external contractors, locals are employed to do contract work such as maintaining game fences. Mbhele explained that the teams outperform external contractors because they know they are beneficiaries of the reserve are and endangered species have been reintroduced to the reserve and the bush at Somkhanda is teeming with wildlife.

It also sports diverse birdlife. Bhekani Mavumbele is the trainee security manager. He plans the daily patrols and personally leads his team in the field. His team is well-trained in anti-poaching tactics — in the field they work in silence, communicating through whistles, hand signals and occasional whispers. They try not to scare the wildlife or prematurely warn poachers of their presence.

Community commitment

Local residents respect the rangers. Since they were not imported from outside, they act as ambassadors for the reserve when they mingle with friends at home. This reinforces community commitment to the project, Mavumbele said.

Locals are also employed to take care of tourists at a well-equipped lodge on the reserve and in mobile camps, a business unit dedicated to setting up tented accommodation wherever tourists need them.

This unit generates additional income outside Somkhanda by catering for off-road expeditions as far away as Mozambique.

“There is significant opportunity for communities to benefit from investing in wildlife economies and they certainly have access to some key resources to do so,” said Chris Galliers, chairperson of the Game Rangers Association of South Africa.

“It’s absolutely critical for the future of conservation efforts in Africa that we work beyond the boundaries of protected areas. That means working closely with local communities.”

In 2013 the Green Fund allocated R14-million to supporting the Somkhanda game reserve. The Green Fund is an R800-million pool of capital reserved for high-impact, scalable initiatives that can demonstrate sustainable economic activity, and tangible social and environmental outcomes.

The funding enabled Somkhanda to refurbish ageing infrastructure and to spend on capital projects such as fencing, water distribution, tourism lodges and increased biodiversity, including the acquisition of buffalos.

Management at Somkhanda is frugal and constantly considers the viability of repairing rather than replacing equipment.

The Gumbi community formed strategic partnerships, including one with the Wildlands Conservation Trust, a non-profit organisation that focuses on community ecosystems-based adaptation.

Wildlands is supporting the community’s conservation efforts by applying climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies.

Wildlands appointed regional manager Dave Gilroy to oversee the Somkhanda project. He explained that the local management and staff operate the facility on a day-to-day basis, and his role as facilitator and mentor is to empower the team to move towards strategic management and improved administration.

Nathi Gumbi, a son of the royal Gumbi family, said many communities do not realise the potential of forming partnerships after a successful land claim.

“People think when they get their land they must fire consultants, but their own people sometimes have limited skills. That’s why we see land damaged and going backwards.”

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