What will the GNU protect? The cattle or the wildebeest?

The granite bust of Oom Paul that watches over the main entrance to the Kruger National Park is likely to shudder when the African National Congress releases its latest document to encourage debate about South Africa’s future conservation policy.

A new government should let cattle graze in some sections of the reserve and replace its current guardian, the National Parks Board (NPB), with a smaller but more representative body, says a research paper prepared by two researchers for the ANC.

Mindful that similar proposals provoked a furore in parliament and the press last year, the authors stress their report is not official policy “There are many options and we are not married to any. We want to explore possibilities and promote reasoned debate,” says researcher Louis Liebenberg.

The paper notes that rural black communities had little say over the creation of conservation areas and many were removed by force to make way for game reserves. But it does not argue for existing conservation land to be redistributed.

“On the contrary, the survival of conservation areas will be best guaranteed by ensuring that local communities understand the reasons for their existence and receive appropriate benefits which could include some share of revenue, compensation or appropriate alternative land,” say Liebenberg and his co-author, David Grossman.

We need to reconsider the concept of ‘multi-use’ parks, in which land uses such as grazing and farming are allowed … There benefits could include grazing rights, access to water for cattle (especially in drought years), hunting, utilisation of medicinal plants, wood for the production of curios, firewood and thatching grass.”

As Kruger is the biggest reserve in the country, it is likely to be the main focus of such policy changes, says Liebenberg. He notes that it contains remote areas where it would be possible for cattle to mingle with game without disturbing the tourist trade.

Simple measures, like moving the game fence a few hundred metres in some areas, would provide people with access to water and promote good relations between the park and its neighbours. Poaching could be contained by allowing hunters from surrounding settlements to participate in controlled culling ventures.

Future administration of nature conservation should be an open and democratic process; “Each of the country’s nine regions should have their own conservation bodies and, where appropriate, these local agencies could administer national parks in accordance with international principles and a policy framework established by an environmental ministry.”

The paper suggests the NPB be disbanded and replaced by a “representative and fairly constituted” board located in the Ministry of Environmental Affairs. A public process, whereby the body is elected along the lines of the SABC board, is proposed.

“The purpose of this body … is to formulate national conservation policy, recommend legislation; act on behalf” of South Africa as a representative on international bodies, treaties and conventions; and monitor attainment of national conservation goals.” The authors say their suggestions are open-ended and that the ANC should consider dissenting views before formulating policy.

Comments Anthony Hall-Martin, executive director of the NPB’s southern parks: ‘The national parks system must be kept out of regional politics and above regional concerns. This will only be possible if the NPB retains its status of reporting directly to the highest authority of the people, which is the central parliament.”

Hall-Martin adds that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature stipulates that national parks must be controlled by a nationally recognised authority to ensure their legal protection. Allowing cattle into the parks makes no economic sense and would simply allow a small rural elite to grow rich while disturbing the functioning of an intact ecosystem, says Hall-Martin.

‘The ANC should concentrate on the alternative, which is to use the Kruger as a reserve from which neighbouring communities can harvest excess game and use these on adjoining land for ecotourism projects that can benefit the communities.”

And what about the statue at the entrance to the reserve that bears the name of the famous Boer leader?

A recent paper by historian Jane Carruthers shows that a sophisticated myth was constructed by white nationalists — particularly during the years of the pact government in the 1920s, when the park was proclaimed — suggesting that Paul Kruger laid the foundations of the park while he was president of the Transvaal Republic in the late 1900s.

Records show that Kruger was better known among his colleagues as a man who could determine from a single bite of biltong which species it came from than as an ardent conservationist.

“No contemporary applauds president Kruger for his protectionist proclivities on the contrary, biographies of that time and indeed his own memoirs stress his physical courage in confronting dangerous wild animals, his prowess at hunting and the national service rendered in taming the landscape in this way,” says Carruthers.

But then there is a another side to Kruger ‘s ideas about wildlife preservation. During the rinderpest epidemic of 1896 which killed thousands of head of livestock, he abolished controls on hunting so that destitute farmers could obtain food — a policy not dissimilar to those suggested by the ANC’s researchers.

So should the statue and the name be abolished?

Hall-Martin says the NPB is sensitive to the idea that game reserves should have appropriate names, which is why the country’s newest national park in the western Transvaal will be called Marakele but so far there are no plans to change the Kruger Park’s name.

Liebenberg says he would prefer the debate to focus on progressive conservation principles, rather than the emotional issues that are conjured up by name changes.

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Eddie Koch
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