Govt plan may save threatened Ndumo

South Africa’s premier bird-watching destination is safe for the moment, despite a land invasion by local communities last month designed to open the Ndumo Game Reserve for agriculture.

This week the KwaZulu-Natal cabinet accepted provincial agriculture and environmental affairs minister Mtholephi Mthimkulu’s proposal for an integrated plan for the area. Mthimkulu said: “There is no need for de-proclamation at the moment.”

The MEC said his plan would provide a more sustainable solution than de-proclaiming part of the reserve. The plan includes improving service delivery, better access to clinics and schools and increased interaction with communities.

Communities surrounding the reserve live in poverty and have little arable land. Early last month the Bhekabantu and eMbangweni communities cut the park’s fence and occupied land, demanding that they be allowed to farm inside the park.

The invasion was allegedly sparked by the discovery of the body of an elderly man inside the park. Park authorities said he had been killed by a hippo, but locals say rangers had killed him in the belief that he was a poacher and that two other people have died in the same circumstances. Police are investigating the death.

Riaan Aucamp, spokesperson for Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, said the minister was worried about the Ndumo situation, but that the KwaZulu-Natal cabinet would handle it. The crisis poses a threat to the new Lubombo Transfrontier Conservation Area, which will create a three-country mega reserve.

Mthimkulu angered conservationists two weeks ago when he said the crisis was a “manifestation of many years of colonialism and the general disregard for the rights of black people in general and Africans in particular”.

Zululand Wildlife Forum’s Tim Condon disputed this, saying: “The Ndumo Game Reserve was fortuitously recognised in 1924 as one of Africa’s threatened environmental assets and was saved from eventual destruction by subsistence farming. It would become the only non-ravaged region of the river system.”

A park game ranger said: “The reason the communities want to inhabit the land is that it is fertile—for a while—and then it will just revert back to being degraded because of mismanagement of soil, overgrazing and erosion. There is no lack of space, but a lack of fertile land.”

Mthimkulu agreed that local community land was not suitable for agriculture. “The arable land is in the reserve,” he said. Ndumo is one of the poorest areas in the country.

In 2000 a successful land claim saw 114 families from the Bheka­bantu community awarded 1 200ha of the park on the condition they did not live in or use it for farmland. Instead each family received R5 000 compensation, as well as a levy from tourism.

The Landless People’s Movement (LPM) has called for all animals to be removed from Ndumo. LPM national organiser Mangaliso Kubheka threatened action if the LPM’s demands were not met, adding that the July invasion “was nothing compared with what we are capable of”.

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