South Africa’s newest national park will be in an agricultural landscape

Thembanani Nsibande remembers driving through the mountains of the Eastern Cape five years ago and being struck by the beauty of the unspoilt, rugged landscape.

“When I was on the Naude’s Nek Pass [South Africa’s highest lying road at more than 2 500m] I asked myself why hasn’t anything been done in terms of conservation for this special area,” said Nsibande, who had just moved to the province from KwaZulu-Natal. “It’s such a mind-blowing part of the country.”

That conservation work is now under way with Nsibande, who is now the World Wildlife Fund-SA’s (WWF-SA’s) project coordinator for the planned park, championing efforts on the ground for the development of South Africa’s newest park: the NE Cape Grasslands National Park. 

This 30 000ha high-altitude park will stretch across the Rhodes, Naude’s Nek and Nqanqarhu areas, which boasts vast tracts of grasslands. The project is a collaboration between the South African National Parks (SANParks) and WWF-SA. The national park marks a novel approach to protected area expansion because it will be in an agricultural landscape. 

Through biodiversity stewardship, people on communal land and private landowners can incorporate their land in the park on a voluntary basis and stand to benefit from a range of financial incentives.

The area is rich in nature and endemic species, and lies in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg Strategic Water Source Area, a source of freshwater for people living downstream.

Nsibande has spent the past three years meeting traditional leaders, communal and commercial farmers, landowners, residents, municipalities, NGOs and the forestry sector, to garner support for the project.

“We’ve been working hard because this is a very special place,” he said. “We have all three types of crane species here — wattled cranes, crowned cranes and blue cranes — which are all species of special concern. We also have the critically endangered bearded vulture and the Cape vulture, the bald ibis and the secretary bird. Mountain reedbuck are found in this area. 

“We’ve got very special geology, like what you see in Golden Gate, beautiful mountains and rock art paintings on both the communal and private lands. Every winter, the mountains are covered in snow, and in December, there’s waterfalls every­where,” Nsibande said.

The park is still at the early stages of planning and feasibility, said Kristal Maze, the general manager of park planning and development at SANParks. “We’re finalising our planning to see where exactly would be suitable for this new national park.”

It is a “national park with a difference”, Maze said. “This is because we’re really looking at working with landowners and communities as a foundation for this park … where landowners and users are the main custodians for biodiversity. This is about recognising that this is a working landscape and that there are agricultural activities and livestock grazing by the communities and private landowners.” 

People on communal land have thrown their weight behind the project, as have “quite a few private landowners. Quite a lot of this park is going to depend on landowner willingness and enthusiasm for conservation objectives.” 

The project aims to raise significant government funding for the restoration and maintenance of the landscape for water security and creating jobs in alien plant clearing and wetland restoration.

Grasslands are poorly protected in South Africa, Maze said. 

“What we’re needing to do as a country is improve protection of the grasslands biome as a whole which is very rich in species, both threatened and endemic, and is also very important from an ecosystems perspective as well as ecosystem services.”

As a strategic water source area, the region is critically important, and underpins a range of production sectors and economic development.

“So what we’re wanting to do is to foster good management of the ecosystems in this area to secure the water-related benefits that the area provides,” she said.

The goal is that by the end of 2022, the first set of people on communal land and private landowners will be ready to sign an agreement with SANParks. 

“I imagine that by 2023 if we work very well, we’ll have some of the first areas declared,” Maze said, adding that SANParks would be involved in a limited number of land acquisitions.

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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