/ 27 April 2023

Some provincial reserves with high conservation value poorly run – report

African White-backed Vultures poisoned in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in November 2013.
African White-backed Vultures poisoned in the Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal in November 2013.

The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site, Madikwe Game Reserve and the Pilanesberg Game Reserve have been flagged in a new report as provincial nature reserves that “require urgent support or attention”. 

Produced by the Endangered Wildlife Trust in collaboration with the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, the report expressed concern that protected areas, which contain high biological diversity and threatened ecosystems, are not fulfilling their conservation objectives.

Several provincial reserves with high-scoring conservation value are not being managed effectively, said the report which identified a shortage of critical skills and capacity, poor implementation and inadequate budgets as the key impediments.

Its key recommendations include building staff capacity and ensuring experienced managers are appointed; refurbishing poorly-maintained infrastructure to develop the tourism potential of the provincial reserves; and encouraging partnerships and collaborations with the private sector, NGOs, and communities to “catalyse opportunities for income generation and mutually beneficial relationships between provincial reserves and local communities”.

The study aimed to assess the state of the country’s provincial nature reserves, the challenges affecting management efficacy within them, and opportunities to address them. 

Several tools, including analysis of the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool reports, online surveys with conservation experts and interviews with reserve managers, conservation practitioners, and relevant non-government representatives, were conducted.

South Africa, one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world, is home to at least 87 000 species of plants and animals. These species, as well as human survival and prosperity, are threatened by habitat degradation, invasive alien species, the illegal wildlife trade, pollution, climate change and human-wildlife conflict.

Properly functioning protected areas offer safe havens for South Africa’s unique biodiversity and are crucial for the long-term survival of its wildlife, ecosystems and human well-being. 

“Without these reserves, our wildlife populations will disappear, and the ecosystems we rely on for basic services will no longer function, leading to catastrophic risks to human health and an inability to withstand the effects of climate change.”

Municipal and provincial reserves cover just over three million hectares across 427 individual protected areas in South Africa, equating to 8% of the country’s total conservation estate. They are protected for their intended contribution to the country’s economic, ecosystem services, and biodiversity value, the report said. 

‘Not effectively managed’

From targeted interviews, the report found a “shared, generic view” that they are “generally not being effectively managed”. 

“Provincial reserves seem to be highly vulnerable, and the challenges appear greatest in Mpumalanga, Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal. The North West is facing similar challenges but possibly less serious in extent. The Western Cape and the Free State seem to have less pressing issues in terms of overall management effectiveness.” 

Generally, there is a lack of understanding of the role of provincial reserves by management and staff, and, in some cases, conservation and biodiversity are not treated as priority outcomes. 

Across all provinces, there are inadequate budget allocations for effective management. 

“In many provinces, most government funding goes to salaries, bonuses, and human resources, with very little allocated for maintenance and operational expenditure,” the report said.

“Over recent years, there have been no inflation-linked budget increases to maintain reserves, and in many instances, budgets have been significantly cut leading to the dilapidated state of many provincial roads and infrastructure.”

The general perception is that these reserves are supposed to make money, which is “often a misunderstanding as some critical protected areas will never have the capacity to generate income but remain important for critical biodiversity conservation”, such as the 100ha Lily Cycad Reserve in Limpopo. Many provincial reserves, too, face inadequate investment in generating income through tourism. 

“Another important issue affecting many provinces is that all the money generated by reserves through tourism or game auctions goes into a centralised budget in the national treasury and reserves cannot utilise the funds they generate. Provincial reserves must then apply to the treasury for funding against other pressing needs.”

Financial constraints

The results of the online survey found financial constraints emerged as the most frequently reported challenge. Lack of capacity and skilled and experienced staff are also reported as significant problems and staff “who are not dedicated, motivated, or passionate” about what they do. 

“Many reserves sit with vacant positions that are not being filled. Based on expert opinions, positions are often politically appointed rather than by individuals having expertise in the field.” 

Political interference “hinders reserve staff from fulfilling their conservation mandate”, the report said. “Lack of resources, be it vehicles, equipment, infrastructure, supplies, or general operational resources, also stands in the way of successfully managing provincial reserves.

A major challenge is the poor maintenance of existing infrastructure, equipment, and vehicles, largely because of insufficient maintenance budgets. 

“The funds that come in are poorly managed, and there are deep-seated issues related to managing finances.” 

Provincial reserves face many external pressures from poaching and illegal harvesting, snaring, arson, and removal of fauna and flora, affecting biodiversity protection. “Alien invasive species and land use changes in the buffer zones, impact the ecosystem’s viability as a whole. The increase in alien invasives (especially woody plants) is rapidly driving a decline in habitat quality on many provincial reserves.” 

Poorly managed, rundown

The responses described how tourism facilities are often poorly managed and rundown or, in some provincial reserves “in complete disrepair. A poor understanding of visitors’ needs lowers visitation rates to certain areas”. 

Many reserves are not well-fenced and “predators, such as hyaenas, wild dogs and lions, can move out to surrounding communities where they inevitably kill livestock, leading to human-wildlife conflict in the buffer areas”.  

Many provincial reserves have “strained relations” with neighbouring communities because of unresolved land claims and, in some instances, there is active land invasion and unlawful land occupation. 

“Compounding these challenges, there is often a lack of meaningful engagement with adjacent communities towards amicable solutions for co-existence and meaningful benefit sharing at a landscape scale”. 

Urgent support or attention

Among the interviewees list of provincial reserves that require urgent support or attention are the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in the North West where the “budget goes to staff and officials and [there is] no budget for operational activities, and “poor road conditions affect tourism”.

The Madikwe Game Reserve in the North West was flagged for its excessive number of lodges that “may impinge on the ecology and growing elephant populations”. 

The uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park World Heritage Site in KwaZulu-Natal was listed for pressure from livestock on its eastern boundary and long-term impacts for water production and need the international boundary with Lesotho to be demarcated. 

The Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in KwaZulu-Natal was flagged for “old fencing and fence theft is leading to animals escaping”, rhino poaching is a major threat and alien invasive plants are an ongoing threat as is disease transmission from livestock to wildlife.

The report stated how, among the shortlist of 14 priority candidate reserves for improved management towards protecting biodiversity are the Karkloof Nature Reserve and Nottingham Nature Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, the Barberton Nature Reserve in Mpumalanga and the Lekgalameetse Nature Reserve in Limpopo. 

Core of protected area network

Given the number, distribution and extent of provincial nature reserves, they form the core of South Africa’s protected area network. 

“Consequently, they have the potential to play a real and valuable role in the conservation of priority habitats and species and, more importantly, in the retention of our natural and cultural heritage and constitutional rights to a healthy environment. However, many are reportedly not efficiently run, and their infrastructure is degraded. 

These reserves also have the potential to serve as ecotourism attractions. This will help generate funds, often in a foreign currency, and can bolster a battered economy and support their ongoing management. 

“Where some biodiversity-rich provincial reserves cannot support ecotourism or tangible income-generating activities, they will require clever and strategic sustainable financing solutions to secure their intrinsic and ecosystem-linked benefits.”

The report said there is a “significant opportunity cost” if provincial reserves do not realise their potential. Given that most provincial nature reserves are located in remote areas and are a key driver of rural economies, a well-managed and financed provincial network “is critical to the lives of South Africa’s poorest and most under-resourced communities”.