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Making ecotourism accessible and sustainable

5 August 2005

Transfrontier project with Lesotho will protect our heritage

The Zulu people call the Drakensberg "the barrier of spears". This magnificent natural spectacle forms part of the 243 000 ha uKhahlamba-Drakensberg National Park, one of 630 World Heritage sites.

The park, which is the only SA site on the list of 23 "mixed heritage sites" worldwide, has craggy peaks, sandstone cliffs, icy waterfalls and streams, sweeping grasslands and about 35 000 examples of San rock art in more than 500 caves.

With peaks soaring to 3 000 m, the Berg is one of SA`s premier ecotourism destinations.

It has a wealth of accommodation, ranging from overnight huts to five-star lodges and resorts.

Climbers and hikers return again and again to confront challenges such as Thabana Ntlenyana - the highest peak in Africa south of Kilimanjaro – Hodgson's Peak and the Rhino.

Bearded vultures and magnificent antelope make their home here, near the Sani Pass, which is the gateway to Lesotho.

The Drakensberg and the adjacent Maluti Mountains in Lesotho combine to form a unique but fragile ecosystem.

To maintain it and to alleviate poverty in the region, the Lesotho and SA governments have embarked on a joint intervention through the Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project.

Conceptualised about two decades ago by conservationists and the KwaZulu Natal (KZN) Parks Board, it eventually became a bilateral project when the governments of Lesotho and SA signed a memorandum of understanding in 2001.

The project is a bold response to problems in the area and addresses the potential and demands of the common future of the people of two neighbouring countries. In Lesotho, the project is housed within the National Environment Secretariat in the ministry of tourism, environment ft culture and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife serves as the lead agency in SA.

Jeff Gaisford of Ezemvelo Wildlife believes the proposed Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier National Park will encourage and enhance the ecosystems and biodiversity of the area while also promoting sustained income and awareness among the people on its borders.

"The plan is to create protected areas in Lesotho that straddle the Drakensberg border.

"Lesotho has valuable ecosystems at the top of the mountains that are not well protected.

" For impoverished countries such as Lesotho, he says, conservation is not high on the national agenda, "but we`re working with them to promote an ecotourism option.

"The core thrust will be biodiversity conservation."

The area encompasses distinct landscape and biological diversity. It is quite rich in species and high in endemism. However, excessive livestock grazing, crop cultivation on steep slopes, uncontrolled burning, alien invading species and human encroachment threaten these assets.

The five-year project takes a regional and ecosystem approach to conservation and development, and plans to promote biodiversity conservation through linkages with community development.

Leonore Beukes, the tourism planner for Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier National Park, says: "The project is funded by the Global Environment Facility and its main objective is to conserve globally significant biodiversity in the transfrontier mountain range.

"The other aim is to contribute to community development through nature-based tourism."

The uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Heritage Site is a proclaimed protected area, as is the Sehlabathebe National Park in Lesotho, she says.

The transfrontier project is working hand-in-hand with a team in Lesotho. "We can`t expect people to look after the environment and assets such as rock art if they have no food, so bringing tourism on board will take care of economic development and job creation," says Beukes.

"One thing we're definitely not planning is huge, mega-buck resorts or casinos – we're looking at a symbiotic relationship between tourism and the environment. The Zululand birding route, for example, has been successful. There, people were encouraged to prevent their livestock from entering the wetlands, because this would chase away the birds and in turn reduce their income.

"All planning for the project should be completed by 2007, and by then we hope to have a sustainable brand developed."

For the future, she says, "we know that development doesn`t necessarily mean having to create new products.

"Those are already here. We already have fly-fishing and birding, for example, and heritage sites. The intention is to develop these even further, into various routes, such as fly-fishing, botanical and heritage routes, under a single brand."

Financial Mail - 5 August 2005Stuart Theobald