Community conservation

8 March 2007

Conservation breakthrough in Maputaland

New community-owned facility to be a catalyst for development

A NEW community-owned conservation area has opened the door towards a much larger park network in Maputaland, including a direct link between the Ndumo Game Reserve and Tembe Elephant Park.

The new 20 000 ha Bhekabantu Community Conservation Area was initiated last week during a sod-turning ceremony by Inkosi Tembe, traditional leader of the Tembe nation. The Bhekabantu conservation area lies inside the narrow wedge of land that separates the two largest conservation areas in the northern Maputaland region the 10 000 ha Ndumo reserve and the 30 000 ha Tembe park.

Once the new Bhekabantu conservation zone is fenced off, there will be just 300m separating the two reserves which are at present managed as "islands of conservation" by the provincial nature conservation agency, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

Andrew Venter, Chief Executive of the Wildlands Conservation Trust, which is funding the establishment of the Bhekabantu conservation area, said a crucial animal migration pathway between the two larger parks could become a reality if the adjoining Mbangweni and Ndaba communities agreed to establish similar community owned conservation zones in future.

Apart from the nature conservation benefits of linking up Ndumo and Tembe, the consolidation of several other isolated parcels of land in the region would also create a more viable tourism attraction just south of the Mozambique border. The consolidation would also support the transfrontier conservation project linking KwaZulu- Natal with wildlife land in Swaziland and Mozambique.

The elephants in the Tembe park used to migrate between South African and the Maputo Elephant Reserve, but were eventually confined to this side of the border at the height of the conflict between Frelimo and Rename.

Inkosi Tembe, who dug the first hole to fence off Bhekabantu, has given his support to the latest project that will generate income, initially from hunting revenues.

Venter said the Wildlands Conservation Trust had provided R1.45 million towards the project to cover fencing costs, training for community game guards and other establishment costs.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has agreed to donate game to the Bhekabantu community to stock the new reserve, and there are also plans to drop part of the border fence on Tembe's western boundary.

The community had also reached an agreement with the KZN Hunters and Conservation Association and the first hunts are expected to begin next season. Venter said the project would create up to 150 short-term jobs in the community and up to 50 permanent jobs in the longer term, about 30 of which could be at a new community-owned tourism lodge on the east bank of Phongola River.

At the launch ceremony last week, Municipal Councillor Vetty Mahamba said: "This project comes from the heart of the people of Bhekabantu - but the ultimate challenge for us now is the development of strategies that enable the community to become self-employed and self-reliant."

Sifiso Kheswa, Ezemvelo General Manager for the region, congratulated the Bhekabantu community and encouraged other communities to follow its example.

"I would like to send an invitation to the Mbangweni and Ndaba communities (to develop their own community conservation areas) - because it can only be good for conservation and the development of our people."

Venter said: "This is the first step in a long process, and the trust has looked forward to this day for many years.

The Mercury - 8 March 2007Tony Carnie

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