Corridor project to conserve grassland biodiversity

The Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo National Parks in the Eastern Cape have launched a corridor project to protect biodiversity in valuable grasslands between the two parks. Denene Erasmus spoke to park managers Peter Burdett and Megan Taplin about the initiative.

Corridor project to conserve grassland biodiversity
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Rolling grasslands make up the area between the Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo National Parks in the Great Karoo. Grassland is the most under-protected biome in the country, despite its high biodiversity value and scenic beauty. But a corridor project launched by the two parks last year now aims to stimulate conservation-friendly economic development in the region while protecting it from any development that is inappropriate.

Caring for the grasslands
The Mountain Zebra – Camdeboo Corridor Project was launched in May last year and the initial phase will run until February 2014. This joint partnership between South African National Parks (SANParks) and the Wilderness Foundation is funded by the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund. According to Peter Burdett, manager of the Camdeboo National Park, and Megan Taplin, manager of the Mountain Zebra National Park, the goal is primarily to maintain and encourage grassland biodiversity between the two national parks.

As a starting point, voluntary agreements with private landowners have ensured consolidation and expansion of the land area under protection. “We want unique and valuable vegetation types formally protected. SANParks, and private landowners have partnered to protect species dependent on these ecosystems,” he says. “At the same time, the project will protect private land from detrimental development and land-use activities and increase the ecotourism potential of the area.”

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The primary land uses in the corridor area include livestock farming, small- scale crop production for grazing fodder and hay, hunting and ecotourism. “The corridor project supports farming. As long as farm management aligns with the objectives in the agreements, there’s no need to change farming enterprises,” says Taplin. According to her and Burdett, most farmers in the area are already employing sound, sustainable farming techniques. This has helped to maintain the condition of the land and ensure its high biodiversity value, both of which have allowed the project to become a reality. 

“In some cases, poor farming techniques have resulted in overgrazing and soil erosion damage,“ says Burdett. “Farmers in this situation have worked on reversing the damage and are looking at ways to improve land use management techniques.” Management of the corridor will be based on sustainable use and take into account grazing, soil erosion and the control of alien invasives. Management will encourage the natural vegetation of the area, safeguard ecosystem services and allow species reliant on these ecosystems and habitats to thrive. 

According to Burdett and Taplin, part of the corridor project’s aim is to ensure that no detrimental developments are permitted in the area. “Farming in the area is being done in such a way that most of these objectives are already implemented. This corridor functions to strengthen the management of the area and protect the farmland,” says Taplin.

Farmers’ options
Participation in the corridor project is voluntary, and farmers who elect to take part can choose between three types of engagement.  Bronwyn Botha, project manager of the initiative, says that all landowners in the area are entitled to get involved. Apart from helping to protect them from destructive development such as mining, the project adds value to the land by increasing the potential of ecotourism. Each of the three agreement types has different incentives and different management arrangements.

The ‘proud partner’ agreement landowners agree to support the aims of the corridor project by managing their land with a view to implementing best-practice guidelines, with no further action or involvement. “This agreement is voluntary and not legally binding and therefore offers landowners no legal protection,” says Botha. The second type is the ‘protected environment’ agreement, in which landowners sign up as part of a protected environment formally declared by the minister of environmental affairs after a public participation process.

This provides formal protection against unfavourable developments while the landowner agrees to continue current, sustainable land-use practices and not degrade the conservation value of the land. “The private land is managed by the landowners, but through the project, SANParks provides assistance and technical support to these landowners where needed,” explains Botha.

“It’s important to note that this type of agreement places no limitations on land use except for those agreed to before gazetting, which means that farmers are not required to change their current farming operation.” The third and highest level of agreement that farmers can enter into is the ‘contractual national park’ agreement. In this case the land becomes contractually part of the national park and is managed in terms of SANParks’ conservation policies.

This type of agreement is suitable for land already being used as a game or nature reserve. Under this arrangement, SANParks and the landowner manage the land together. This offers full protection from prospecting and other damaging developments. Farmers are also given help with habitat management and land use planning. The project’s aim is to bring in 30 000ha as ‘contractual national park’ or ‘protected environment’.

Threatened areas
The corridor area is a transition zone between four biomes – grassland, savanna, Nama Karoo and thicket – and includes six major vegetation types poorly conserved elsewhere in South Africa. Burdett and Taplin say that apart from protecting the grassland and benefiting landowners, the project will help create buffer zones around the parks. This will contribute towards conservation of threatened wildlife species such as Cape mountain zebra, black wildebeest, cheetah and black rhino.

The protected environment will contribute to safeguarding the recently identified Sneeuberg Centre of Endemism, part of the Amathole-Sneeuberg Montane Belt. “It is envisaged that there will be a mosaic of properties, including SANParks-managed and privately-owned land,” explains Botha. “Very little of South Africa’s biodiversity is formally protected and this is a way of conserving grasslands.”

View Camdeboo map

For more information, phone Fayroush Ludick, SANParks regional communications manager, on 041 508 5422 or email [email protected].