Oscar Mthimkhulu probably has one of the tougher jobs in conservation in South Africa. As co-ordinator of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park, the 38 year-old Zulu from Makhosini near Ulundi is responsible for ensuring the conservation and commercial success of this unique mountainous area.
The 242 000 hectare reserve, running 200 kilometres north to south and about 50 kilometres west to east, is one of the country’s biggest conservation areas, and covers Southern Africa’s most inaccessible terrain. The average altitude of its basalt peaks is above 3 000 metres, and elsewhere it consists of innumerable gorges, valleys, high plateaus, sandstone caves and towering cliffs. (“Ukhahlamba” means “Barrier of Spears” in Zulu, while “Drakensberg” is the Afrikaans name for the mountains, meaning “Dragon Mountains”. Both terms seem very apt once you’ve seen the ramparts of this mountain chain.)
Consider too that the reserve borders the landlocked country of Lesotho, and that even today the official sovereign boundaries are still disputed. Nor are there any fences between the countries – the rugged terrain makes this impossible. Then it’s worth noting that for centuries stock thieves have used the mountain passes as an illegal gateway to steal cattle and sheep from both Lesotho and South African communities, and to smuggle dagga. This continues today, unabated and perhaps even more regularly than ever.
“There are at least 35 passes which the smugglers use,” Oscar explained, “and the only routes are through the park,” adding that these days almost all the stock thieves are armed and pose a safety and security risk to Ezemvelo rangers, the local communities, and of course hikers and adventurers too. “Visitors do feel threatened sometimes, but our rangers are all trained and armed, and we’ve done a lot to reduce the risk.”
But it’s been like this for a long time. During the 1800s British colonial forces once spent several months in the Drakensberg in a futile and somewhat laughable attempt to dynamite the passes, to stop the stock thieves. Today, Oscar sits with the same problem, and there are suggestions that the illegal passes be cabled and chained, so that although people may move through the passes, livestock cannot.
Oscar and his team of roughly 500 staff, including 100 rangers, certainly have their work cut out. There are more than 1 500 kilometres of hiking trails through the mountains, and all of these need to be patrolled and maintained. Then there are the camps which, although spectacularly situated, require lots of hard work to maintain and service. “In these mountains, you have to really sweat to get things done. It’s the nature of the place – whether you’re hiking, patrolling or simply servicing a camp – you are dealing with one of the wildest and most inaccessible places in the country”
But for Oscar – and countless visitors – all the hard work is certainly worth it. “It’s a special place, absolutely magnificent. It’s an untamed wild area which I think is the most beautiful in the country.”
The mountains of uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park are one of only 28 World Heritage Sites around the world that are both of “cultural” and “natural” global significance, and the only one of South Africa’s eight World Heritage Sites that meet both these criteria.
The hundreds of sandstone caves host the largest, most diversified – and some say most beautiful – collection of rock art south of the Sahara. Most of the art is several thousand years old, and is a vibrant and fragile reminder that this part of Africa was occupied by modern man for millennia before other seemingly more ancient parts of the world.
These mountains also are repositories of several hundred endemic plant species, as well as the main water source for most of South Africa. “One-third of all of South Africa’s good quality, fresh drinking water comes from uKhahlamba,” Oscar told me. “South Africa’s biggest and most voluminous rivers all have their sources here. The park is of vital strategic importance to the country.”
The park is also considered a wetland of international importance, and rightly so. The pristine soils and marshes ensure that the prodigious rainfall – between 1000 and 2000 millimetres every year, depending on altitude – is soaked up and released slowly throughout the year into the rivers. Soil erosion and alien vegetation pose the greatest threats. Wattle and blue gum trees in the southern part of the park use up millions of litres of water every day, which otherwise would flow into the streams and rivers. And although there is some soil erosion from overgrazing, most of this is outside the reserve in areas that are open to cattle and other livestock.
Poaching was once a serious issue, but Oscar explained that community education and consultation has helped enormously, something that he is very proud of. “When I started in uKhahlamba in 1997, I was responsible for conservation management at Injisuthi [one of several management areas in the mountains], and on the very first day I arrived, poachers killed seven eland. That was their welcome note to me,” Oscar smiled ruefully. “The main poacher later told me that I’d never catch him. Well, several years later we eventually caught him redhanded.”
But it’s an ongoing issue, and one that requires constant consultation with the communities bordering on the park, which now number in excess of 1,5 million people – most of them rural and living in poverty. “Our relationship with these people has to be based on trust. They need to trust us, and we need to trust them. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to conserve uKhahlamba. It’s important that we show that we are committed to their wellbeing, and that they understand why we are doing what we are.”
To this end, every visitor to uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park contributes a levy, which ultimately gets distributed to communities who need schools, medical clinics or basic services. There is also a successful environmental education program which gives the local communities access to the park, to gain a better understanding of why uKhahlamba exists, and why it is important to the communities themselves.
The final question remains: which is Oscar’s favourite part of uKhahlamba? “That’s a tough question to answer!” Oscar laughed. “The whole area is so beautiful. But, for me personally, I’d have to say Injisuthi in the central area. It was my first post, and when I arrived, there was almost a war going on with poachers. But I was able to achieve a lot, and to reduce poaching to acceptable levels, mainly thanks to the special team of field rangers which were working with me.”
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