With topics ranging from the problems caused by hungry lions and destructive elephants to the chance of finding a job in the park, monthly discussions are forging a link between the Kruger National Park (KNP) and the communities that frame its boundaries.
For more than a decade Kruger's People and Conservation department has been developing ties with its neighbours through the creation of community forums, and currently representatives from over 200 villages bordering the park regularly engage in talks with the park's four social ecologists.
A more broad-based forum with less geographic restriction that will draw stakeholders from all sections of society will also be created this year, with the first meeting being held at the end of March.
There are seven community forums ranged along Kruger's western and southern boundary within approximately a 20km radius of the fence. The Hlanganani forum in the north of the park was the first to come into being, and the Nkomazi forum along the Crocodile River in the south is the latest addition.
The forums have helped identify the Kruger-related issues that concern the villagers, of which damage-causing animals seem to top the agenda from north to south. They also provide a means for the villagers to voice requests for such things as gaining access to ancestral graves that lie within the park's boundaries and the harvesting of materials for traditional medicine.
Forum meetings are open to all, and communities can send representatives to the meeting as well as attend en masse if they want to. The forums cover 30 different tribal authorities, and both tribal representatives and the appointed ward councillors in the various municipal districts usually attend.
Initially just a communication channel with Kruger, the forums in some areas have grown into registered legal entities, which help the communities they represent deal with economic development issues. Kruger uses the forums to help empower its poorest neighbours, with one of its most ambitious tasks being the creation of building contractors.
For several years, the park has been running a training and mentoring programme that helps previously unskilled community members develop into building contractors who can compete in the open market for tenders. Other job opportunities that come along, often through the department of environmental affair's poverty relief programme, are also made known to the communities at forum meetings.
Jobs such as removing fences in the transfrontier park, rehabilitating old dams and other labour-intensive initiatives have all been communicated to the communities through the forums. The two ladies who run businesses at Satara and Skukuza washing cars are also a result of community interaction.
The forums have facilitated the development of curio shops at the Numbi, Paul Kruger, Phalaborwa and Punda Maria gates to the park. The crafts on sale in the shops are made in the neighbouring villages, who benefit from Kruger's relationship with Working for Water by getting the wood from the removal of alien invasive species.
Funds are currently being sought for a project to reintroduce ilala palms into areas where they used to grow, which will also provide value natural resources for making curios. The park educates its neighbours about the dangers of alien invasive species, and highlights the importance of rare plant species through the forum meetings.
A project in the far north is creating a garden of plants that are used by traditional healers, to help make muti harvesting sustainable in the long term. As many of the people living in the communities alongside the park have never set foot in the protected area, the forums also help groups visit the park by providing subsidised visiting permits.
Church and other social groups can then go on outings into the park and catch a glimpse of nature's wonders. An open day is also held once a year for the communities. With an increasing international emphasis on conservation being more than just something that takes place between the fences of a protected area, the People and Conservation department is creating a valuable basis for sustainable development along Kruger's boundaries.