Thatch Harvesting in the Kruger National Park

By Louise Swemmer

The removal of renewable natural resources such as wood, medicinal plants, fish, insects and grass from within National Parks has been a contentious issue for many years. Many people feel that national parks should be kept "pristine" and in a "natural" or untouched way. However, what most people forget is that Africa's plants and animals have actually co-evolved with people for hundreds of years, and by removing people from the environment in the relatively recent past, as has been done in most parks in South Africa, we have actually created a far less "natural" situation than before.

Our National Parks are a national asset, which means that they are meant for the benefit and enjoyment of everybody. SANParks acknowledges this, and so have embarked on a process to investigate and facilitate a number of pilot projects that aim at researching the possibilities of allowing some controlled and limited use of renewable natural resources from within park boundaries, by neighbouring communities. Renewable resources are things that grow back or reproduce such as plants, insects and animals (as opposed to non-renewable resources such as rock, sand and minerals). One of the challenges of embarking on "sustainable resource use" is that there is hardly any hard-line evidence of exactly what is sustainable.

In other words, how can we know how much of a resource can be removed before there is a negative effect on the environment? An additional challenge is that we know that the ecosystem is constantly changing, so coming up with one "sustainable harvesting value or quota" will most likely not be very accurate, since this does not allow for the fluxes or changes in the environment. Also, the process of determining these "sustainable harvesting levels" can be very time consuming. It is for these reasons that SANParks has decided to implement a few pilot studies, so that we can learn more about these processes and examine the long term possibilities of harvesting some of these resources in a sustainable way from some of our parks, in order to provide additional human benefits to a variety of people.

Since the establishment of many of the South African National Parks, there have been various types of natural resource use initiatives that have been going on through the years. Some examples include the harvesting of Suurvye and wood in Agulhas National Park, fishing, ferns and forestry by-product harvesting in Tsitsikamma National Park, and wood, mopane worm and grass harvesting in Kruger National Park. All of these initiatives are very unique from each other, and each have their own specific regulations and control processes in varying stages of implementation. Grass has been harvested from the sourveld (yellow thatching grass - Hyperthelia dissoluta) regions near to Pretoriuskop for many years as a collaborative venture between SANParks (KNP) and various neighbouring communities.

In October of 2003, a wild fire swept through the harvesting area and over 21 people (including both thatch harvesters and SANParks staff) were tragically killed. Since then, Kruger National Park has not had any formal involvement in the harvesting of thatch. In the late 90's, the Mdluli community were re-instated as the primary land owners of the Daanel Farm in the Pretoriuskop area (See Figure 1). This land is now referred to as the Mdluli Safari Reserve. The Mdluli community has been harvesting thatch from their land for many years, and it was at the beginning of the June 2008 harvest that it was decided for KNP to once again get involved in the process, and to implement a pilot monitoring project to investigate the ecological, social and economic impacts of the harvesting of thatch.

Tony Swemmer from SAEON and Louise Swemmer from Scientific Services designed a monitoring framework for the project, and together with the SAEON technical assistants, Patrick Ndhlovu and Mightyman Mashele, conducted a number of field trips to the study area to collect information. This was done with the assistance and kind permission of Conrad Derosner from the Untamed Concessionaire that operates in the Mdluli Safari Reserve. The field sampling included collecting information on the harvesting methods, the way in which harvesting sites were chosen, details on the processing phase (from harvested grass to bundle), the number of bundles sold and the transport and procurement process.

A total of 31 ladies from the Mdluli community harvested thatch this season. Only 66 ha of the total area was exposed to harvesting, and a total of 70 747 bundles of thatch were sold. This amounted to a removal of 37 778 kg of grass biomass from the system. Although 60 466 kg of grass is actually cut, almost half remains behind during the cleaning and bundling phases, and this is therefore returned into the ecosystem. In terms of human benefits, the bundles were sold for a total of R1 each, and so R70 747 was accrued by the harvesters. The thatch was sold to the Phumlani Lodge, near to Numbi Gate. Phumlani Lodge is run by Amos Mdluli, a brother to Chief Isaac Mdluli.

The next phase in the project is to decide on a long-term strategy for monitoring the environmental impacts of harvesting thatch. This will involve the marking out of permanent plots in the area that can then be measured and recorded on an annual basis. The Kruger National Park is considering purchasing thatch from the Mdluli Reserve again next year, to use in construction within the various tourist camps throughout the park.

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