Research projects are not a strange phenomena in South Africa's national parks. In fact, the quality and volume of research projects over the last 50 years have earned SANParks a distinctive reputation on the global environmental stage.
The research findings have long been recognised as an invaluable management tool. Most of this research however focuses on natural sciences. That is until recently. Although biology conservationists acknowledge the need for humans to benefit from conserved biodiversity, it is widely known that the relationship between man and its environment has many faces and is quite complex. Given this reality it is therefore important for South African National Parks (SANParks) to understand the impacts of the social influences on its national parks.
While sustainability remained a priority, SANParks also realised it had to find the best ways in which people, mostly from neighbouring communities, can benefit from the conserved areas and to minimise the disadvantages of the these areas.
In keeping with the organisation's scientific framework, a newly formed Social Science Research Programme now focuses on two main objectives related to people and biodiversity: benefit sharing and constituency building.
The people and conservation department implements these objectives. However, as with any initiative, there is a need for learning through the implementation process, through research, monitoring and evaluation.
The research programme aims to gain a better understanding of the relationship between various stakeholders and the environment, encompassing the social, political, economic and biophysical dimensions.
The programme includes research that is centered on people and their interactions and relationships with the natural environment (individually or as a group) and includes research about tourism, economics (livelihoods and well being), natural resource use, environmental education, cultural heritage, outreach and awareness, human resources and community relationships.
The important role of social science in SANParks was first recognized in 2004, with the appointment of the first Social Science Researcher at head office. This also heralded the establishment of the SANParks Social Science Research Committee, an external group of experts from tertiary institutions within South Africa who provide voluntary support for the SANParks Social Science Research programme.
Currently there are two permanent Social Scientist positions within SANParks. The focus is on guiding social research in a way that the outcomes provide a theoretical framework for informed decision making at both a policy and governance level across all departments and fields of interest within SANParks. However, the research must also have meaning and applicability at a project or implementation level.
The integrative nature of SANParks' social science focus bridges the biophysical and "people" realms. This facilitates improved acknowledgement and success of various SANParks' biodiversity-related initiatives. A good example of this is the Warburgia salutaris (pepper-bark tree) Conservation Programme in the Kruger National Park, as well as the new mopane worm harvesting initiative, also in Kruger.
The research coordination process supports both internal SANParks initiatives, as well as external research projects. Although in the minority, social science research projects have been on going in SANParks since its establishment.
However, the numbers of social science research projects registered annually has been increasing over the past 10 years, coinciding with an increased awareness and support for social issues a positive move in the right direction.