Following publicity on the new Kruger National Park (KNP) Zoning Plan, South African National Parks (SANParks) would like to put on record that the approved KNP Zoning Plan is sufficiently comprehensive and covers all aspects of managing a national park in the 21st Century, and that there is nothing controversial about this plan.
This according to SANParks CEO, Dr. David Mabunda who said National Parks the world over are no longer islands from the societies that created them but an integral part of those societies. "People are part of ecosystems and their needs inform how national parks should be managed in the 21st Century."
He said a number of factors were ignored by the pre-2006 zoning plans, these range from an exclusion of socio-economic needs of black communities living around the park, the population growth in the Lowveld, urbanization of the cities, and the Maputo corridor development which placed wilderness areas into full exposure of external light, noise and human pollution coming from the communities living in close proximity of the park. The Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) was also ignored, let alone the tourism route between Maputo, Northern KwaZulu-Natal and Swaziland. The plan also did not provide for restitution beneficiation or anticipate the security threat from Mozambique on rhinos.
According to Dr. Mabunda the old plan was premised only around the biophysical properties of the Park and was generally out of kilter with international best practice and protocols..."and these are all the changes that have occurred over time but not captured by the zoning as we now have rhino poaching happening mainly around the periphery in the south and the east. The new zoning plan approved by the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs recognizes all these changes not just the hotels."
"It is for this reason that I would caution many critics not to see this as a new phenomenon for South Africa, but rather as part of the entire process of societal transformation enshrined in Section 24 of the constitution, which makes it crystal clear that national parks should be managed for the benefit of society and may pursue development that is ecologically friendly. "We took a conscious decision to serve society better through our new vision of South African National Parks - 'Connecting to Society'.
Dr. Mabunda said the Constitution's section 24 defines a social contract that is completely different from that followed by the National Parks Board before 1994. Whereas communities were evicted to make way for conservation areas..."we are mainstreaming conservation areas into communities in a formula that creates a healthy balance between people's aspirations and conservation objectives in line with international best practice that dictates the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which protects biodiversity and encourages access and benefit sharing of such resources."
He said the Programme of Action of the CBD underpins the management of national parks and is completely different in the approach followed by both the Colonial and Apartheid era conservation strategies which informed a purist view that national parks must be exclusively managed for animals.
In responding to questions around commercialization of certain functions of the KNP, Dr. Mabunda said commercialization is part of SANParks total transformation of the conservation system in South Africa to generate money to save the rhino, create investment opportunities, as well as jobs and economic prosperity. "In our case commercialization of certain aspects of the parks has seen revenue increase by almost 11%, particularly as tough global economic times are impacting negatively on state budgets and governments are balancing priorities in favour of socio-economic needs like education, health, fighting crime, providing water etc."
In concluding, Dr. Mabunda said many conservation agencies globally are increasingly relying on commercialization of non-core functions to manage their estates, "so this is not unique to South Africa."
SANParks said there is no such a thing as a 'stand-alone PDZ' as many have been made to believe by those in favour of the old purist style of managing national parks. The PDZ is part of a bigger KNP Zoning Plan which covers all management activities taking place in the Kruger National Park and its surrounding areas.
It reflects on the latest developments and events affecting the management of the park, among these were the realities of the population explosion around the park's boundaries, the urban sprawls of Nelspruit, White River, Hazyview, Phalaborwa, Komatipoort, and the Malelane areas.
Issues around the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP), the outcome of Cabinet's deliberation on land claims which threatened to consume 60 percent of the parks' area, the Limpopo and Mpumalanga Tourism Growth strategies as well as the congestion caused by the tourism heartland route linking Mpumalanga, Swaziland and Northern-KwaZulu Natal wilderness areas had to be factored in as they were now impacting negatively on SANParks Tourism Strategy.
The management said during the public participation process of the review of the KNP Management Plan which took place between 2006 and 2007 it was agreed to revisit the Zoning Plan in the near future in order to reflect the latest developments and events affecting the management of the park.
In 2008, the variables that informed the Zoning Plan were further put under pressure with the escalation of rhino poaching mainly emanating from the eastern boundary with Mozambique.
The Water and Environmental Affairs Minister approved a Zoning Plan for the whole park, not just the PDZ. The revision of the Zoning Plan is covered by Section 40 (2) of the PAA which stipulates that "the management authority may amend the management plan by agreement with the Minister or MEC as the case may be". The same Act compels the management authority in section 41(2) to "include a zoning (plan) framework indicating what activities may take place in different sections of the area and the conservation objectives of those sections".
The elements of the zoning plan were discussed with stakeholders during the 2006-7 consultations and consensus was reached to include them when the plan was revised. Communities complained bitterly about being by-standers in an asset that affects their daily lives. The land claimants wanted to know how they were specifically going to benefit from their gazetted claims. Then the security matters around rhinos became a factor that effected enormous change in SANParks management regime of the KNP. These elements are not mutually exclusive but complement each other in the total management effectiveness of the park. The old zoning plan was based on the biophysical properties of the park with little focus on the socio-economic issues of people and external influences. In the meantime Nelspruit has become a city and the neighboring towns have grown sixfold.
The factors that needed to be considered were that the park is surrounded by approximately three million people in 181 villages and towns. Many of the villagers live below the breadline and unemployment is up to 80 percent in some areas. The city of Mbombela has constructed a road in the south and they are talking to SANParks about opening an access gate. Nelspruit has an international airport which brings tourists to the region and KNP is the main destination. The communities around Giyani want an access gate at Shangoni in the North. The tourism traffic between Johannesburg, Maputo and Swaziland is a reality and most of the tour operators schedule a night or two in the south of Kruger camps.
When the GLTP was signed on 9 December 2002, the Zoning Plan was not adjusted to take into consideration the needs for new roads, access gates or crossings over the boundaries of the new partners. Today the Giriyondo Gate into Mozambique is operational and it has changed the Phalaborwa-Letaba route to the new gate. Traffic volumes have increased and changed the dynamics of how that part of the park is managed. The crossing into Zimbabwe will come in the near future and the zoning must be adjusted to accommodate the innovation. The new plan now recognizes the entire GLTP and the future expansion southwards towards Nkomati River and the areas to Banhine and Zinavhe National Parks in Mozambique.
The PDZ in particular, is a two kilometer wide development and security zone that extends from the south of Pretoriuskop, across the Nkomati into the new proposed buffer zone in Mozambique up to the Massingir Dam. It covers areas that have land claims by adjacent communities, proposed hotel development (Malelane) on the periphery and the rhino poaching hotspots of Pretoriuskop, Stolznek/Matsulu, the Crocodile Bridge section and the Greater Lebombo Conservancy in Mozambique.
The PDZ has in fact been in existence for the last 20 years and was used to create contractual parks with privately owned nature reserves like the Sabi Sands, Balule and the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) in the past. It has to be noted that SANParks is simply following the same principle in creating opportunities for claimant communities to benefit from the restitution process but also to accommodate needs such as the park's tourism development and new access points that communities are demanding.
The Mjejane and Nkambeni communities are examples of new beneficiaries of the PDZ. More communities, as illustrated earlier stand in line to benefit from the new plan. The fact that the proposed Malelane Safari Lodge that some people are opposed to is situated in the PDZ should not cloud the real purpose of the PDZ.
The PDZ is a management intervention in a big toolbox to address an array of issues, not just the building of a lodge. All future developments, from tourist lookouts and loops to camps are part of the zoning plan.
Rhino poaching, especially on the eastern boundary with Mozambique, is a major challenge. The PDZ is also a security zone covering rhino poaching hotspots. The Environmental Affairs Minister's approval of the new zoning plan had a specific component dealing with the joint buffer zone concept with Mozambique as part of the furtherance of the GLTP treaty.
There will also be a specific focus with other partners under Operation Rhino to cover other hotspots. Buffer zones are a global conservation management tool and constitute an integral part of a protected area's management plan. They are not stand-alone nice to have development focused instruments. They can be used for joint security operations and this is how the Minister was advised.
In conclusion SANParks urges all in support and opposing to hold hands with the organization as it ushers in a new holistic philosophy of managing parks for the benefit of all. Our national parks bear a legacy of the politics of exclusion and we dare not continue with apartheid conservation objectives which over-emphasized an exclusive purist conservation approach to parks and confined the majority of the people living around the parks to mere spectator status.
This is not how we want to lead and manage parks in the 21st Century and no amount of confused environmental activism from whomsoever will deter us from the cause of connecting national parks to our society.