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Celebrating our national parks

A recent analysis of 157 game parks in Africa found that 14 of the continent’s Top 50 parks are based in South Africa. PSM speaks to South African National Parks (SANParks) to discover more about its efforts to conserve our country’s wilderness areas and maintain the parks’ reputations as world-class tourism destinations.

In June, tour company SafariBookings.com analysed more than 2 300 visitor and industry expert reviews to determine the Top 50 parks in Africa. Of the 14 South African parks identified in the list, six were national parks – the Kruger National Park, Hluhluwe-Mfolozi Park, Addo Elephant National Park, Augrabies Falls National Park, Mountain Zebra National Park and Karoo National Park.

SANParks is responsible for managing South Africa’s national parks, ensuring that both the environment and surrounding communities benefit.

“It’s always welcomed when the industry recognises SANParks, and in this instance being compared with the Top 50 in Africa is indeed a great achievement, especially given that six of the Top 50 are within the SANParks stable,” says SANParks chief communications officer Janine Raftopoulos.

The increasing importance of national parks

National parks have, in the past, been seen mainly as spaces for conservation. But since the turn of democracy, these parks are increasingly being viewed as opportunities to create jobs and stimulate economic growth in rural areas.

“We have seen a shift in the role national parks are playing. They are becoming areas that are important conduits for government to deliver its mandate and ensure that conservation is a viable contributor to social and economic development, of rural areas in particular,” Raftopoulos explains.

SANParks’ business operations are therefore based on three core pillars, namely conservation responsible tourism and socio-economic transformation.

Apart from providing full-time jobs to people working in conservation, tourism, hospitality, media and administration, national parks are also contributing strongly towards Expanded Public Works Programmes (EPWP).

“Almost 6 500 fulltime equivalent EPWP jobs were created in the past financial year, for which SANParks was the implementing agency,” Raftopoulos points out.

Protecting biodiversity

South Africa is unique in its rich diversity of landscapes and marine systems, which play host to a wide variety of habitats, plants and wildlife.

“One can go from the rolling hills and shire-like feel of Golden Gate and Mountain Zebra, to dense thicket filled with elephants in Addo, impressive cliffs and wild sea at Table Mountain, open semi-arid and desert plains and dunes in Namaqua, Richtersveld and Kalahari to enchanted forests in Garden Route and elsewhere. There are very few other countries that can boast this variety,” says Raftopoulos.

She adds that conservation of these precious assets is SANParks’ primary mandate.

“The entity has been tasked with a very important role – to conserve South Africa’s biodiversity, its landscapes and associated heritage assets. This is no easy task given conservation and heritage comes with the need to make tough decisions, having to take a strong stance guided by policies and our mandate.

“One of the strategic goals is that of sustainable conservation asset, where we seek to ensure that environmental assets and natural resources are well protected and continually enhanced through an adaptive and effective park system.”

Effective conservation of national parks in South Africa faces several barriers.

“Apart from the Kruger, our parks are also small in comparison to many of their global counterparts. Replicating natural processes in small areas is much more challenging than in large areas. Another problem is that very few river catchments are conserved within national parks, so land practices upstream can affect water quality,” Raftopoulos explains.

She adds that climate change and the spread of invasive plants are also having an impact on the natural ecosystems in conservation areas.

“Temperature increases in the Kalahari and Richtersveld have been particularly dramatic and the effects of prolonged heat and increased evaporation are already being observed in animals and plants.

“Damaging alien species are present in all parks, but control programmes have been shown to decrease negative impacts of these species and improve resilience to other drivers of change.”

As part of its programmes, SANParks has been on a drive to increase the size of protected areas and control the factors that can be controlled.

“These factors include removal of alien species and rehabilitation of degraded and eroded areas, two programmes that are well-established in SANParks. It is likely that additional and more dramatic management efforts will be required in the coming decades to mitigate species loss under a changing climate.”

Effective programmes for conservation and people

SANParks uses the Management Effectiveness Tracking Tool as adapted for South Africa (METT-SA 3) to measure the effectiveness of protected area management.

In 2017/18, 16 of South Africa’s 23 national parks achieved a score of 67 percent or better, showing a significant improvement in how protected areas are being managed.

SANParks has a vast number of programmes being implemented in the spheres of conservation, tourism and socio-economic transformation. In addition to several flagship projects implemented over the past few years, two major infrastructure investment projects are currently underway which will boost tourism numbers.

Due to be opened this year, the R270 million Skukuza Safari Lodge will be able to accommodate around 250 tourists per night at full capacity. Meanwhile, in the Golden Gate Highlands National Park, an R83 million Dinosaur Interpretive Centre will add increased tourist appeal by illustrating the rich palaeontological heritage of the region.

Raftopoulos says that SANParks is acutely aware of the socio-economic needs of rural communities in areas surrounding national parks.

“SANParks collaborates with local municipalities, provincial and national government departments to contribute towards the provision of much-needed facilities and services in communities bordering national parks.”

Some of these efforts include the establishment of a Social Legacy Fund which supports and invests in the projects that have a high positive impact on communities.

“The fund is generated through the one percent income from bookings made on activities and accommodation in all national parks and five percent income from rhino sales. At present, the fund is used to provide facilities which support education,” says Raftopoulos.

Since 2013, the fund has provided 14 science laboratories, four computer labs, a mobile library, an administration block, a kitchen facility and two playgrounds to schools bordering national parks in Mpumalanga, Limpopo, Northern Cape, Free State and the Western Cape.

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