NE Cape grasslands Credit Greg Martindale

By Thembanani Nsibande

It’s a constant reminder to me how beautiful the world is, working here in the remote mountain landscape at altitudes of 2 500m and more in the North-Eastern Cape grasslands of the Rhodes, Naudé’s Neck and Maclear (renamed Nqanqarhu) area.

This is where the establishment of a new national park project has been approved, with SANParks and the WWF-SA partnering to create a Grasslands National Park that will ultimately be about 30 000 ha. The area was chosen for a number of reasons, and I’m quoting SANParks General Manager, Kristal Maze: ‘It is one of South Africa’s key strategic water source areas (the Eastern Cape Drakensberg), it is rich in biodiversity, with large tracts of untransformed high altitude grasslands – one of the least protected biomes in South Africa; and it is an important climate change corridor. For all these reasons it warrants national park status.’

There is incredible excitement about the project, which has a range of collaborators and funders, including the national Department of Environmental Affairs, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency, Joe Gqabi District Municipality and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, funded by Nedbank.

In April 2019, when I was appointed by WWF-SA as the project coordinator for the new national park, I moved to Maclear from KwaZulu-Natal. I started meeting with all the members of the community, especially the traditional leaders and the communal and commercial farmers and landowners, as well as citizens, municipalities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), forestry (PG Bison is big in the area) and businesses.

I was received with a mixture of enthusiasm and suspicion by some landowners, as they were naturally concerned about what we wanted to do with their land. I went to great lengths to explain that this is about partnering; this is absolutely not about fencing the park and moving people off the land. It is about collaborating in an agricultural working landscape where all the farmers continue to graze their livestock sustainably in these mountains, as they have done for centuries.

Our goal is to establish formal biodiversity stewardship agreements with all stakeholders in the national park area to retain and restore the rich biodiversity here and to work together in implementing conservation grazing programmes. Well-managed livestock, especially cattle, are essential to maintaining the health and vigour of the grasslands, which become moribund in the absence of grazing. Healthy grasslands and wetlands are essential to a healthy water supply, as they slow down the flow of water from the catchment, mitigate against erosion, and act as a sponge, releasing water throughout the year.

Situated in the national park project area is the Batlokoa Traditional Council communal land, spanning over 10 000 ha, and headed by Chief Montwali Lehana. He is open-minded and responsive and serves on the Joe Gqabi District Municipality Integrated Development Plan Forum. He immediately resonated with the project and gave his blessing to approach the traditional council. Under his leadership are 11 administrative areas, each headed by a headman or headwoman, some Sesotho-, and some IsiXhosa-speaking.

At the meeting, Chief Lehana discussed the problem of alien invasion, particularly black wattle, and its impact on water supply. He also discussed the communal adaptive grazing project in the Matatiele region, about 60 km away, where communal farmers have come together in conservation grazing associations aimed at rehabilitating the wetlands and grasslands. Alien plant clearing is also undertaken in partnership with Working for Water, freeing up freshwater from the catchment all the way downstream. This is another project the WWF Nedbank Green Trust has funded over several years.

Improved grasslands improve the condition of the cattle, which then fetch higher prices at the auctions. The project introduced pilot mobile cattle auctions through a business called Meat Naturally, so that the communal farmers can auction their cattle in their area, instead of walking them for days to the auctions, as they had to do before. The communal farmers in the conservation grazing associations receive a discounted auction levy, reduced prices on vaccinations and free cattle management training.

We’ve shared this approach with the Batlokoa communal farmers, and, in partnership with Meat Naturally and the NGO Conservation South Africa, we’ve held two pilot mobile cattle auctions in their area. Both, one at Luzi Village in March this year, and one at Thokoana Village in May, were highly successful. The plan is to roll out cattle auctions across the 11 administrative areas. To date I have visited five out of the 11 areas. Covid-19 has been a challenge as meetings have to be restricted to 50 people, and during some lockdown restrictions gatherings are suspended, but I will keep going. There is huge potential to expand the footprint of the park into neighbouring communal areas.

I have also had meetings with the private landowners and commercial farmers in the Maclear and Rhodes areas and several have shown their willingness to participate in the project through partnership agreements. If farmers in the national park area are willing to sell their farms to us, we will certainly consider this, but the main objective is for them to be biodiversity stewards on their farms.

In February this year, SANParks, the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi) and WWF-SA participated in the first Bioblitz in the area. They wanted to understand more about the biodiversity value, species distribution and ecosystems present, and to collect and load data for iNaturalist, as there is currently very little data available for the region. In just four days we found over 150 different species of flowers, trees and grasses. iNaturalist is a social network of naturalists, citizen scientists, and biologists collaborating on mapping and sharing observations of biodiversity across the globe:

The properties of four private landowners were surveyed and a biodiversity report was presented to them, which they received with great interest. We’re planning larger Bioblitzes for 2022 or as soon as the pandemic allows.

From a personal perspective, people ask whether I’m not lonely living in Maclear, and the answer is ‘absolutely not’. I really like that I have been with this project from the beginning and I have formed such good relationships in the area. Everyone knows me now and it’s wonderful to work on a project that is all about partnerships and to the mutual benefit of the people on the land and South Africa. There are all sorts of exciting plans being considered, including on the tourism side, but it is going to take a number of years to get all the participants in agreement and to see the park established, which will be a hugely special achievement.

Thembanani Nsibande, NE Grasslands National Park project coordinator stands high above a backdrop of green rolling mountains