Inspiring plans are afoot to protect the Karoo mountain lands and hidden valleys between Cradock and Graaff-Reinet.
Here we bring you just a taste of this story with a gallery of images.
Words: Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais
Sure, there are the normal sheep and a few head of grazing cattle, but keep watching and you may also see sable antelope, black wildebeest, springbok, ostrich, kudu, eland or gemsbok, and almost certainly a few Blue Cranes. Keep your eyes trained for yellow mongooses crossing the road and ground squirrels popping up along the verges. And if it’s a rainy summer night, you might join the small club of startled motorists who have spotted giant earthworms (two metres long or more) crossing this fabled road.
The R61 skirts the northern foothills and rising peaks of the Sneeuberg mountains, bracketed by the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock and the Camdeboo National Park outside Graaff-Reinet. After early summer rains, fragrant kapokbossies and ankerkaroo are hidden under the nodding green grasses, with larks and swallows weaving above them. Wild and domestic animals graze the green heights.
In winter it’s a different story. The grasses die back and the animals abandon the highlands for the warmer valleys. This is when the Sneeuberg range really earns its name. Half a dozen times a year, the ironstone peaks are covered in snow. They become a forbidding mountain fastness, their majestic ramparts making the farmsteads below look tiny and remote.
Back in 2003, a biodiversity corridor linking the two national parks was first proposed. The potential area under consideration is 530 000 hectares, a huge swathe of land straddling the Sneeuberg range and stretching from the R61 in the north to Pearston in the south.
But it was only in 2012 that funding (from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund) was sourced and the Wilderness Foundation appointed to partner South African National Parks (SANParks) in implementing the first phase of the project.
The land between the parks is all privately owned, mostly livestock farms alongside game farms and private nature reserves. And even though this land has been farmed for centuries (many families here have been on the land for five, six or seven generations), the veld is in good condition.
There are two very important water catchments here. The Great Fish River rises on the eastern side of the Sneeuberg’s highest peak, known as Nardouwberg, and flows north for a time before turning to rush past Cradock, irrigating pecans, lucerne and sheep farms as it goes, then heading to the sea north of Port Alfred. The Sundays River rises to the west, filling the Nqweba Dam at Graaff-Reinet (included as part of the Camdeboo National Park), and runs on to the huge citrus groves near Addo and Kirkwood, then empties into the sea just north of Port Elizabeth. Apart from supplying drinking water, these rivers support the generation of billions of rands in foreign revenue from wool, mohair and citrus exports.
Initially the farmers of the designated corridor region were very suspicious, and who could blame them? In decades gone by, buying up private land (sometimes even expropriating it) to add to national parks was the way to go. Was this the thin edge of the wedge to make them leave their land or alter the way they farmed?
One couple, Stella and Phillipie Loock, told conservation consultant and writer David Johnson, “A national park telling us how to run our commercial farm would have led to financial ruin – complete and total disaster. That’s the printable version of our first reaction.” Then Phillipie added, “But now we know that’s not what the Corridor Project is all about, and so we’re proud that our farm is signed up to be part of it.”
The approach to farmers was a real compliment on how they have managed their land. Despite centuries of farming, this land still has high biodiversity value. Botanists have found so many endemic and rare plants here that in 2009 the Sneeuberg Centre of Endemism was declared.
The Corridor land sprawls over four biomes (grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savannah) and six vegetation types, and is home to several rare mammals like the aardvark, black-footed cat, African wild cat and honey badger. It’s also designated as a Globally Important Bird Area, with grassland and Karoo specials like the Lesser Kestrel, Martial Eagle, Ludwig’s and Denham’s Bustard, Lesser Flamingo, Blue Korhaan, Sickle-winged Chat, Ground Woodpecker, Black-headed Canary and Layard’s Tit-Babbler.
Corridors are not a new conservation tool but, as Matthew Norval of the Wilderness Foundation points out, they offer some serious benefits for landowners and for conservation. For the latter, Corridors link important habitats for plants and animals, connect fragmented landscapes and protect critical water catchments. In the case of mountainous terrain, a corridor also provides climate change resilience, with varying altitudes offering relief from high temperatures for heat-sensitive species.
For Karoo landowners, the Corridor also offers protection for another threat that arose after 2003 – shale-gas exploration and fracking. This might have led to the unexpected success of the first phase. Initially, the modest target was to sign up 25 000 hectares of land to Protected Environment status. But by February 2014, a total of 66 farmers owning 269 000 hectares had applied for this level.
There are three levels of participation. The first is Proud Partner status, which simply gives farmers access to information on land management best practice. The second is Protected Environment status. This means farmers can carry on as they always have, but commit to minimising any further changes in veld use.
This level also offers greater protection from certain kinds of development, notably fracking or mining. Farms are able to access National Parks’ expertise and manpower in fighting alien vegetation or soil erosion. The third level is as a contractual national park, to which at least three landowners are committed.
The first two options don’t require the dropping of fences. This means herds of springbok can’t roam unhindered from one national park to the other. On the other hand, the corridor still safeguards species for which fences are no deterrent anyway – baboons, insects, raptors and other birds, and of course plants.
Camdeboo National Park manager Peter Burdett says, “The Corridor project has intrinsic benefits for conserving threatened grassland biodiversity, but will also provide a tremendously valuable buffer zone by extending the space needed for ecological patterns and processes that the Camdeboo National Park isn’t large enough to accommodate.”
It’s not only about species. The Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo National Parks offer some of the best horizon-to-horizon views in the country, with no intrusive developments to mar the skylines. The Corridor safeguards these too. And this is just the beginning. The second phase of the Corridor project will be starting in early 2015, with the Global Environment Facility (GEF) funding it over five years. Mountain Zebra National Park manager Megan Taplin says several landowners have already indicated they are keen to sign up during the second phase. She adds, “The Corridor’s inclusion in the GEF project is part of a much wider project aimed at improving the management of corridors in the areas of high and sensitive biodiversity across South Africa.”
A complementary initiative is SANParks’s Rural Development Programme, currently identifying projects to improve development and tourism in and around the Corridor area. “These projects range from food gardens to sustainable harvesting projects and hospitality training,” says Megan. “The long-term goal is to build on the Protected Environment, adding layers of projects and initiatives that benefit the region and improve local livelihoods.”
There’s also an exciting opportunity to explore linking this Corridor with the Darlington Dam section of the Greater Addo Elephant National Park, says Peter Burdett. The Corridor model can only be good news for sustainable farming and ecosystems threatened with bad developments – not only in the Karoo, but across the country.