iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern Zululand can proudly proclaim to bethe mostdiverse protected area in Africa. CEO Andrew Zaloumis was reported in Country Life South Africa recently, as saying that the introduction of lions, cheetah, elephant and wild dogs into the uMkhuze section of the park means that they are nearing the achievement of their long-term vision. The conservation vision of iSimangaliso is to fully restore the functioning of the ecosystems and re-establish "the migratory patterns of historically occurring animal populationsfrom the top of the Lebombo Mountains to the seaas they occurred in the times of [King] Shaka of the [Zulus,]" he said.

Zululand's historical satellite parks

Historically, there were protected areas managed by the Natal Parks Board and later, Ezemvelo, but the declaration of South Africa's first World Heritage Site in 1999meant that the satellite reserves of the early years co-joined into the third largest protected area in the country. The 332 000 hectare park encompasses the Lebombo mountains, three major lake systems, a huge estuarine system, 220km of pristine beach, coral reefs and the sand and fever forests of uMkhuze in the west.

The UNESCO park now boasts the 'big five' - 'big seven' if the marine animals are counted. Visitors can enjoy the possibility of seeing the lion, cheetah, elephant, rare African wild dog, and rhino's in the uMkhuze section, and a few hours later can snorkel the reefs, view the endangered turtles breeding on the beaches, explorehuge ancient swamps, photograph great pods of hippo and indulge in spectacular bird watching.

Visitors and sustainable utilization of resources

Historically, the aim of Natal Parks Board was to make access to the wilderness areas affordable, and to a large extent, this still holds true. Graded accommodation throughout the park means that there is an option to fit every wallet, from camping through to self-catering cottages, safari tents, lodges and wilderness trails.

The area is not just a commercial enterprise, however, and huge tracts of land have been carefully set aside as wilderness areas where there is no development. This is crucial to the historical and long-term vision of the park. Although the late Ian Player of the Natal Parks Board recognized in the 1980's that humans had impacted on their natural Environment for thousands of years, the pressure of people on wilderness areas had thrown the ecosystems out of balance. The 700-year old fishingand trapping that goes on to this day in the Khosi area are perceived to be as much a part of the environmentalecosystem as the new lions in uMkhuze, but such activities have to be controlled.

Sustainable utilization of natural resources is key to community involvement and conservation.

Poaching and community spin-off

Poaching is a constant threat to the park, but Zaloumis feels that the 'big five' animals are increasing visitor numbers to the area, thus contributing to an "economic turnaround of the park with meaningful empowerment and benefits to local communities." It is a proven fact that economic opportunity which can lift poverty among people living in or close to protected areas is key to the continued sustainability of wildlife conservation.

An example of this is that while "poaching remains a large and daily challenge" in the iSimangaliso, "snaring is now largely under control in the uMkhuze section of the park."

Attractive and affordable destination for visitors

John James, a visitor to the uMkhuze section comes from the "UK." He said it was affordable, and the rise of terror in Europe now makes South Africa an attractive holiday destination. In particular, he noted that internet technology means he can upload images to 'the cloud' from the world famous KaMasinga Pan game-viewing hide. Asked where he was going next, he said he was "off to iSimangaliso's Sodwana to dive the reefs," - oneof the world's top 10 diving destinations.

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