Guest Blog – Enhancing partnerships to conserve and manage critical catchments

Written by Nicholas Theron  - K2C Senior Manager

Introduction to blog

The Timbavati Private Nature Reserve is home to a high diversity of fauna and flora. It is here where the major perennial river, the Klaserie River, brings its life-giving powers to parts of the western areas of the reserve. It is of utmost importance for these catchment areas to be protected as it not only delivers fresh nutrient-rich waters from the escarpment areas to our dry arid Granite Lowveld vegetation, but it also provides water further downstream to other parts of our country. Our guest blog written by the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere node highlights the various projects and programmes which they are actively involved in with the support of various partners within this diverse landscape. The next time you pass through, remember to take a moment to absorb and take in its beauty and appreciate those who take time to protect it. 

Rising from the Mpumalanga and Limpopo Lowveld is the great escarpment. Some of the most iconic landmarks in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region are found along the Mpumalanga Escarpment such as Mariepskop, the Blyde River Canyon, Bourkes Luck Potholes, the Three Rondavels and God’s Window. Due to the dramatic changes in altitude, the escarpment areas support high numbers of species found nowhere else, but the escarpment is also responsible for providing our most precious resource – water.

Klaserie Waterfall

Catchment Facts

  • Classified as a National Strategic Water Source Area;
  • Receives 1000 – 2000 mm rainfall per annum;
  • Iconic rivers such as the Blyde, Sabie, Sand, and Klaserie originate in the mountains with the Timbavati in the lower-lying slopes;
  • Water originating here supplies:
  • Towns and communities (Bushbuckridge, Acornhoek, Hoedspruit & Phalaborwa, etc); Agricultural sector;
  • Kruger National Park, private game reserves and Mozambique;
  • High levels of plant diversity occur with over 1400 plant species recorded, many of which are only found here;
  • To date, teams have cleared >50 000 ha of alien invasive plants in these catchments (including follow-ups).

An important portion of the escarpment in Mpumalanga is formally protected within the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (BRCNR), one of South Africa’s most iconic nature reserves. Besides being a place for tourists to visit and experience some of South Africa’s most impressive landscapes, these areas are our water catchments where the intact grasslands, wetlands and forests “catch” rainfall and mist that is slowly discharged into the many rivers that the Lowveld economies rely on. Water from the catchment feeds into the Blyde Dam which supports a multi-million rand agricultural sector around Hoedspruit and the Kruger National Park, and Adjacent Private Nature Reserves rely on the water from the mountain and its foothills to recharge rivers. The household water supplied to towns such as Hoedspruit, Phalaborwa and Bushbuckridge all have its source in the escarpment. Simply put, without the escarpment the lives of all people in the Lowveld would be very different.

 

Based on the importance of the escarpment areas, the Kruger to Canyons NPC (K2C) is implementing an integrated and holistic project with partners that aims to improve and maintain catchment integrity to support livelihoods and also facilitate partnerships to unlock opportunities for the implementation of catchment projects in the K2C Biosphere. Our interventions are diverse and focus on aspects such as protected area expansion using the biodiversity stewardship model; development of management plans; implementation of alien invasive plant clearing; monitoring and research; education and awareness; working with forestry around burning and other conservation compatible management practices and training and capacity development interventions.

Some of this work is highlighted below.

Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve Expansion

The Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (BRCNR) is Mpumalanga’s most important and iconic reserve and it forms part of a substantial land claim by four communities namely the Moletele, Sethlare, Maorabjang and Mahubahuba Communal Property Associations (CPA) collectively known as the Blyde 4 CPAs.

This claim is in the process of being settled and a co-management agreement has been signed with the communities and the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) to manage the reserve. As part of the claim process, the communities have decided to incorporate an additional 16 000 ha of the lower-lying slopes that form part of the state-owned Lowveld plantations into the reserve. The K2C has been facilitating this process and an intention to declare the 16 000 ha is imminent. As part of this, we are also facilitating the updating of the management plan as well as supporting capacity development within the co-management committee.

Catchment Overview

Restoration

Large portions of the catchment area have been transformed through plantation forestry. This afforestation process started at the beginning of the 20th century, providing the seed source for alien invasive plant species to invade natural habitats especially grasslands, rivers and wetlands. These species degrade natural areas and also use large quantities of water. Efforts by Government, civil society and the private sector started to remove alien plant species in the early 1990s, and restoration teams are active to this day. The Blyde Restoration Working Group was established in 2015, to facilitate coordinated and integrated restoration and long term maintenance efforts by all the partners. Clearing within the reserve is guided by the BRCNR management plan and restoration plan.

Clearing Team Strategy - Click to enlarge

Restoration Champs

A vision of the Blyde 4 CPAs is to play a direct role in conservation and natural resource management, and hence the custodianship of this area. In 2018, K2C in partnership with AWARD (Association for Water and Rural Development) and the Blyde 4 CPAs secured funding via a sub-grant with USAID to employ an ‘intermediate team’ to undertake alien invasive plant (AIP) clearing in the Lowveld plantation areas.

This team known as the Restoration Champs is employed from local communities with the following aims:

  • Support a top-down catchment clearing approach with intermediate teams addressing the need to clear crucial ‘middle’ areas;
  • Support the development of meaningful employment and career pathing opportunities;
  • Support the development of management capacity within BRCNR.

We will be expanding this pilot in the near future with the employment of 3 additional teams of Champs through a Land User Incentive Project funded by the Department of Environment, Forestry & Fisheries (DEFF).

Gum Plantations that have invaded wetlands and are being cleared by the Restoration Champs. Photo credits - R.Antrobus-Wuth
BRC Champions

Catchment Partnership Inception

A number of collaborative multi-partner forums, projects and initiatives across the Blyde, Klaserie, Sand and Sabie Catchments are currently being implemented that are focussed on improving and protecting catchment integrity while seeking to improve livelihoods. An initial virtual meeting for the Blyde, Klaserie, Sand and Sabie Catchment partnership was held on the 11th of July 2020. The following organizations: Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region K2C, AWARD, Conservation South Africa, SANParks, DEFF, WWF-SA, The Nature Conservancy, SANBI (South African National Biodiversity Institute), and SAEON (South African Environmental Observation Network) presented their current work focus and possible prospects from the envisaged catchment partnership.  SANBI also took the opportunity to introduce the Living Catchments Project, which is envisaged for implementation within the landscape and has the potential to align very well with the catchment partnership.

Partners at the top of Mariepskop
Reuben-Thifhulufhelwi from AWARD with a soil sample that is an example of a peat wetland

The primary funders for our work in the catchment areas of the K2C Biosphere are the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Global Environment Facility as part of the Biodiversity and Land-use Project implemented by SANBI; The USAID Resilient Waters Programme; and the Expanded Public Work Programme (EPWP) and Land User Incentive (LUI) Programmes funded through the National Department of Environmental, Forestry and Fisheries.

Our work listed above is being implemented by a number of collaborative partners that include:

About Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region

The Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region is recognised under the UNESCO (United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) Man and the Biosphere Programme. It became the 411th Biosphere Reserve site to be registered, acknowledging the global significance of Greater Kruger bioregion, the eastern savannahs and escarpment of South Africa. http://www.kruger2canyons.org. The Kruger to Canons NPC was established in 2011 to fulfil the mandates of the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Programme.

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