Durban - Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has warned that the R570-million Drakensberg cableway proposal could jeopardise the status of one of the country’s first World Heritage Sites and scupper plans to join up fragments of the mountain wilderness area.
The conservation agency has called for a series of specialist studies by independent economists and tourism experts to review the draft business plan, to avoid the risk of developing a “white elephant” on the border of the Maloti Drakensberg Park world heritage site.
Given the scale and nature of the cableway project and its proposed location less than 90m from the park’s boundary, South Africa was obliged to notify the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) that administers the World Heritage Convention.
Ezemvelo chief executive Bandile Mkhize said the convention was intended to protect “priceless and irreplaceable” environmental and cultural assets and any damage to or deterioration of these global assets from inappropriate development should be “avoided at all costs”.
In a letter sent to the provincial Department of Economic Affairs and Tourism late last year, Mkhize said his organisation had conducted a rapid review of the draft business plan and was concerned about the speed of the public participation process and short period suggested for a full environmental impact assessment (EIA).
“Any significant adverse impact on the values for which the park was listed as a world heritage site is likely to result in strong international objections and interventions and culminate in the park being listed as a ‘site in danger’.”
Mkhize stressed Ezemvelo was designated to safeguard this site and he hoped his comments on the cableway project would be “viewed in the spirit in which they are intended, namely to provide guidance and assistance to the department and the project team”.
Last week, Economic Development and Tourism MEC Mike Mabuyakhulu confirmed at a media briefing that his department had been advised to consult the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Unesco about the implications of the project.
Mabuyakhulu, who has been driving the development strongly since last year, also confirmed there would be a full EIA process and that the initial public consultation process had been extended briefly, to this Friday.
In his letter dated October 29, Mkhize expressed concern about the public participation process and said the time frame proposed for the EIA seemed too short.
Shortly before the Maloti Drakensberg Park was listed as a world heritage site in 2000, the World Heritage Bureau had expressed concern that the park was split into two parts and urged South Africa to work towards linking them to form an unbroken mountain heritage site.
Ezemvelo had now reached an advanced stage in negotiations to achieve this objective and it was important that the cableway plan – located in a gap between two sections of the park – did not scupper plans to join up the mountain park.
Ezemvelo said the cableway business plan was “vague” about the size of the top station and what measures would be taken to control large crowds visiting a sensitive alpine environment.
It was particularly worried about the cableway’s impact on the small remaining population of Bearded and Cape vultures that nested in the vicinity, and the intrusion of the cableway into the adjoining wilderness areas.
South Africa’s wilderness areas, defined as wild areas “buffered from the sights and sounds of the modern world”, now made up just 0.3 percent of the country’s land area, while 97 percent of this wilderness land in KZN was located in the Maloti Drakensberg Park.
It also queried financial aspects of the project. For example, the success of the cableway was based on assumptions that it would attract 300 000 visitors a year, whereas only 135 000 tourists currently visited Ezemvelo’s mountain rest camps each year.
These projections should be peer-reviewed to ensure that they were realistic and attainable.
The proposed ticket prices of R350 per adult and R200 per child also appeared to be “prohibitively expensive” and it was questionable that the cableway would attract many repeat visitors.
“Ezemvelo’s specific concern with regard to the financial viability of the project is that it would be undesirable to have a failed project (‘white elephant’) in and abutting the world heritage site.”
Experts should also study how weather patterns might affect cable car visitor numbers during periods of strong and violent winds, storms, ice, snow, fog and rain. - The Mercury