Mining threat to key game reserve

CONTROVERSIAL: Hikers take a breather next to the White Imfolozi River, close to where Ibutho Coal plans to set up an open-cast coal mine. Picture: Greg Dardagan

CONTROVERSIAL: Hikers take a breather next to the White Imfolozi River, close to where Ibutho Coal plans to set up an open-cast coal mine. Picture: Greg Dardagan

Published Jan 14, 2016


Richard Compton

The proposed establishment of a vast and hugely controversial 32-year-long, open-pit, anthracite coal mine right on the boundary (within 60m) of iMfolozi Game Reserve in Zululand, KwaZulu-Natal, has predictably unleashed howls of opposition – even from quarters one might not have anticipated.

But as the focus of opposition intensifies and levels of indignation increase against both the government and the mining company Ibutho Coal, it was left, appropriately, to Dr Andrew Muir, chief executive of the only international conservation organisation born in and operating out of Africa, the Wilderness Foundation Global, to place a national perspective on what has until now been viewed as largely a provincial furore.

“This is not a regional issue. It belongs very firmly in the ministerial and parliamentary chambers of South Africa.”

Appropriately, as the company name denotes, it is now incontestable – even from the mining company itself – that the internationally renowned 32 000ha wilderness component of iMfolozi Game Reserve will be destroyed if this mine proceeds. The damaging satellite impacts of the mine on the greater Big Five, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park within which both the iMfolozi Game Reserve and this wilderness component are situated, have been described as “incontestable and in many instances irreparable”.

For the past six months or so critics of this “Fuleni” coal mine have exclaimed from all quarters that if this mining option was to be granted, it would represent the greatest environmental disaster to befall KZN, surpassing even the protracted and ultimately successful fight to save Lake St Lucia in the late 1980s from the mining of its sand dunes. Of course, Lake St Lucia subsequently became a World Heritage Site in the name of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park.

While the stakes are high, Muir feels they have not reached high enough. Intimately familiar with the details and accuracy of much of the vociferous commentary against this mine’s location, he nevertheless feels the largely provincial focus is out of kilter with the region’s national significance. “Ministers need to very quickly recognise that this larger iMfolozi area is sacrosanct (I use this word judiciously) and in many respects holds greater traditional and historical value than the Kruger National Park. iMfolozi and its surrounds have ecological, scenic and cultural-historical values that are globally significant; certainly as important as other national treasures such as Kruger. These ecological arks must never be allowed to be degraded for the sake of short-term gains and enrichment of one company and its privileged shareholders.”

Muir is particularly well placed to make this call. Among a string of international and national environmental awards, including being awarded the prestigious Rolex Laureate for Enterprise in 2008, he was mentored for 13 years by the late Dr Ian Player, who was instrumental in establishing this 32 000ha wilderness reserve back in the late 1950s. Muir subsequently went on to assume Player’s legacy in managing the various organisations he had founded, such as the famous Wilderness Leadership School based in Durban and the Wilderness Foundation.

Unsurprisingly, then, his opposition to this mining venture is situated firmly in the region’s history. It is this historical legacy, both from a cultural and conservation perspective, that Muir latched on to in an effort to make all South Africans aware of the “catastrophic” consequences of the government allowing coal mining in this location. “I cannot believe our government has given any serious attention to what iMfolozi represents for all of us from an ethnic, cultural and conservation perspective. If they had, I’m quite sure they wouldn’t have given this Ibutho Coal company permission to scope for these coal reserves.”

The iMfolozi region, including the confluence of the Black and White iMfolozi rivers, represented a “pivotal” position in the rich history of the Zulu nation. It was here, as part of the larger Amakhosini/ Valley of the Kings region near Ulundi, that we see the birth of the Zulu nation. Specifically, it was here at iMfolozi that King Shaka demarcated the area as a royal hunting ground in the early 1800s.

“And this was the first effort in our country’s history where conservation was practised when only certain months of the year would be allocated for hunting.”

Consequently iMfolozi has always been offered protection, either in this Zulu context or indeed later on in 1895 when it was legally proclaimed a protected area in the form of the iMfolozi Game Reserve, as part of the greater 98 000ha Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park.

On this conservation front, Muir said people needed reminding of the extraordinary efforts of Operation Rhino of the early 1960s where the then Natal Parks Board performed miracles in saving the last white rhinos from extinction. What this, in effect means, he said, is that every southern white rhino left on this planet can trace its lineage back to iMfolozi.

“This is an extraordinary and world-defining fact; that every one of these iconic beasts, once saved from extinction, can be traced back to this area; that their very existence is owed to their protection over all these decades in the iMfolozi region. I need not dwell on the cruel irony that mining now threatens to add to their poaching woes…”

As such, he said that this “critical” sense of place belongs to the global community. “As a consequence, there should be a real national appreciation and value attached to the knowledge that iMfolozi Game Reserve is the oldest protected area on the African continent, whilst equally its wilderness area was the first such wilderness area proclaimed. These are, to repeat, sacrosanct national, continental and international assets. This is aside from the fundamental Zulu history I have mentioned.”

Finally, no one should underestimate the value that these legacies have had on the evolution of the eco-tourism industry. It was because of the establishment of the iMfolozi wilderness area that for the very first time nature-based tourism was taken out of the vehicle.

“The countless trailists who have come from around the globe to walk and sleep in this precious landscape are products of what this iMfolozi wilderness achieved. This is a particularly significant benefit to mankind and holds such formative opportunities for future generations to intimately appreciate the magnificence of our natural landscape.”

l Compton is a communications consultant to iMfolozi Community Wilderness Alliance

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