Parks versus People: the problems with current conservation methods

South Africa is home to some of the world’s most famous national parks in the world, from the Kruger National Park to the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve. But around many of these protected areas there is a fierce conflict ensuing that has been raging since the first park was established in 1897.

To identify this, you need to look beyond what we as tourists see. On the outside, all we see are well-run, well-maintained lodges and the wildlife. But how the local communities living near the protected area experience and view these places can often be a very different story. And it is in these communities where that conflict is taking place.

To gain a better understanding of the relationship between local communities and park authorities, I interviewed Ella Muhr, an Environmental Science’s Master’s student working with local communities around the Tsitsikamma National Park. Her research  has shown that there is a clear divide between the local communities and the park authorities. Ella gave a perfect example when I asked her about this: “in South Africa communities are seen as a hindrance to conservation. To quote a community member from the Tsitsikamma “They think we are baboons sitting on the rocks””. While this example may be an extreme case, it nonetheless illustrates the divide clearly.


Spotted hyena in the iMfolozi game reserve (@Callum Evans).


The estuary that De Mond Nature Reserve protects (@Callum Evans).


The Palmiet Valley in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve (@Callum Evans).

Decisions about legislation have often been made without consulting local communities or conducting proper scientific research. A classic example of this was the recent opening up of certain sections of the marine protected area in the Tsitsikamma National Park. However these areas are difficult to access and local fishermen still cannot reach these areas due to the restrictions of access in place when entering the park. The local communities in Tsitsikamma, according to Ella, have had a particularly difficult relationship with SANParks, who manage the Tsitsikamma National Park. “On one occasion”, Ella recalls: ” a community member gave the rangers information about a group of abalone poachers he had spotted in the park, and the rangers arrested and fined the man for trespassing in the park!”.

The argument that is often made is that these natural environments and resources need to be protected in areas where they cannot be harvested by anyone because they have been so depleted elsewhere. This is true but they are in that state because of over-exploitation by past governments and international parties, not the local communities. The locals have lived in these places for millennia and have maintained a balance with the environment, which can be described as Local Ecological Knowledge. How this fact has just been ignored is beyond me. Apparently Ella felt the same way too: “It goes beyond to access and into basic human rights. To deny that, is purely wrong.”

Image result for scott ramsay photography, Kosi Bay

This method of catching fish has been practiced by local communities living around Kosi Bay in Isimangaliso for generations. A ban that was placed on this practice in the 60’s was only been lifted a few years ago. (@Scott Ramsay)( )

There does appear to be a discourse that disadvantaged communities living around game reserves and national parks tend not to care about them and tend to be seen as the enemies of the reserves. At the same time, these local communities often harbour a lot of animosity towards organisations like SANParks and Ezemvelo Parks for denying them access to where they once used to gather materials or fish. Ella was also able to add more insight to this: “As current management is leading to increased food insecurity and loss of livelihoods, culture and identity in indigenous people, the margin between the rich and the poor increases and the respect for nature is lost as it becomes an “us versus them” game.”

Many of South Africa’s protected areas have implemented successful conservation strategies over the years which have spawned some incredible success stories. Operation Rhino in the 1950’s saw white rhino being trans-located from iMfolozi to reserves across their former range in Southern Africa including Kruger. In 2013, lions were reintroduced into Karoo National Park after an absence of 150 years, and the restoration of Isimangaliso World Heritage Site saw the reintroduction of elephants, wild dogs and lions and the restoration of the lake and grassland ecosystems. But despite these successes, the strained relationship with local communities suggests that policies regarding such matters have not changed since the 1950’s and 1960’s. In some cases they’ve actually become more stringent. The ‘Top-down’ system of governance applied with the implementation of park policy often results in little consultation with local communities. When one looks at the details in these policies, it is clear that there is a lack of understanding at the top.


A pair of bat-eared foxes foraging in Benfontein Game Reserve (@Callum Evans). 


White rhino in the wilderness section of the iMfolozi Game Reserve. There are a large number of community awareness programs put in place surrounding the reserve, a number of which are focused on dealing with rhino poaching (@Callum Evans).

However, not all reserves in South Africa have such a negative relationship with communities. A large number of private reserves and conservancies work closely with local communities to achieve their goals and to help uplift the residents of the communities with a variety of outreach programmes. A recent example of the benefits of this positive relationship happened on the 17th of May this year, when collaboration between Wildlands, reserve management teams, the Gumbi community and Emvokweni Community Trust saw the reintroduction of a new pride of lions into Somkhanda Nature Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal. The reintroduction of predators is always a tense issue but thanks to the successful collaboration the community was proud to finally see the reserve restored to its ‘Big Five’ status once again. (

It is clear that for successes like this to become the norm, there needs to be a change in how policies are implemented and how park authorities and policy makers interact with local communities. The people who live around these protected areas have a wealth of knowledge about the land and its biodiversity that far surpasses our own and it’s being lost in many places, in part because they have been cut off from the source of that knowledge. As Ella put it, “Every South African should have access to nature.


A giant kalander tree in the Tsitsikamma National Park. Not many trees like this remain, due to past over-exploitation by woodcutters from Europe and then plantation owners (@Callum Evans).


Bontebok grazing in De Hoop Nature Reserve (@Callum Evans).


Close-up of a nyala bull in Mabalingwe Private Nature Reserve (@Callum Evans).


A black-footed cat grooming after a hour spent hunting in Benfontein Game Reserve (@Callum Evans).


The start of the famous Otter Trail in the Tsitsikamma National Park. The beach below is accessible to all members of the public free of charge(@Callum Evans) .


A stampede of cape buffalo in the iMfolozi Wilderness Area (@Callum Evans).


Orange-breasted sunbird in Kirstenbosch Gardens on the edge of the Table Mountain National Park (@Callum Evans).

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