Our Burning Planet


Big game parks vs big farming: Victory for nature on the Klaserie River

Big game parks vs big farming: Victory for nature on the Klaserie River
A pack of painted wolves at Mala Mala Game Reserve in South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Chris Daphne)

In June 2021, Daily Maverick ran a story that pitted 15 of the biggest brands in nature conservation against a giant citrus farming conglomerate. Given that the Limpopo provincial authorities appeared, perhaps illegally, to be on the side of the latter, the future of the Greater Kruger was at stake. But a year later, with the citrus farmer in business rescue, a land acquisition may have restored the balance.

What’s in a name? When it comes to the brutal struggle for survival of one of Africa’s most endangered species, Shakespeare’s answer to his own enduring question would appear to count for nought — the painted wolf, if we still were to call it the African wild dog, would smell nowhere near as sweet.

This is because Lycaon pictus, which translates loosely from the Latin as “decorated wolf”, had for centuries been lumped under its old name with the continent’s so-called vermin. 

There were, according to the Painted Wolf Foundation, colonial administrators who placed the African wild dog in the same category as rats. “Some countries,” the foundation notes, “even paid rewards for each animal killed.” There were also, given the canine’s perceived threat to domestic livestock, agricultural magazines that published detailed instructions on the most effective methods for decimating the species. 

Painted wolves

So it was a sublime day in early June 2022 when a pack of 15 painted wolves moved into a territory of about 430ha in the Hoedspruit region of Limpopo. Native to the Greater Kruger, an open system that incorporates the Kruger National Park and the private nature reserves on its western border, the monitored pack — known as LP-BY01/2022 — had long been enjoying the free and protected run of some 23 million hectares. The sublime thing was, just a few days before, this very same pocket of the Greater Kruger had been rescued from a high-impact industrial farming development.

painted wolves

A pack of painted wolves at Mala Mala Game Reserve. (Photo: Gallo Images / Chris Daphne)

The back-story, as Daily Maverick told it in June 2021, was what made the event particularly remarkable. Headlined “Big game parks vs big farming: A battle for the ages on the Klaserie River”, the piece outlined a fight that, in our reckoning, went to the very heart of South Africa’s environmental legislation. 

On the one side was the Soleil Sitrus Group, an agricultural conglomerate that at the time was exporting to markets in Europe, Japan, the Middle East and Russia, with thousands of hectares under cultivation on 11 farms in multiple provinces. On the other side were 15 of the biggest brands in South African nature conservation, including SANParks and the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, the NGO Elephants Alive, the 60,000ha Klaserie Reserve and the 53,000ha Timbavati Reserve.

The battle lines, in a nutshell, had been drawn around land use. The fight had kicked off in late 2018, when SANParks — under the guise of the Kruger National Park and the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region — had foreseen the very real potential for human-wildlife conflict. The primary objection was that Soleil Sitrus, apparently unsatisfied with their extensive landholdings in areas of the country where no such encounters were likely to occur, had decided that the border of the Greater Kruger would be an ideal site for expansion.

soleil sitrus group

A Soleil Sitrus Group pack house. (Photo: Supplied)

The 430ha the company acquired, it turned out, was sandwiched between the Klaserie Reserve and the Timbavati Reserve, two of the largest private “Big 5” reserves in the country, each with a sizeable population of elephants. And so, five months after SANParks had objected to the plans for the citrus orchard — the “current fencing system ‘keeping animals in’ is very porous”, they noted — Elephants Alive joined the fight too.

But it wasn’t just the sweet smell of oranges, irresistible to the giants of the African veld, that SANParks and Elephants Alive were concerned about; there was the fact that Sitrus Soleil’s new property was located on the Klaserie River, a tributary of the Olifants River, one of the largest watercourses in the Kruger. On this point, given the use of pesticides and herbicides that commercial citrus farming typically entails, the problem was equally obvious.

The mitigation plans, as both SANParks and Elephants Alive made clear, should ideally have been included in the draft environmental impact assessment, completed in 2018. As it happened, the final EIA, submitted in June 2019, would acknowledge the likelihood that water use for irrigation of the citrus orchard would have a “negative impact on available water resources in the region”.

So how did Kobus van Staden, founder and owner of Soleil Sitrus, obtain his environmental authorisation?

In our attempt to get to the bottom of this pivotal question, Daily Maverick was led through thousands of pages of court documents. As we pointed out at the time, the place of the provincial government in the battle was profoundly irregular — and in some instances, perhaps illegal — since it appeared that the presiding officials may have been less than objective. For starters, despite the documented objections of SANParks and Elephants Alive, the chief director of environmental trade and protection at the Limpopo government’s Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (the notorious LEDET) had simply granted the authorisation on 2 August 2019.

To be fair, there were a number of caveats to LEDET’s environmental authorisation, including the conditions that no more than 102 hectares would be open to cultivation, that a permit for removing “protected trees” would need to be obtained from the national department, and that no farming could take place within the flood line of the Klaserie River. But it was after 3 September 2019, when MEC Thabo Mokone was bombarded with all of 15 separate appeals to the authorisation, that the battle properly began to heat up.

Earth-moving equipment

Mokone, as the appellants noted in the legal correspondence, would fail to adhere to the prescribed time limits for the processing of appeals. Of way more concern, however, was the fact that Soleil — in apparent contravention of sections 43(7) and 49A(1) of the National Environmental Management Act, which jointly state that an appeal “suspends an environmental authorisation” and that to “commence with an activity” in these circumstances is a criminal offence — had in the interim brought in earth-moving equipment.

By October 2020, after the appellants had managed to obtain a series of ground-level photographs, the full extent of Soleil’s activities would become clear. These images, which had been shared with Daily Maverick, showed Caterpillar bulldozers, backhoe loaders and articulated trucks. In one image, a compactor was flattening a road; behind the machine, uprooted indigenous trees were lying prone in the rubble. 

soleil sitrus group

A farm belonging to Soleil Sitrus Group. (Photo: Supplied)

A month later, in a letter to Mokone, the appellants’ attorney would allege that Soleil had committed a criminal offence. Given that it was now more than 14 months since the appeals had been lodged, he would demand that LEDET investigate the case. When nothing happened, Elephants Alive would take the matter to the Green Scorpions. After no joy on that front, it was on to the South African Police Service — but, again, crickets.

Into early 2021, with still no word on the decision, the appellants continued to survey the property. From a series of flyovers in light aircraft, they were able to capture photographic evidence that soil preparation was at an advanced stage and that an excavator had cleared vegetation in the property’s south-western corner — an area that had been demarcated as a “no-go zone” in the original authorisation of August 2019.

Ultimately, while Mokone would inform the parties of his decision in late March 2021, a full 18 months after the appeals had been lodged, he would inexplicably pass judgement on just two of the 15 submissions. Although these appeals would be denied, he would impose the further condition that Soleil “erect an elephant proof fence around the property”. According to Elephants Alive, photographic evidence from a flyover in April 2021 would show that no such fence had been erected.

kruger elephants

Elephants near Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. (Photo: EPA / Jon Hrusa)

Van Staden, for his part, would refuse to engage with Daily Maverick on this (or any other) question. He referred us instead to the court papers, where his attorney had argued that “the fences currently in place” were “more than adequate deterrence against elephants”. Similarly, contrary to the appellants’ claim that the land had lain fallow for more than a decade and had thus returned to its pristine natural state, the same attorney had argued that the plot was “registered farmland”. It had not, he’d stated, been pristine since 1967.

As for LEDET, Mokone would extend his “regrets and apologies” to Daily Maverick for the 18-month delay, informing us via his head of department that decisions had since been made on “all appeals”. More significantly, though, LEDET would offer no explanation — other than the fact that the matter was pending before the Polokwane High Court — for why the MEC had not investigated Soleil’s apparent breach of section 43 of the National Environmental Management Act

And this “pending matter”, a judicial review that the Klaserie Reserve, the Timbavati Reserve and Elephants Alive had launched against Soleil’s original environmental authorisation, was where we left the story. By our reckoning, with SANParks and the rest of the “interested and affected parties” watching closely, the outcome would not have been limited to the region around Hoedspruit. As Deon Huysamer, chairman of the Klaserie Reserve, had told us, “It will set a very dangerous precedent if we allow the development to continue unchallenged.”

Business rescue

Fast forward to winter 2022, with Soleil Sitrus suddenly in business rescue. Although Daily Maverick could not determine the source of the company’s financial stress, the upshot was that the Global White Lion Protection Trust — a supporter of the 15 appellants from the start — was able to acquire the land. Given that the organisation had successfully restored the natural bushveld on three prior land purchases in the Greater Kruger region, it could not be read as anything other than a rare good-news story.

“While we acknowledge the urgent need for food production in South Africa,” said Linda Tucker, the trust’s founder and CEO, “the establishment of an old-style, monoculture development in one of the most critically sensitive biodiversity areas in the world would have been an utter disaster. Instead, the South African government should be advancing new-paradigm regenerative agro-ecology, which would create large-scale rural livelihoods on the borders of our wildlife areas, and protect the future of all species, including humans.”

painted wolf

A painted wolf. (Photo: Wikimedia / Leon Emanuel)

To state the obvious, then, the potential for human-wildlife conflict has now fully abated. The citrus giant’s plans for extracting more than two million cubic metres of water a year from the Klaserie River — the only perennial watercourse serving the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere — are a thing of the past, as are the herbicides and pesticides that would have been washed into the system. And while there is still much work to be done in restoring the land to its original state, a pack of painted wolves has decided to make the plot its home.

From a legal standpoint, it may have been a better outcome if the courts had forced LEDET to do its constitutionally mandated job, but then — with Soleil still farming in the interim — the pack would not have denned here, enabling the alpha female to deliver a litter of pups, ensuring the continuity of the second most endangered canid on the African continent. DM/OBP


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Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    Such good news. Thanks for your part in keeping watch, DM, and parading the triumphant outcome! While there will be many more circuses to follow, today we sit with you on the ringside and celebrate! Well done.

  • Mark B B says:

    It is a pyrrhic victory until the courts pronounce upon the flawed EIA process, decision making and the completely inexcusable delay of the MEC in dealing with the appeal. This is clearly a case of winning the battle by default but losing the war of badly planned, unsustainable and destructive developments in a landscape wholly suited to another sensible land use. The lack of a determined ‘ecological reserve’ for the Klaserie or Blyde rivers mean that they are over allocated and exploited. The next drought will bring tears to the lowveld and Mozambique

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