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Eastern Cape’s Greater Kabeljous conservation area under grave threat of permanent destruction

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Dr Wentzel Coetzer is a member of the Greater Kabeljous Partnership.

If nothing is done to stop the illegal occupation of a section of the Greater Kabeljous biodiversity hotspot, there is a real risk of this precious piece of land and the numerous environmental and heritage resources it has to offer being lost forever.

The Eastern Cape is one of the most beautiful and ecologically diverse provinces in South Africa, boasting a wild ocean, rivers, lagoons, indigenous flora and fauna as well as a rich history and heritage. Perhaps one of the most unique and precious parts of the province is the Greater Kabeljous area, just northeast of Jeffreys Bay, which contains irreplaceable biodiversity and is of deep cultural significance for indigenous people. 

This region, which comprises the Kabeljous and Papiesfontein parcels, owned by the provincial government, as well as parcels of privately owned land stretching up to the Gamtoos River, is home to at least 16 plant and five bird species of special conservation concern.

Perhaps most critically, it is the habitat of the black harrier, South Africa’s rarest endemic raptor – it is estimated that there are fewer than 1,000 mature individuals remaining globally.

Recent population viability assessments by researchers from the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and the Centre for Statistics in Ecology, Environment and Conservation at the University of Cape Town have predicted that the black harrier could potentially become extinct within 75 years unless urgent action is taken to conserve and protect the species. 

The area contains at least five different ecosystem types, the largest of which is Humansdorp Shale Renosterveld. This is only found in a small part of the Eastern Cape, and is listed as an endangered ecosystem in terms of the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act. This precious ecosystem is at risk of ecological collapse due to high rates of habitat loss and fragmentation during the past three decades. 

The Kabeljous and Papiesfontein land is one of the last and best remaining areas where a relatively large and well-connected remnant of Humansdorp Shale Renosterveld can still be found, and where an ecologically viable unit of this ecosystem type can still be conserved. 

The land is currently recognised as a critical biodiversity area and falls within the “high-priority areas” of both the National Protected Area Expansion Strategy and the Eastern Cape Protected Area Expansion Strategy. It is therefore well aligned with the government’s strategic priorities to expand South Africa’s Protected Areas Network to conserve our country’s important biodiversity.

The South African government has international obligations under the United Nations’ Convention on Biological Diversity, which includes a commitment to reducing threats to biodiversity by ensuring that at least 30% of our land, freshwater and oceans ecosystems are conserved by 2030. 

Besides its conservation value, the land has deep cultural significance for Khoisan people and other groupings who trace their heritage back to the area. A recent report on the conservation value of the site noted the cultural and archaeological value of the land, including that the Kabeljous estuary was a popular area for hunter-gatherers and pastoralists and that there were numerous Khoisan and Stone Age artefacts preserved on the site. 

Attempts at protection

It is clear that the Greater Kabeljous area could serve as an important conservation, cultural and tourism asset for the Kouga region and the broader Eastern Cape. Indeed, there have been attempts going back as far as 1999 to afford these land parcels the protection they deserve by having them formally declared as nature reserves. 

In 2017, progress was signalled when the provincial Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism expressed its support for having the Papiesfontein land managed as a nature reserve. The Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA) also confirmed that both the Kabeljous and Papiesfontein sites qualified for formal nature reserve status. 

In 2019, the provincial department approved a memorandum seeking a way forward in formally declaring the two properties as nature reserves. It recommended the transfer of the Papiesfontein land from the Department of Human Settlements to the provincial department and, following that, the formal declaration of both land parcels as a provincial nature reserve. 

Between 2019 and 2020, Conservation Outcomes (the organisation I work for) prepared a draft Protected Area Management Plan in consultation with key stakeholders and the relevant government authorities – including the provincial department, the ECPTA and the Kouga Local Municipality. 

Frustratingly, since then there has been little tangible progress to have the land formally declared a nature reserve. Despite the efforts of some well-meaning officials, the process seems to have been tied up in red tape and caught in bureaucratic bottlenecks. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA’s protected areas growing at a healthy rate, report reveals

In the meantime, just more than one year ago on 5 December 2022, a small group, led by a prominent person (who also happens to be a local government councillor), invaded the Papiesfontein land where they built illegal structures and blocked public access to the land. They have occupied the land ever since, with their settlement steadily expanding in size and number. 

Since then, independent reports have revealed that this land invasion has resulted in a direct loss of endangered vegetation and environmental degradation due to indiscreet clearing of areas for the erecting of tents, structures and communal “lapas”, and poor waste management by the illegal dwellers.

The independent reports also found that the land invasion poses a serious threat to the continued presence and breeding of the black harrier, since their ground-nesting nature makes them extremely vulnerable to any human disturbance. 

If nothing is done to put a stop to this illegal occupation, there is a real risk of this precious piece of land and the numerous environmental and heritage resources it has to offer being lost forever.

It is encouraging that there is an eviction application by the Eastern Cape Department of Human Settlements under way, as well as a high court application by the Kouga Local Municipality to have the illegal structures demolished. But these processes – like the process to have the land declared a nature reserve – are frustratingly slow. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Conservation of South Africa’s protected areas is tenuous as long as the law is weak

This is why a group of long-standing environmental activists, conservation practitioners and concerned citizens from Jeffreys Bay have joined to form the Greater Kabeljous Partnership. We are advocating for the creation of a sustainable nature reserve that will be cared for and protected by all role players; where people from all over the world will be able to enjoy nature and learn more about the First Nation people who lived in the area in harmony with nature. 

To achieve this aim, it is important for the provincial government, the conservation fraternity and legitimate cultural groups to try to accelerate these processes before this precious natural habitat is irrevocably destroyed. By working together, we can unlock the environmental, cultural and socioeconomic value of this land so that all in the region may benefit. DM

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  • Richard Cowling says:

    Thank you Wentzel for airing this issue. Another example of how the private conservation sector and volunteers do the work that the provincial conservation agency should be doing. The support of the DA-run Kouga Municipality is hugely encouraging. Alita continua!

  • Alan Jeffrey says:

    Hi Wentzel. KZN is also losing some precious conservation land in the Camperdown area outside Pietermaritzburg. An area of approximately 5000 ha was set aside in Trust Land for a game reserve and residential development that would have brought huge benefits to the local community in the form of permanent and part time employment and income. Much of the cost of fencing and game, including Elephant reintroduction was funded from overseas. Fences were torn down, game poached to local extinction, and land simply taken with illegal structures built despite Court orders against the squatters. Legal occupants in Conservation premises involved in animal and raptor rehabilitation were forced to find alternative sites. Basically the area is like a mini failed state with law enforcement unable or unwilling to act.
    Thin end of the wedge stuff which MUST BE addressed in the next election or I fear for the future of at least some parts of our country. The majority need and must be helped out of poverty but this is not the way.

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