Moving towards larger areas

Nature is critical for our survival. Terms such as biodiversity and ecosystem services have become more familiar phrases but are often viewed or understood as individual components because this is how humans learn best.  We break down difficult to understand concepts, learn about the components separately, and think we understand the system, but often do not grasp the full complexity.

Luckily science and research are progressing, and we are learning more about the intricacies and complexities of nature.  Because nature is not just a collection of species, genes, or habitats or even relationships between species, it is a vast, interconnected and complex system of life and it this complexity and interconnectedness of the system which makes it important for us to survive and thrive.

However, we have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg in terms of our knowledge of this critical life giving system.  We have then spent the last couple of hundred years unsustainably exploiting nature to grow our economies and wealth to the extent of creating unprecedented global biodiversity loss and collapsing local habitats, often to the detriment of local subsistence communities, who have few alternatives for food or livelihoods.

Of the nine planetary boundaries biodiversity loss is one of the most advanced, even though climate change receives more media attention.  This is why countries around the world have signed the agreement at COP15 in December 2022, to protect 30% of land and water by 2030, to ensure nature and biodiversity can continue to provide essential ecosystem services to people.

But it is not just about lowering extinction rates of species, it is about providing space where nature is the priority and can stay interconnected and be a fully functioning system.  If we can’t make this happen biodiversity loss will continue and eventually the system will collapse and once the system starts collapsing in one area there will be a domino effect across the planet.  Nature is not just interconnected at the local level but also at the global level; oceanic currents and ecosystems such as the Amazon rainforest, for example, create and influence weather patterns both locally and around the world.

Today only 15% of land, 15% of freshwater and 7% of oceans are protected globally.  South Africa is below the global average where only 9,27% of its land is protected. A further 20,7% is needed in the next 7 years to be able to meet this international target.

South Africa is a species and habitat rich country, and many people rely directly on nature for their livelihood, income and wellbeing.  Making sure nature is protected, restored and the importance recognised is critical to South Africa’s future.

Here in the Waterberg, we are incredibly fortunate that our story of conservation and the rewilding and restoration process to bring back biodiversity started decades ago and now the Waterberg is a place of immense conservation and biodiversity value that can contribute to the 30 x 30 deal for nature.

The Waterberg (both the plateau area and the larger district) represent a significant area of the conservation estate of South Africa.  The plateau, which almost in its entirety, is made up of game farms and reserves and is approximately 2 million ha in size, while the larger district is almost 4.5 million ha.  The Waterberg bioregional plan indicates that at least 80% of the area, is in a natural state which would qualify as conservation estate, although much of it lacks formal protection.

Land under conservation comes in different categories; largely to do with the aspect of level of protection. These include state-owned (SANParks and LEDET) reserves, LEDET registered Private Nature Reserves, large conservation properties (not protected) >8000ha, medium properties (game farms <8000ha and >3000ha) and the many small game farms about 1000ha in size.  There is also a biosphere Reserve which is classified as an Other Effective area-based Conservation Measure (OECMs).

However, not all areas have formal protection status and thus do not contribute to the country’s total protected areas.  Protected areas include state owned reserves, large private conservation reserves which include Marataba Contractual National Park, Welgevonden Game Reserve, and Lapalala Wilderness and a network of small private nature reserves that are scattered around the district.  For formal protected areas the state contributes 135,000 ha (3%) and private reserves 681,335 ha (15%).  This totals 816,335 ha or 18% of the Waterberg district.

There are also many reserves that have significant conservation value but have no protected status.  Many of these reserves probably have better levels of functional biodiversity than many formal protected areas.  Their total is more than 423,200 ha or 10% of the district.  If these areas came under a protection status or could be recognised for their conservation value this would add a significant amount of land towards the 30% target for nature.

The district also has many smaller reserves and game farms (+/- 1000 ha) that add to the overall conservation estate and provide a network of land for biodiversity.  Overall, the district can provide way above the 30% of land needed for biodiversity for the 30 x 30 deal for nature.

But more than just the percentage contribution, the Waterberg offers an opportunity to restore the interconnectedness that nature needs to be fully functional, prevent biodiversity loss and provide ecological services to the area.  While the Waterberg is heavily fenced, it does not have major transport routes fragmenting the area, large scale urbanisation and habitat destruction, or vast areas of agricultural land.  With the creation and consolidation of larger ‘eco-tourism based’ reserves, as well as conservancies, the trend of creating larger contiguous conservation units has already begun, and the trend is increasing with more and more landowners becoming interested in the concept, bridging the way forward for the transition of species focused conservation to landscape conservation.


Further reading