Man vs beast: reconciling community and conservation in Kruger National Park, South Africa

Elders of the Makuleke communityI’ve just got back from an incredible trip to South Africa, where I spent a week at a safari guide-training facility in the northern-most tip of the Kruger National Park. Eco Training is South Africa’s leading training provider for safari guides, and has trained more than 3,000 guides in southern Africa and beyond.

It has three camps in South Africa, but what makes the camp I visited at Makuleke special is that it’s within a unique part of Kruger that has been given back to the tribe which originally owned the land.

In 1969, the Makuleke people were forcibly removed from the land under the apartheid system, and it was only in 1994 that they made a successful claim to have the land (which by then formed part of Kruger) returned to them. I had the opportunity to visit the Makuleke people in the town just outside the park where they now live, and heard firsthand about the difficult decisions the tribe has had to make, and the challenges it currently faces.

When the land was returned in ‘94, the Makuleke considered selling the land for mining or for cattle-farming, but were thankfully persuaded by Eco Training and NGOs that the land should continue being used for conservation and eco-tourism. Three different safari camps within the Makuleke concession now pay the tribe a rental fee for the land, and also employ local people.

Round thatched huts of Makuleke villagesTribal leaders said that the decision to go with conservation had been the right one, but admitted it has been far from easy.

Lemson Maluleke, operating officer for the Makuleke marketing board, told us that Makuleke’s remote location makes it a difficult sell from a tourism point, and that the three camps are not generating as much revenue as expected. Crucially – the tribe feels it must consider hunting on the land again:

“Initially, after engaging with the concessionaires, we decided that hunting was not compatible with the conservation aims. But we haven’t been able to generate the same revenue, so we do want to explore the issue of hunting again,” he explained.

Since the Mukaleke people have the rights to the land, they are entitled to hunt if they wish, despite it being illegal elsewhere in Kruger National Park. Lemson insisted that the hunting would be done in a sustainable manner, only during certain weeks in certain zones.

But conservationists are concerned that even limited, regulated hunting cannot sit alongside the park’s conservation aims, particularly when Kruger has such a problem with illegal poaching.

On the other hand, with 20,000 mouths to feed, I can well understand the Makuleke’s desire to make best use of the resources available to them. Whether they hunt themselves, or grant hunting permits for controversial biltong-hunting, it would prove very profitable.

Thinking back to the marine reserve I visited in the Caribbean last month, what I found so inspiring about the project in Jamaica was the level of buy-in that the scheme had from the local community. The campaign was led by a local fisherman and had the community’s full support. At Mukaleke, on the other hand, the conservation is driven by outside parties, and I’d question how engaged the community really is.

An elephant in Makuleke concession, Kruger National ParkIt’s hard to see how tourism alone will be able to generate the kind of revenue the tribe says it needs, without allowing further camps to be built.

The tribe’s leaders have now begun a study to determine just how feasible it is for them to rely on the income from conservation and ecotourism in future years: I hope the results prove positive enough that the Makuleke can fully commit to conservation for the long-term.

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