An important conservation project in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, may point the way forward for other African conservation areas.
"We measure our success in the number of people who visit our parks, rather than quantum of income generated. It's our duty to provide a conservation resort experience that is affordable to all,"says Dr George Hughes, CEO of Natal Parks Board.
Not only are KwaZulu-Natal parks among the most sought after holiday destinations in South Africa, with an enviable reputation world-wide, but Natal Parks Board is also the only provincial parks board to be financially self-sustained, last year returning a R7.5m excess of income over expenditure. As a non-profit organisation, excess funds are ploughed back into maintenance, innovation and extended facilities.
"The funding of the parks board will continue to be based upon a subsidy from the state to finance biodiversity conservation and our own ability to earn money through our ecotourism activities and game sales," says Dr Hughes.
The vigour with which the board has undertaken an ecotourism development within the greater St. Lucia wetlands park in the coastal area of northern Zululand, demonstrates its determination.
Rich titanium dioxide deposits in the beach dunes of the park led to a pitched battle between miners (Richards Bay Minerals) and conservationists. Triumph was eventually being claimed by the greens, but the miners have not quite given up.
The victory however, was not unproblematic. It wasn't simply a matter of raising conservation finance, but also of how to deal with the aspirations of the local population, a low-income group eagerly awaiting the windfall a mining boom would bring.
The logical step was to develop the area as a full-scale nature conservation reserve complete with lodges and other tourist amenities, with the participation of the people in the area, thus creating long term and sustainable incomes.
"That made a lot of sense," says Dr Hughes. "While the mining operations would have brought a certain amount of wealth to the area and its people, it wasn't due to start for a further seven years and was expected to last for only seven years after that. With conservation park developments, jobs and incomes are created very quickly and are of an unlimited timespan."
However, with one battle won came the onset of another. The region is now subject to a number of land claims, lodged by indigenous inhabitants, which have sidelined much of the physical...