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RIO+20 The Future We Want

RIO+20 the future we want

One Small Step for a Hippo, but a Giant Leap for Conservation in South Africa

By Linda Nordling


Five hippos have been re-introduced to the wetlands near Cape Agulhas through a biodiversity conservation initiative. Photo: Heather D'Alton

The muddy footprint, nearly as long as a human’s but much wider, is fresh, less than a day old. The re-introduction of five hippos to the wetlands near Cape Agulhas in Africa’s southernmost tip in October 2010—over a century after they were hunted to extinction there—is a hopeful sign. Not just for these chubby mud-lovers and swimmers, but for the human communities they co-exist with.

Cape Agulhas is part of the mega-diverse Cape Floristic Region, home to some of the world’s richest biodiversity. When settlers first arrived it was known as the “Serengeti of the Cape,” teeming not only with hippos but also buffalo, rhinos and lions.

But centuries of farming has transformed the region. Only a small part of the wetlands remains. Wildlife has to contend with wheat fields, wine farms and other commercial activities. Of the 1,850 plant species found in the Agulhas plain, at least 315 are threatened.

A biodiversity initiative

Woman and wild Fynbos

Training on how to harvest wild Fynbos in a sustainable way is provided to local women. Photo: Slingshot Media

The past decade has seen the area’s landowners, conservationists, local politicians and residents join forces to reduce biodiversity loss while protecting their livelihoods. Their joint effort that began in 2003—the Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative (ABI)—led to the formal protection of 60 per cent of the remaining wetlands, most of which lie in private land.

Since its start, the initiative has cleared nearly 1,000 hectares of alien plants, trained extra fire-fighters and erected more than 120 km of game-proof fencing, creating not just a safer environment but also hundreds of local jobs. Hippos, buffalo and antelopes have been re-introduced to the protected areas. Training flower pickers on how to harvest wild Fynbos in a sustainable way empowered the area’s poor, especially women.

The effort required buy-ins from a variety of stakeholders. South African National Parks participated in discussions, as did a variety of other organizations and private foundations. The Global Environmental Facility, a fund supported by the United Nations Development Programme, and the German government through their International Climate Initiative, provided funding.

“It’s a new way of looking at land management,” says Rory Allardice, ABI Chairman. “Rather than trying to recreate a lost world, the driving force of ABI was to envision how the area should look in 100 years.”

There are several reasons why “going back” was not an option. Climate change is predicted to make Cape Agulhas prone to more extreme weather like flooding and drought.

The area also needed to respond to South Africa’s changing social realities. After the first democratic elections in 1994, improving the lives of South Africa’s many impoverished citizens became the top political priority. Creating opportunities for the area’s poor to share in the bounties of the land therefore became crucial to the biodiversity project. 

Some of the strongest support came from private landowners. By 2010, for example, 25 landowners had signed up to create the Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area, named after the river that flows through the wetlands. For private landowners, it was a matter of survival. With crop prices unable to match increases in production costs, they saw the need to diversify income streams or lose their farms.

“I think that’s a huge step where the landowners collectively made a commitment—not just to conservation, but also to agriculture,” says Dirk Human, a local farmer and chairman of the special management area.  

The region’s long-term future

Conservation efforts have made Cape Agulhas more endurable to climate change. Photo: Milkwood

Tourism is seen as a major possibility, especially with the re-introduction of large game. A new coastal guesthouse has been built in the national park, and landowners in the buffer zone are investing in accommodation for visitors. New ethical markets are also being sought for biodiversity-based products.

The big animals are not just meant to attract tourists. Hippos keep the wetlands healthy by tunnelling through reeds and dispersing the water flow. The buffalo will breed disease-free offspring, generating income for conservation within the special management area. As in many other parts of the Agulhas Biodiversity Initiative, investments have been designed to bring ecological, financial and social benefits.

The first phase of the initiative ended in 2010, but its legacy persists. A second phase is in the works, and although the financial potential will take years to be fully realized, the project has given the area’s residents hope.