National parks for healing and cohesion
Conservation is a science that contributes to effective management of our natural and cultural heritages. It’s a multifaceted field involving studies informed by priorities that evolve. Sustainable management of national parks requires ecosystem management – not focusing on individual species but on their interactions within and between species and with their natural environment. This is entrenched with evidence-based decision making.
The scientists and conservationists in SA National Parks (SANParks) are globally recognised for their expertise and groundbreaking research conducted with our partners.
The early days of conservation focused on preservation and protectionism, but it has evolved to the appreciation that people and communities are an integral part of it. This requires innovation, openness and a holistic approach. It places sustainable use of resources at the centre of conservation, which requires innovative programmes such as the wildlife economy, access to and sharing of benefits that come from national parks, and deeper partnerships with direct descendants of those who once lived in the landscapes that are our national parks today. That is why science and innovation must inform management decisions, not emotions and personal interests that interfere with conserving a network of national parks.
Sometimes we are erroneously seen as pitting nature against humans. Some draw unnecessary parallels between the importance of caring for nature and considering people’s welfare. The reality is that people are part of nature and we need nature’s contributions to people to improve human wellbeing. The saying “Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it; whatever he does to the web, he does to himself” resonates. Nature provides sustenance and good quality of life for those who visit our national parks. We need to be mindful of our actions and how they might impact negatively on what gives us life, peace, cohesion and enjoyment.
The sustainable system of national parks strives to connect society to our natural and cultural heritages. Thus, communities in and around our national parks are important stakeholders to conservation. Indigenous communities were the real custodians of our heritages. Historical observations and literature inform us that before European settlement in South Africa, animals, plants, birds and all that creation bestowed on us was plentiful. Indigenous people had a generally harmonious relationship with nature. This does not mean there were no human-wildlife conflicts on occasion or that there were no cases of overexploitation.
David Fleminger, in his book Fair Game, states that the various tribes integrated themselves in the natural order and things started going wrong from the 1500s when Europeans started hunting and killing animals for their skins, ivory and horns, and as trophies; things that they wanted to trade and not necessarily needed to prolong life.
However, it is important to recognise that it was a realisation early in the 20th century by the same European settlers that if nothing was done, there wouldn’t be wildlife left for future generations. Moves were then mooted to safeguard the remaining wildlife against hunters and traders through the creation of protected areas such as the Sabi River nature reserve in the Kruger National Park.
However, indigenous people were forcibly displaced from their ancestral land to create these protected areas. They were not even allowed access to those areas because of the discrimination policies of the day. They grew disillusioned and tried to make their own lives outside the protected areas but their way of life was changed forever and their dignity taken away. They did not feel any connection to those reserves unless they had relatives who were working inside them.
The vision of the old government was to preserve national parks far away from any human interference. This made some people think of them as places only for experiencing nature. The forced removals may also explain the resentment that some Africans sometimes feel towards national parks and the wrong perception that they do not care about conservation. The truth is that they were the first conservationists.
We are therefore advancing the cause to preserve unique resources that tell stories about people’s cultures and traditions as much as about natural heritage. Hence SANParks acknowledges its mandate to manage the inheritance of South Africans for present and future generations.
This is why we see national parks as places of healing and nation building, and as catalysts for economic development. We are committed to ensuring that our parks embrace and reflect our diverse experiences; that they help us recognise what unites us more than what divides us and that, in turn, this will contribute to building social cohesion.
It is therefore our organisation’s priority to ensure that both our natural and cultural heritages are conserved, sustainably used and equitably shared among the people of this beautiful country.