Enhancing partnerships to conserve and expand the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve

Rising from the Mpumalanga Lowveld is the great escarpment. Some of the most iconic landmarks in the Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region are found along the Mpumalanga Escarpment with Mariepskop, the Blyde River Canyon, Bourkes Luck Potholes, the Three Rondawels and Gods Window, only a few. Due to the dramatic changes in altitude the escarpment areas support high numbers of species found nowhere else but the escarpment is also responsible for providing our most precious resource – water. 
An important portion of the escarpment in Mpumalanga is formally protected within the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve (BRCNR), one of South Africa’s most iconic nature reserves. Besides being a place for tourists to visit and experience some of South Africa’s most impressive landscapes these areas are our water catchments where the intact grasslands, wetlands and forests “catch” rainfall and mist that is slowly discharged into the many rivers that the lowveld economies rely on. Water from the catchment feeds into the Blyde Dam which supports a multi-million-rand agricultural sector around Hoedspruit and the Kruger National Park relies on the water from the mountain to recharge rivers. The household water supplied to towns such as Hoedspruit, Phalaborwa and Bushbuckridge all have its source in the escarpment. Simply put without the escarpment the lives of all people in the lowveld would be very different. 
Ownership is also changing in the escarpment and the reserve has been subject to land claim and is now owned by four communities that have entered into a co-management agreement with the Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) to manage the reserve. As part of the claim process the communities have made the decision to incorporate an additional 16 000 ha of the lower lying slopes that once formed part of the state owned lowveld plantations into the reserve. As such the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) also form part of the co-management committee. The K2C through funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF) facilitated by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) is supporting this process. “This decision shows tremendous foresight and acknowledges the importance of the lowveld plantation areas in terms of its conservation importance but also its contributions to water security in the region” says Nicholas Theron from the K2C. However, declaring these areas is only the first step and there are major challenges to be faced.  
Because of the history of forestry in the area there is a major alien invasive plant problem that threatens the functioning of these ecosystems thus impacting on water resources. Huge investments have already been made by the Department of Environmental Affairs Natural Resource Management Programmes (DEA NRM) to clear alien vegetation but a co-ordinated effort is needed if we are going to restore and manage this area as part of the Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve. An ambitious project is being embarked upon to tackle this problem with the development of a management plan and restoration strategy for the reserve with key partners including the Association for Water and Rural Development (AWARD), MTPA, DAFF, South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON) and DEA NRM. Recently, a workshop was held where restoration experts from throughout South Africa spent 3 days on site getting a handle on the challenge faced and the opportunities for a coordinated restoration effort to be undertaken. The workshop created the basis for a restoration strategy that will outline the principles, tools and methods for restoration, while focussing on the co-ordination of restoration efforts to maximise impacts. A comprehensive monitoring plan to measure the results achieved especially in terms of water quality, water flow and changes in vegetation over time will also be developed. K2C has also commissioned a resource use study by forestry experts to better understand the benefit flow opportunities of harvested wood resources which will also feed into the restoration strategy.
“This is really an exciting and yet an ambitious project to conserve the escarpment and enhance the services it provides.  It can only be achieved by the partnership and collaboration of diverse stakeholders in the landscape. These enhanced relationships are crucial to support resilient communities especially in the context of global climate change” says Jen Newenham, the K2C ecologist.  

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