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Towards a new national park in the Eastern Cape grasslands

To say that the north-eastern corner of the Eastern Cape is an area of extraordinary natural beauty is something of an understatement. On the six-hour drive from the airport in Bloemfontein to this far-flung corner of our country, my colleague Angus Burns kept reassuring us the best was yet to come. He was so right.

© Angus Burns/WWF South Africa
The Batlokoa community are keen to have their high-altitude land incorporated into a new contract national park.

Towards sunset and after five hours on the road, we headed out of the little town of Barkly  East. Here and there we saw cattle enjoying the lush grazing after good summer rains. We stopped to let a ‘padloper’ tortoise hotfoot it across the road, glimpsed the silhouettes of mountain reedbuck on a hillside and saw the bobbing heads of a pair of endangered grey-crowned cranes in an emerald-green meadow next to a mountain stream.

Our destination was the tiny village of Rhodes, a focal point for a new national park project which is aimed at securing more of South Africa’s grasslands, primarily through stewardship agreements with landowners within a working agricultural landscape. Grasslands are under-protected in our country and so this makes them a conservation priority.

© Andrea Weiss/WWF South Africa
SANParks scientists Melanie de Morney and Hendrik Sithole look for freshwater invertebrates in the Rifle Spruit River. They were excited to find stoneflies which are an indication of excellent water quality.
Tools of the trade

The 51 people gathered at the Walkerbouts Inn in Rhodes weren’t just any old folk. The majority were scientists, representing over 20 organisations including one in the UK and one in Belgium, and with specialist knowledge in the study of everything from ants to spiders, plants to birds, hoverflies to water beetles...

The mission: An attempt to record all living species within a designated area over the next five days in what is called a ‘bioblitz’. As Kristal Maze, General Manager of Park, Planning and Development with SANParks, pointed out, while the area had already been identified for its clear biodiversity value, a bioblitz was a way of remedying the many gaps in our knowledge.

Day One, and at 6am, the bleary-eyed group gathered outside the Walkerbouts Inn to await instructions. WWF’s Thembanani Nsibande, who is working on this project, explained that the day’s objective was to survey an area of communal land that belongs to the Batlokoa Community close to the famous Naudé’s Nek Pass.

© Andrea Weiss/WWF South Africa
Thembanani Nsibande from WWF keeps a watchful eye as the bioblitzers navigate a tricky road to the escarpment. Rain later in the day made a muddy situation even muddier.

At each stop (some caused by the odd vehicle getting stuck, others to take in a particular view), the scientists quickly whipped out the tools of their trade – nets, trowels, test tubes, pipettes and suction pipes, even a crowbar for overturning rocks (for the herpetologists) as they scoured the landscape for their particular creatures of interest.

When we reached our destination, at 2640m, the air was thin but the reward was a view forever down towards the former Transkei, a tumbling waterfall, a rainstorm with some scary flashes of lightning (a reminder of how exposed one can be in these high mountains) and a majestic fly-past by two bearded vultures, listed as Critically Endangered in southern Africa. My Roberts Bird Guide later told me there are only an estimated 200 breeding pairs of these birds left in South Africa and Lesotho.

Clear waters rising

Caroline Reeders, wife of a fifth-generation farmer Janbert Reeders, is also a keen botanist and so she was delighted to be able to join the bioblitz for two of the days. She said she’d “only” lived in the area for 32 years but had come to love the landscape and its plants, in particular.

She pointed out another factor which makes this a strategic water source area in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg. All around us, we could see water trickling down the mountainsides into the streams.

“The water here is always clear and sweet, even when it rains,” said Caroline. “That shows you that the farmers are looking after the land.”

© Angus Burns/WWF South Africa
Here the rivers run clean and clear due to the good grass cover blanketing the soil.

My mind jumped to all the videos I had seen over the past few months as South Africa experienced exceptional summer rain, of murky, orange-stained rivers full of topsoil runoff. Here, the spongy, grassy slopes and wetlands were having the opposite effect. Soaking up the rain and releasing it into the streams in a condition fit to drink.

At the top of the mountain, Caroline pointed out that we were on a watershed – the headwaters of the Bell River drain to the west towards the Orange River and ultimately the Atlantic Ocean, while the dramatic waterfall we could see was heading towards the Mzimvubu River and the Indian Ocean.

Each night, after a day of forging rivers, climbing mountains and stomping through mud, the participants would report back on their findings – some good, some less so. The birders were ecstatic about the high-altitude birding possibilities. The “magoggo” people (as Themba called them) were reporting excellent pickings with many undescribed species and exciting finds, while the herpetologists were having less luck due to the altitude, although a thunderstorm did bring out a melodious chorus of rain frogs.

Participants were also encouraged to upload their findings onto the iNaturalist app, championed by the South African National Botanical Institute (SANBI). Botanist Tony Rebelo has set up a Grassveld National Park project which anybody in the area can contribute towards. At the time of writing,  the project already had some 1 131 species and 8 306 observations by 84 people, predominantly of the rich plant life in the study area.

© Andrea Weiss/WWF South Africa
Ant specialist Peter Hawkes from AfriBugs uses tweezers to examine specimens he collected. Many of the scientists found undescribed species that they would be taking back to their labs for further examination.
Those who came before

On Day Three (my last – although the rest of the group was to continue to Maclear for two more tough days of blitzing) we found ourselves on a farm called Martindale. Here Rassie Smith, a retired mechanical engineer, was delighted to have so many scientists on his land which has been in his family since 1886.

As he explained, he was keen to hear what they had to say about the biodiversity and, in particular, his veld management. He also had another little surprise up his sleeve – a special rock art site.

© Andrea Weiss/WWF South Africa
This panel on Martindale farm is one of many examples of rock art in the southern Drakensberg.

While the bioblitzers spread across mountain and valley, Rassie led us to a cave which had been fenced off to prevent damage by those who felt compelled to scratch their names on the surface in the past.

Underneath a deep overhang, a panel of eland and reedbuck paraded across the rockface, with the unusual addition of dogs and a fat-tailed sheep – evidence, according to the literature, that this art was created at a time when herders were moving into the area alongside the hunter-gatherers. The view from the rock art cave was picture perfect – framing an ancient and almost biblical landscape.

© Andrea Weiss/WWF South Africa
Like many rock art sites, the cave at Martindale is a room with a view, the cave walls framing the landscape beyond.

I can’t wait to see this national park come together – and when it does it will be a national park with a difference. Not one that puts up the fences to keep people and their animals out, but rather one that recognizes the long human history of this place and helps those who live here to look after the land to the best of their ability. For its unique biodiversity, for its ability to provide water, for its sheer beauty. For people and nature. For nature, for you.

*With special thanks to the organisers of the bioblitz, in particular Suvarna Parbhoo of SANBI and Thembanani Nsibande of WWF South Africa.

Andrea Weiss Photo
Andrea Weiss , Media Manager

Andrea wants to see all the wild places in South Africa cherished and protected for generations to come.

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About why we need a new grasslands park