Corridor Through the Karoo

Black wildebeest and windpump, Karoo

The Corridor conserves the delicate grasslands and water catchments of the Sneeuberg highlands.

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

One of the hands-down best free game drives in South Africa can be found on the R61 national road between Cradock and Graaff-Reinet.

Sure, there are the normal sheep and a few head of grazing cattle, but keep watching and you may also see sable antelope, black wildebeest, springbok, ostrich, kudu, eland or gemsbok, and almost certainly a few blue cranes.

And if it’s a rainy summer night, you might join the small club of startled motorists who have spotted giant earthworms (two metres long or more) crossing this fabled road.

Black wildebeest, Camdeboo National Park

The grassy, mountainous eastern Karoo is home to rare black wildebeest.

Sneeuberg Mountains

The R61 skirts the northern foothills and rising peaks of the Sneeuberg mountains, bracketed by the Mountain Zebra National Park outside Cradock and the Camdeboo National Park outside Graaff-Reinet.

After early summer rains, fragrant kapokbossies and ankerkaroo are hidden under the nodding green grasses with larks and swallows weaving above them. Wild and domestic animals graze the green heights.

In winter, it’s a different story. The grasses die back and the animals abandon the highlands for the warmer valleys. This is when the Sneeuberg range really earns its name. Half dozen times a year, the ironstone peaks are covered in snow.

They become a forbidding mountain fastness, their majestic ramparts making the farmsteads below look tiny and remote.

Mountain Zebra National Park springbok

Thanks to good veld management by generations of farmers, land around the national parks is in good condition.

Biodiversity Corridor

Back in 2003, a ‘biodiversity corridor’ linking the two national parks was first proposed. The potential area under consideration is 530 000 hectares, a huge swathe of land straddling the Sneeuberg range and stretching from the R61 in the north to Pearston in the south.

But it was only in 2012 that funding (from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund) was sourced and the Wilderness Foundation appointed to partner South African National Parks (SANParks) in implementing the first phase of the project.

The land between the parks is all privately owned, mostly livestock farms alongside game farms and private nature reserves.

And even though this land has been farmed for centuries (many families here have been on the land for five, six or seven generations), the veld is in good condition.

Graaff-Reinet, Karoo

The Sundays River curls around Graaff-Reinet, then heads south to irrigate citrus lands.

Great Fish and Sundays Rivers

There are two very important water catchments here.

The Great Fish River rises on the eastern side of the Sneeuberg’s highest peak, known as Nardouwberg, flows north for a time before turning to rush past Cradock, irrigating pecans, lucerne and sheep farms as it goes, then heading to the sea north of Port Alfred.

The Sundays River rises to the west, filling the Nqweba dam at Graaff-Reinet (included as part of the Camdeboo National Park), runs on to the huge citrus groves near Addo and Kirkwood, then empties into the sea just north of Port Elizabeth.

Apart from drinking water, these rivers support the generation of billions in foreign revenue from wool, mohair and citrus exports.

Sable antelope, Karoo

Game farming and livestock farming predominate in the Corridor area.

 Farmers’ Response to the Corridor

Initially the farmers of the designated corridor region were very suspicious, and who could blame them?

In decades gone by, buying up private land (sometimes expropriating it) to add to national parks was the way to go. Was this the thin edge of the wedge to make them leave their land or alter the way they farmed?

One couple, Stella and Phillipie Loock, told conservation consultant and writer David Johnson: “A national park telling us how to run our commercial farm would have led to financial ruin, complete and total disaster. That’s the printable version of our first reaction.”

Then Phillipie added: “But now we know that that’s not what the Corridor Project is all about though and so we’re proud our farm is signed up to be part of it.”

In fact, the approach to farmers was a real compliment because despite centuries of farming, this land still has high biodiversity value.

Blue cranes, Karoo

The eastern Karoo is one of the strongholds of the threatened blue crane.

Sneeuberg Centre of Endemism

Botanists found so many endemic and rare plants here that in 2009, the Sneeuberg Centre of Endemism was declared.

The Corridor land sprawls over four biomes (grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savanna) and six vegetation types, home to several rare mammals like aardvark, black-footed cats, African wild cats and honeybadgers.

It’s also designated as a Globally Important Bird Area, with grassland and Karoo specials like lesser kestrels, martial eagles, Ludwig’s and Stanley’s bustard, lesser flamingos, the blue korhaan, sicklewinged chat, ground woodpecker, blackheaded canary and Layard’s titbabbler.

Corridors are not a new conservation tool, but as Matthew Norval of the Wilderness Foundation points out, they offer some serious benefits for landowners and for conservation.

For the latter, Corridors link important habitat for plants and animals, connect fragmented landscapes and protect critical water catchments.

In the case of mountainous terrain, a Corridor also provides climate change resilience – with varying altitudes offering relief from high temperatures for heat-sensitive species.

Dolerite pillars, Valley of Desolation, Karoo

The distinctive dolerite (ironstone) pillars at the Valley of Desolation, part of the Camdeboo National Park.

Protection against Fracking

For Karoo landowners, the Corridor also offers protection for another threat that had arisen after 2003 – shale gas exploration and fracking.

This might have led to the unexpected success of the first phase. Initially, the modest target was to sign up 25 000 hectares of land to Protected Environment status. But by February 2014, a total of 66 farmers owning 269 000 hectares had applied for this level, which offers protection from certain kinds of development, notably fracking or mining.

But importantly for livestock farmers, no fences need be dropped.

That only happens if landowners (and there are 3 so far) commit to be registered as contractual national parks.

This means herds of springbok can’t roam unhindered from one national park to the other. On the other hand, the corridor still safeguards species for which fences are no deterrent anyway – kudus, baboons, insects, raptors and other birds, and of course plants.

Serval, Karoo

The Corridor is home to rare small cats, like this serval

Ecological Patterns and Processes

Former Camdeboo National Park manager Peter Burdett said: “The Corridor project has intrinsic benefits for the conserving threatened grassland biodiversity, but will also provide a tremendously valuable buffer zone by extending the space needed for ecological patterns and processes that the Camdeboo National Park isn’t large enough to accommodate.”

It’s not only about species. The Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo National Parks offer some of the best horizon-to-horizon views in the country, with no intrusive developments to mar the skylines. The Corridor safeguards these too.

And this is just the beginning.

Mountain Zebra National Park manager Megan Taplin says several landowners have already indicated they are keen to sign up during the second phase.

Just the Beginning

She adds “The Corridor’s inclusion in the GEF project is part of a much wider project aimed at improving the management of corridors in the areas of high and sensitive biodiversity across South Africa.”

A complimentary initiative is SANParks’ Rural Development Programme that is currently identifying projects that can improve development and tourism in and around the Corridor area.

“These projects range from food gardens to sustainable harvesting projects and hospitality training. The long term goal is to build on the Protected Environment, adding layers of projects and initiatives that benefit the region and improve local livelihoods.”

There’s also an exciting opportunity to explore linking this Corridor with the Darlington Dam section of the Greater Addo Elephant National Park, says Peter Burdett.

The Corridor model can only be good news for sustainable farming and ecosystems threatened with bad developments – not only in the Karoo, but across the whole country.

  • For more information on the national parks and the Corridor, see sanparks.org.
  • Everything became official on 31 March 2016 when the Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mrs Edna Molewa declared the Mountain Zebra-Camdeboo Protected Environment, in terms of the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act (NEMPAA), 2003, in Proclamation No. 39891 of 2016.

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2 Responses to Corridor Through the Karoo

  1. Andrew McNaughton February 4, 2015 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks for this continued professional effort – Andrew

  2. Pat Birkett May 9, 2016 at 6:45 am #

    Thank you for such inspirational reading – as a child of the Little Karoo , where those big fluffy birds are found, it makes me want to jump in my car, leave the city behind and head back to where my roots are and further …….a special place indeed is our Karoo. Thank you.

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