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Research Priorities

The South African National Parks has excelled in biophysical research since its first inception in the 1950’s in Skukuza.

However, recent trends in biodiversity conservation has resulted in increased interest in social science research. This has come about through the realisation that Protected Areas must work together with local Constituencies in order to achieve conservation and sustainable livelihoods.

The research priorities listed below will give prospective researchers an idea of the type of research that is required within the realm of social science research in and adjacent to National Parks in South Africa.

1. Community Based Conservation

1.1 Socio-economic baselines

Socio-economic baselines are conducted in areas neighbouring protected areas. The purpose of such research is to develop community profiles and to derive an understanding of what community livelihood strategies are. With this understanding parks are encouraged to align their Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment programmes with an understanding of what community needs are. These baselines are also critical as a source so that when government, NGOs, and International agencies who are interested in working in certain regions find the mapped baselines to have a better understanding of the socio-economic and political context and profiles. Out of the 20 parks, it is in only 5 parks where such baselines research studies have been conducted. These are Greater Addo National Park, Marakele National Park, some regions in Kruger etc.

1.2 Community-Park Forum management strategies

The National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act, 2003 endorses putting mechanisms in place to engage local communities in protected areas. It further states that park plans must be compiled in consultation with a wide range of interested and affected parties and calls for management plans to put procedures in place for public participation. Park forums are put in place by SANParks in order to comply with the Act. However, the different models for consultation and participation differ vastly. It would be critical to investigate the best models and frameworks which are contextually congruent. The other research concern and critical questions which would form part of a bigger question is with the long term involvement of communities in park forums. How should this interaction be kept alive and how does it remain meaningful and effective? Around which types of issues should parks encourage involvement? What meaningful skills would park forum members need enhanced to participate meaningful? How can park managers be capacitated to be able to deal with park forum members in a meaningful manner?

1.3 Damage causing animals and their impacts in community areas

This is an area which has constantly soured relationships between communities and protected areas. The issue of compensation has not been clearly articulated in policies and the roles of national, provincial and municipal parks in the event that an animal escapes the park and ownership of such an animal becomes fuzzy. This is an area that has received little attention from researchers yet critical in facilitating better relations with communities.

1.4 Engaging private conservation agencies – what is their role in addressing conservation disparities

The constant trend in South Africa is to hold protected area managers such as SANParks responsible for addressing disparities that emerged as a result of setting up conservation areas. Well-off neighbours of protected areas, who have benefited from animal flows into their areas as a result of dropping down of fences for the better movement of animals have not been engaged in supporting the disparities yet their revenues at times far exceeds those of their neighbour national parks. Private reserves could facilitate in skills development and other means to support communities. There is a need to research the views of private conservation institutions and the likely role they could play in addressing community issues at their doorstep.

1.5 Sustainable resource use in SANParks conservation areas

Provision has been made in the Protected Areas Act for sustainable resource use for protected area neighbours. This means that the SANParks Resource Use policy will have to be revised after the Protected Areas Act has been promulgated and a SANParks Resource Use Strategy and Implementation plan needs to be put into place. Research in this area could focus on the effectiveness of the policy. Resource use in this context should not be limited to tangible natural resources.

1.6 Community participation in the development of park management plans

The South African Protected Areas Act requires that each park develops a Management Plan. Such a plan is prepared in consultation with municipalities, other organs of state, local communities and any other affected parties which have an interest in the area. The process of developing and rolling out these plans needs to be a process that is documented for future investigations. The extent and manner of this participation will provide a layer of understanding of community participation dynamics. Further to that, it would also be important to evaluate and document the revision of these plans and the role played by communities in that public participation process.

1.7 Transfrontier-boundary issues

The newer trend in conservation in the SADC region is the integration of areas across national boundaries to increase conservation landscapes and allow for the movement of animals freely. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park which crosses national boundaries between Botswana and South Africa is one such example. Other parks in the process of setting up transboundary parks are Kruger/Mozambique/Zimbabwe, Richtersveld and Namibia, Mapungubwe/Zimbabwe and Botswana. There are a number of areas of a transboundary concern that have not been investigated in these areas particularly the socio-economic issues. These cold be outlined as socio-economic baselines. Other areas which are benefit related such as resource use, management plans etc. would need to be investigated.

1.8 Environmental disasters such as cyclones, floods etc. and how they reshape the landscape and peoples livelihood strategies

In 2001 Kruger National Park suffered a flood so serious losses suffered by park neighbours were critical. Focus of the media was mainly around losses of animals and the displacement etc. other impacts in relation to protected neighbours and how these pressured natural resources were not investigated.

1.9 Land - claims

A number of Parks such as Kruger are under claim from neighbouring communities. There is need to investigate such claims and seek settlement solutions that are mutually beneficial for parks and protected areas. These will include and make use of research investigation methods such as focus groups, GIS Mapping, cultural mapping, historical and anthropological investigations.

1.10 Expanded Public Works Programmes

SANParks in partnership with a number of Government Departments is involved in what is called the Expanded Public Works Programme. The purpose of this programme is to give socio-economic benefits to the poorest. In SANParks the projects directly and indirectly address issues of poverty, skills development as well as support the clearing of alien plant species in coastal areas and wetlands. There is another project which mainly deals with clearing alien invader plants to open up areas that had been dried up by alien plants and this project is called the Working for Water project. This project is presently being implemented in all the 20 National Parks. Another project is the Poverty Relief Project which is also implemented in all the 20 parks. This project has to be labour intensive and looks at tourism infrastructure development. This infrastructure becomes critical in opening up tourism facilities and adds revenue which is then directed towards biodiversity management. However, when these projects were conceptualised in the early 1990’s evaluation and monitoring frameworks were not adequately and sharply built in. There is a call within the conservation community to investigate the impact of these projects on communities living around protected areas and to revise the project objectives as well as build in monitoring and evaluation frameworks.

2. Cultural Heritage

South African National Parks Research Challenges and Priorities on Cultural Heritage

Over the decades SANParks has offered researchers and scholars throughout the country and from abroad great opportunities to unmask and help interpret the past through its wealth of cultural resource sites and heritage objects. The prevailing socio-political conditions of the past have however played a major role in shaping the research landscape with regards to cultural resources. In a number of parks, for example, more focus was placed on investigating the physical structures relating to colonial settlements and the associated history. A number of pre-historical cultural sites were stumbled upon by chance without any focused cultural survey programme. This trend unfortunately continues to exist, for example, in the Kruger National Park where Thulamela and Masorini have been the main focus with other small scale research projects focused on the Anglo-Boer war; the Albasini site etc. Researchers have also shown biased interest on popular sites like Mapungubwe with very little interest on new sites. The research landscape has pre-dominantly been archaeological, lacking input from other related disciplines which have the potential of enriching the stories of our past. A move from a predominantly scientific and technicist approach to archaeology towards a socially rooted public or social archaeology would ensure greater community participation and a richer interpretation of our past. Most research projects, processes and findings were also kept away from the public in the past (e.g. Mapungubwe) living behind a legacy of culturally and politically contentious issues still needing to be resolved. It is important therefore that heritage activities within SANParks research and otherwise, operate in an intersectoral way and be socially rooted.

The need to redefine research priorities; to encourage researchers from previously disadvantage groups and that of allowing researchers from other disciplines cannot be emphasised enough. It is critically important that those who wish to convey the country’s cultural heritage have a clear idea of what represents the essence of South Africa’s diverse cultural history.

Indigenous Knowledge and Oral Histories

The wealth of our living heritage and indigenous knowledge is fast disappearing with time. Whilst National Parks are living museums of South Africa’s diverse cultural footprints; local communities hold living a wealth of our intangible heritage. The knowledge, experience and memories of indigenous communities, combined with the attachments and meanings that they bestow upon particular places and landscapes within and outside National Parks; contribute to our understanding of cultural heritage significance and proper conservation. It is part of SANParks responsibility to promote community participation by engaging them in processes that mobilize the wealth of indigenous knowledge inherent in local communities on biodiversity management. This could add value to scientific research and management processes that already exist or will be required in future. In the recent past we have suffered critical losses of some holders of rare indigenous knowledge and skills e.g. Oom Vet Piet (Kgalagadi) and Oom Dawid Bester (West Coast). This Year 2005 we have unfortunately lost ‘Wise Elder’ Simeon Mpangane who has for a number of years engaged with the youth during SANParks Imbewu Youth camps and trails. He has over the years shared a great wealth of indigenous wisdom on the flora and fauna of the Kruger National Park.

The rich diversity of cultures in South Africa and in particular within communities neighbouring National Parks also represents the wealth of indigenous knowledge and fascinating tales of our oral histories. Many past decades of colonisation and apartheid have unfortunately led to the subjugation and marginalisation of indigenous knowledge systems and associated oral histories of the majority of South Africans. This status quo particularly prevailed within scientific studies and research on various fields including the conservation and management of our biodiversity and natural sciences. Work done by some of SANParks scientific services personnel regarding indigenous names and uses of certain plant species over the past few years is a step in the right direction and needs to be encouraged. However, a much broader and holistic focus and approach on the mobilising and documenting of indigenous knowledge needs to be taken into consideration. Closer collaboration with local communities and community experts is critical to ensuring a culturally sensitive and context specific mobilisation and interpretation of indigenous knowledge on a broader scale. One of the challenges that need SANParks strategic and coordinated response is the need for traditional healers to derive benefit from a variety of animal parts and medicinal plant species within National Parks.

In order to maximise benefits from a number of cultural sites, there is a need to mobilise stories, beliefs, songs, poems and histories relating to these sites. Access for communities wanting to visit some of the sites for traditional ceremonies and commemorations also need a coordinated and informed response. These efforts if carefully implemented, may contribute towards changing past perceptions of conservation as a benefit for the elite and only a means of dispossessing the majority of people from their land and from access to natural and cultural resources. Other research priorities within SANParks include the following:

  • Exploration of socio-cultural footprints within parks in partnership with historically resident communities. Most of the communities that stay adjacent to National Parks (or those that have been displaced to areas further than the park) hold a wealth of oral historical information on areas within the parks. Unfortunately as mentioned above this information is fast disappearing with time. There is therefore need to conduct community based cultural and historical research that is linked to some of these protected areas. Such research projects would result in strengthening relations between parks and communities and in restoring a proud heritage and identity for communities around the country.
  • Kruger Freedom fighter Routes. Kruger is not only a conservation area but represents different histories for different people. Kruger was used by Freedom fighters as an entry point into South Africa. The park is mainly interpreted from a biodiversity point of view and the cultural history is usually neglected. From a cultural and political history point of view it would be critical to map the routes used by freedom fighters which would allow for the interpretation of the park from different points of view.
  • The role and contribution of retired black rangers in park developments and documentation of their indigenous knowledge capital and oral history. The History of National Parks mainly celebrates White rangers and wipes out the role played by Black rangers in the carving out of conservation areas as well as the wisdom they shared in developing a better understanding of the resources that parks were managing. Although through one of our Youth Development programmes (Imbewu) there has been initiatives to partner with ‘wise elders’ who are retired rangers; more research still needs to be conducted in order to document the rare wealth of both indigenous and scientific conservation knowledge they have about the fauna, flora and geological landscapes of most of our National parks. Their role in the development of National Parks is clearly missing from most of the literatures that sought to document and celebrate conservation milestones in South Africa. Especially dedicated research on their role may serve to unearth the contribution of most of these unsung heroes of conservation in South Africa. Research has already provided evidence that most these Rangers although they had little or no education provided most of the early conservation scientists with useful information about indigenous fauna and flora. Some of these rangers are dying off without assisting in the re-writing history from their point of view.
  • Socio-ecological and Indigenous knowledge research. More research that focuses on the indigenous significance and knowledge behind the biodiversity of National Parks still needs to be done.
  • Developing appropriate tourism development strategies for parks that is rich in cultural heritage. The area of cultural tourism has not been properly explored within SANParks. There are still a number of opportunities to develop tourism products within parks that are based on cultural interests. Mapungubwe, a World Heritage site within a National Park is a good example of what is possible. On the other hand research also needs to be conducted in order to explore some of the issues relating to creating a balance between biodiversity and culture based tourism developments.
  • Urgent need to conduct comprehensive cultural resource surveys for all parks. It may be difficult to develop some of intended culture based initiatives when we have little or not information of the cultural assets with National Parks. Surveys and inventories of all cultural assets therefore need urgent funding and attention. Information from such survey will then provide a base for further research and documentation work.
  • There are also a number of elders who posses intimate knowledge about conservation some who have died such as Oom Vet Piet of the Kalahari. Other ailing treasures are elders such as Credo Mutwa.
  • Histories of all parks; Kruger and Mapungubwe are the only parks out of the 22 that have a documented history. The other 20 have no documented histories. It would be critical that histories of these parks are written so that this will form another layer of our conservation history and interpretation.
  • Indigenous animal and plant classifications; the classification of plants and animals has been done from a conservation point of view ignoring the indigenous classifications that existed. It would be critical to investigate the traditional classification methods and document them and to develop an understanding of the issues that informed such classifications, which will form a layer into looking at classifications in general.
  • Alternative mapping methodologies; The mapping of parks has mainly been conducted from a biodiversity point of view and a layer of cultural heritage which forms part and parcel of the resources of the park has not been conducted. Therefore sites that are sensitive from a cultural point of view are not known and we could be burying some of our sensitive sites with new tourism development ventures in the parks
  • Management plans for cultural heritage; SANParks boasts a number of heritage sites such as Thulamela, initiation and fertility caves, San rock sites etc. Tourists are taken into these sites which have not been well researched in terms of their indigenous history. These sites also do not have management nor conservation plans. In those parks where they exist most are outdated and carry negative connotations. This process requires researching the sites and mapping their levels of sensitivity and making recommendations on how they need to be utilised and managed.
  • Inventories of the cultural heritage estate in all parks: Cultural heritage resources includes sensitive sites, buildings, farming implements, significant plants and monuments, photographs, artefacts from excavation sites, archival material, film and video material, paintings etc. A number of these resources are getting lost as retiring park managers are replaced by younger ones. SANParks does not have data on what the cultural heritage estate within natural conservation areas is made of, what their conservation status is. It would be critical that an inventory and assessment of these objects and sites is made.
  • Cultural heritage policies; Desk-top draft policies on Cultural Heritage have been developed and have not been informed by the multiple players that utilise the park as well as have resided in the parks. These policies need to be informed by the number of National Acts and inform developing policies.
  • Mapping parks for World Heritage Site tentative listing; UNESCO Heritage listing and protection for parks such as Kalahari, Richtersveld, etc. which exhibit universal values of their intangible and tangible natural and cultural resources, is critical.

3. Environmental Education and Interpretation

  • The integration of environmental geography in environmental education and interpretation
  • Evaluation of environmental programmes in SANParks – such as Imbewu