CHAPTER 11. 1980....T0 DATE

 The story of the early development of the reserve has been told and the final chapter of this book deals with milestones that have been passed in the history of the reserve during the last 20 years. With the new political dispensation in this country, the Natal Parks Board amalgamated with the former KwaZulu Department of Nature Conservation in 1998 to form the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service (Ezemvelo Wildlife). This new body is now charged with the task of looking after the needs of nature conservation throughout the province and much of the fragmentation of effort that occurred in the past has now disappeared.

 Many of the challenges facing our game and nature reserves in general and Mkhuze in particular, remain the same today as when I was in the reserve. The ever-present problem of poaching is of on-going concern as is the constant influx of domestic cattle into the reserve. Prolonged and devastating droughts or torrential rains continue to wreak havoc and budgets that are ever-increasingly inadequate, restrict what can, and should be done to develop the reserves to their full potential. There have, however been some very significant achievements in Mkhuze during the last 20 years.

 By far the most important development in the recent history of Mkhuze was the announcement in 1981, that agreement had been reached for the Nxwala State Lands to be incorporated into the reserve at a date to be announced.

 In 1983 a start was made on the removal of the fence between the Mkhuze Game Reserve and Nxwala. Three years later, in 1986, the Board deliberated on the future use of the area. It was decided that the area would be added to the Mkhuze Game Reserve. The road that went through Nxwala to Lower Mkhuze was to be upgraded and the public would be permitted to go on game drives through the area.

 At the same time the establishment of an additional area that could be used for controlled hunting was considered. The reduction of the State subsidy to the Board's operations had put the Board's finances under severe strain and had made it necessary to find alternative sources of revenue to finance its activities. A number of private game farms in Zululand were had been offering sport hunting on their properties for a number of years and it t was felt that an area where the Board could offer a similar service should be acquired. Privately owned farms south/east of the Msunduze River were identified as being ideal for this purpose and were subsequently acquired. The new hunting area  would share a common boundary with Nxwala and the thinking was that, once the permanent hunting camp had been established, the public would have access to it as a bush camp for certain months of the year. The following year, in 1987, a temporary hunting camp was built and the first trial hunts took place, all of which were very successful During the same year a site for the permanent camp was chosen.

 When the establishment of the hunting area had originally been suggested the word soon got around and the Board received a donation of R40 000,00 to be used for the construction of a bush camp in this new addition to the reserve. It was to be some years though before the camp would be built, as the necessary infrastructure for the sport-hunting venture still had to be established. Roads had to be hardened and laid out, guard camps established and the area had to be restocked with game suitable for hunting.

 By the end of the 1988/89 financial year, 18 commercial hunts had already been conducted and a further 12 hunts had been reserved for the following season. The project was found to be economically viable and plans were made for the construction of the hunting camp the following year. In the meantime, restocking of the area with game continued.

 Work on the Umkhumbe Bush camp also started early in 1990. It was completed during the second half of the year and, after furnishing, was officially opened in November. It was to be used as a hunting camp from April to September and would then be available to the general public as a bush camp from October to March.

 From earliest times, access to, and exit from Mkhuze in wet weather had presented problems. The very first entrance track into the reserve, constructed shortly after its proclamation in 1912, was from the Lower Mkhuze area. This track became impassable when the Msunduze River came down in flood and this was abandoned as an access route in the 1940s. Denyer's Drift on the Mkhuze River below Mantuma, was in use during the Nagana campaign but this too could not be used after heavy rain, when the river was in spate and the track through the Makatini Flats to Ubombo and Mbazwana was closed. The only other route into the reserve was through the Lebombo Mountains, over Mission Hill and along the Nlonhlela stream. This road was also established during the Nagana days and later became the official entrance route into the reserve. The trouble with the road was that, in wet weather, it became so slippery that it regularly became impassable. After very heavy rain the Nlonhlela stream would come down in flood and, as the road crossed the stream in five or six places, washaways were a common occurrence. 

 Visitors were periodically stranded in the reserve until such time as the waters subsided and the road could be repaired.  In the days before basic provisions were sold at the reception office, the staff of the reserve often had to help out such stranded visitors with emergency food supplies from their own stocks. With the increasing popularity of the reserve the vexed question of the inadequate access road had to receive attention. In 1961, John Kymdell, the Board's Roads maintenance Officer did effect some improvements to the entrance road but these were of a temporary nature. Something had to be done to improve access to the reserve but it was only in 1990 that the upgrading of sections the entrance road was undertaken. Proper causeways were constructed along the Nhlonhlela stream in the tribal area and the road from Mtshopi Gate to Mantuma was finally hardened and tarred. Along with the new road, 1990 also saw the arrival of Eskom electricity in the reserve and the days of the diesel-driven lighting plant and gas operated fridges, stoves and hot water systems, passed into history.

 Running in tandem with the establishment of Umkhumbe Hunting Camp was the building of the Nhlonhlela Bush Camp. The success of the first bush camp at Mhlolokazana, in the Umfolozi Game Reserve, eventually led to the establishment of similar camps elsewhere. Mhlolokazana was washed away during Cyclone Demoina but such was the appeal of the concept of this self-contained, rustic yet comfortable style of camp that they were established elsewhere. The siting of Mkhuze's second bush camp was to be on a rocky ridge on the southern bank of the Nhlonhlela Pan. The site was well chosen for it afforded a sweeping view, from the lookout deck at the front of the camp, across the pan and into the fever tree forest beyond. The Nhlonhlela Bush Camp was opened to the public in June 1991 and it remains one of the most popular of such camps run by the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service.

In the same year an experiment was made with the privatisation of wilderness trails in Mkhuze. A concessionaire was appointed and a trail camp was built in the Nkhongolwane area, from which the wilderness trails officer could lead trailers into the reserve. The trails were initially successful but the hot weather experienced during the summer months and other problems led to a falling-off in demand for the trails. This, coupled with the requirement that a generous percentage of the trails revenue had to be paid over to the Board by the concessionaire, resulted in the trails not being a viable financial proposition for the concessionaire. The privatised trails were also not bringing in the anticipated revenue to the Board, who reverted to the running of this service in 1993.

Another development in the reserve's tourism facilities was the establishment of the Safari tented camp at Mantuma in 1992. The rather primitive facilities of the rustic huts in operation at the time were not all that popular with visitors and it was decided to close the camp down. The response to the newly-erected tented camp was overwhelmingly favourable. The tents were very comfortable and the camp was voted as having sufficient character and atmosphere, particularly with foreign visitors, to provide an exciting wild, outdoor experience.

Less of a "wild, outdoor experience" but one nevertheless enthusiastically accepted by most visitors to the camp with appreciation, was the building of the swimming pool at Mantuma. This was opened to the public in March 1992. The summer months in Mkhuze are usually excessively hot and the provision of the swimming pool was considered by many to be more of a necessity than a luxury.

In 1993 a major upgrading of game guard camps was undertaken with the construction of new toilets, ablution blocks and kitchens.

There were also significant developments in the wildlife populations of the reserve during the last twenty years. Following the successful reintroduction of giraffes to Mkhuze in January 1965, these animals had settled down and bred so successfully that 16 years later the game capture unit could capture some of them for relocation elsewhere. In 1981 10 giraffe were captured and translocated to the Ndumo Game Reserve in Northern Zululand and 10 more were to follow shortly after this first consignment.

New introductions of game into the reserve were also made. Two male leopards were obtained from the Brits area and released in the central area of the reserve, near the Beacon, in September 1983. These two new additions boosted the leopard population of the reserve for, by 1987, regular sightings of these animals were recorded and there were signs of their presence all over the reserve. It is an indication of the extent to which leopards have increased in number and become accustomed to tourists in the reserve that nocturnal sightings of these animals, especially in the Mbiza area, are now a regular feature of the night drives. While I was working in the reserve I occasionally came across signs of leopard, but never saw them in the flesh.

1986 also saw the arrival of an additional 8 cheetah which were released in the Nxwala section of the reserve. These new residents initially appeared to have settled down better in their new environment than previous introductions of this species that had been made from 1966 to 1969. The Natal Parks Board's yearbook for 1986/87 contained the encouraging report that a cheetah female and 3 cubs had been seen in Nxwala during the year but, by the following year, the animals had dispersed. Eland were also introduced into the reserve in 1987 and the yearbook also reported that they appeared to be settling down well. In 1989 a further 21 eland arrived in the reserve in exchange for squrelipped rhino and these were released at Tinley's Dam. These new arrivals did not adapt to well to their new home and in the weeks following their introduction the carcasses of 10 of them were found close to where they had been released. It was later surmised that all 21 of them perished due to the fact that they were not "Heartwater resistant" Another significant addition to the reserve's antelope population was the restocking of the area with 27 waterbuck  in 1993.

Following the successful reintroduction of elephants into the Hluhluwe and Umfolozi Game Reserves, the staff at Mkhuze was also anxious to obtain some of these animals for the reserve. As early as 1985 a memorandum was submitted to the Board, requesting permission to obtain and reintroduce elephants to Mkhuze. The Board however rejected the proposal. It was felt at the time that the inadequacy of the reserve's fencing, particularly along its riverine boundary, would fail to contain the animals and the matter was referred back to the staff for further action in this regard.

The continuation of the boundary fenceline had not been neglected and had, in fact, been an ongoing activity over the years. In 1981 the remaining 5-km of fencing from the Mtshopi Gate to the Ukhombe Gorge was completed. The following year the first section of electrified fence was erected and the completion of this piece of fencing brought the total of the reserve's boundary fence in position up to almost 27km. In 1987 the fencing programme received a setback however when 540 metres of fencing along the river boundary was lost during floods.

By 1996 sufficient progress had been made with the fencing-off of problem areas along the river to allow for a reassessment of the question of introducing elephants into the reserve. This time, Board approval was obtained and a family group of 12 elephants was received from the Kruger National Park and reintroduced into the reserve. Some months after their arrival the staff was delighted to record that two calves had been born within the group. The elephants unfortunately had a wanderlust. The following year the problem of animals leaving the reserve had to be dealt with and a group of elephants that had wandered onto the Lower Link properties adjoining Mkhuze, had to be driven back.

Animals of other species leaving the reserve also continued to cause problems and, in particular, the constant depredations of baboons leaving the reserve to forage in the neighbouring tribal lands were an ongoing cause of concern. Baboons also soon learnt that free meals could be obtained at the Safari tented camp and campsite and continue to make a nuisance of themselves at these two camps. In 1989 the KuMahlala game-viewing hide, which had only been opened the year before had to be closed to repair the damage caused by baboons.

The birds were better behaved. On the avian front, heartening news was that in 1988, 35 yellowbilled stork nests, containing 21 chicks, were recorded from the Nsumu pan area. In the same year 100 pink-backed pelicans also nesterd in the reserve and here again the breeding rate was high with between 90 and 100 chicks being counted.

A lion made a brief appearance in the Nxwala area of the reserve in 1990. Like the solitary animal that had appeared in the Hluhluuwe Game Reserve in the 1960s and which later moved on to Umfolozi, where it had come from remained a mystery. It is possible that it may well have been an animal that had been introduced onto one of the private game farms in the area had escaped, and made its way to Nxwala. It was positively identified on Nxwala before it escaped from the reserve and later had to be destroyed on the Zinave Game Ranch. The previous year there had been a report of a lion being seen in the Ukhombe Gorge area but on investigation, only hyaena spoor could be found.

Monitoring the dynamics of the reserve's black rhino population has always been a difficult exercise. The preference of this species for thick bush and the ability of the animals to conceal themselves effectively in it has made the task of counting and identifying individual animals a fairly hazardous, to say the least. In 1989 experiments were undertaken for the first time to count and monitor the animals using a microlight aircraft and this was reasonably successful. During the same year a helicopter was also used for this purpose with encouraging results.

The infestation of the reserve with invasive plants such as Chromolaeana odorata, Lantana camara and others has been a problem of longstanding and one that the reserve has had to contend with for many years. The scope of the problem and lack of money to tackle the eradication resulted in very little headway being achieved in the removal of these unwanted invaders.  A determined start was made in 1981 with alien vegetation control and in that first year of operation 270 hectares of exotic growth was cleared. Efforts to eradicate the exotics have been intensified since then and in 1997/98 296 temporary workers were employed under the Work for Water programme inside the reserve to continue with the task. A further 300 workers were employed in neighbouring communities under the same scheme and extensive thickets of Chromolaena have been cleared.

To be successful the effort to control alien vegetation has to be sustained over a long period of time. In 1998, the first of a series of workshops was held with neighbouring communities to deal with the problem and to develop strategic plans for the holistic conservation of the area covered by the game reserve and its neighbouring properties. Regular meetings will be held in future between reserve staff and their neighbours to set conservation goals and implement action on them.

From 1981 onwards, a start was made to inform visitors to the reserve of the management aspects of running a game reserve and the problems encountered. Four interpretative displays on various conservation themes were erected at the newly completed visitor centre and others followed later in the game-viewing hides. At the same time the policy of involving the local community more in the affairs of the reserve was adopted. It was felt that there was a real need to develop good relations with the reserve's neighbours to try and convince them that the existence of the reserve could be to their ultimate benefit. It is ongoing policy today to encourage a climate of co-operation rather than confrontation with its neighbours.

In 1986 initiatives were put in place to resolve the Mkhuze River boundary question and in subsequent years a considerable effort has been made to improve relations with Nkhosi Myeni on the reserve's northern boundary. There was early positive feedback on these initiatives and it was heartening to record in 1988 that the local Agricultural Officer at Esikhaleni had approached the reserve staff with a request for assistance in organising conservation programmes.

During the construction of the Rosamund Levitt Bird Hide in 1989 thatching grass was needed to complete the hide. The climate of co-operation continued and an agreement was reached with some of the local women to cut the grass within the reserve on a 50/50 basis. A total of 164 bundles were cut and both the reserve and its neighbours benefited. This pilot scheme of sustained utilisation was so successful that in 1990 a decision in principle was taken to make thatching grass available to local inhabitants living near the reserve's boundaries in the Gwambane, Mantuma, and Mtshopi areas. Selected utilisation of reeds from the Nsumu area would also be permitted.

From 1991 onwards, regular meetings with the local Amakhosi were held in an effort to resolve problems. A recurring source of frustration for the reserve's staff has always been the encroachment of cattle into the reserve and in 1992 an agreement was reached with the Kwa-Jobe Indunas that such cattle would be impounded at the local pound. This decision caused complications though for, in the following year, 9 head of cattle disappeared from the Mjindi pound. Removing cattle from the reserve remains a major problem and one that is being tackled as a matter of urgency. One of the reserve's top priorities in 1998 was the completion of the boundary fence along the Edisa area of the reserve, which will assist in this regard.

Local craftsmen and women were encouraged to produce items for sale in the Board's curio shop and at the Cultural Village that was established in the Gwambane area of the reserve. Over R70 000,00 was recorded in curio sales from this site during the 1997/98 financial year and here again, both the reserve and its neighbours benefited.

A significant development in the involvement of the local community in the affairs of the reserve was the planning of tourism partnership ventures. In 1998 a scheme was started to train men from the local community to take over guided walks in the reserve on a private enterprise basis. During the same year, six workshops were held with the Kwa-Jobe and Kwa-Ngwenja communities to plan tourism initiatives. An indication of the potential for such joint ventures is reflected in the revenue figures for the reserve. In the 1993/94 financial year the total revenue for the reserve amounted to R1 439 115,00, and by 1997/98 this figure had risen to R3 144 853,00.  Gate revenue alone  in 1992/93 was R113 782,00, a considerable increase from the 1986/87 figure of R35 216,00. During the last 5 years various community relations and environmental awareness programmes have been undertaken in the reserve. Teacher workshops and environmental education programmes with local schools are now held on a regular basis.

The one sphere of activity where very little progress has been recorded during the last 20 years is in combating the poaching problem - in fact, the situation has got worse. The incidence of snaring and of poaching with firearms has increased dramatically over the years and game guards and staff are hard-pressed to cope with the problem. Despite extensive in-service training of game guards and the acquisition of modern rifles and radio equipment, regular poaching forays are still being made into the reserve, with snares being set mainly along the river boundary of the reserve.

Rare species such as black rhino are still continue to be caught in the snares, to die a lingering and painful death as the wire cuts deeply into the flesh of the trapped animal. Confrontations with game guards are unfortunately becoming more extreme and in 1992 the Natal Parks Board's yearbook records the fatal confrontation that resulted in the death of a poacher and game guard. 

 More alarming than the snaring activity is the increased use of firearms for poaching. In 1993 the carcass of a squarelipped rhino was discovered in the reserve by game guards. It had been shot with an AK47 rifle and both the horns removed. The yearbook records that "information continues to be received daily of the infiltration of arms into the area" and this does not bode well for the future.

There have also recently been isolated incidents of tourists being accosted on the fig forest self-guided trail and robbed of possessions. This trail has now had to be changed to a guided one that can only be undertaken in the company of an armed game guard.  Let us hope that the efforts being made to involve the neighbouring community in combined conservation initiatives will have a salutary effect and lead to the speedy realization that Mkhuze is an asset to be utilised to the benefit of the whole community, rather than exploited by a few.

A very significant event in the last twenty years of the history of Mkhuze,wass the disappearance of the Natal Parks Board as we entered the new millennium and the emergence of a new controlling body - the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Service (Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife).

As custodians of the reserve since the conclusion of the Nagana campaign in 1953, the Natal Parks Board performed an exceptional task. It laid out the reserve's roads, built the rest huts, chalets, hides and bush camps. It initiated game capture, fought the deproclamation battles, stemmed the tide of poaching and developed Mkhuze into one of KwaZulu-Natal's best-loved game reserves - the story that has just been told. Let us salute the achievements of this organisation and the men and women who made it all possible.

 Let us trust that KZN Wildlife can build on that impressive reputation. Mkhuze remains beleaguered. Some of the problems experienced in the history of the reserve during the last 90 years have been exchanged for new ones others, like poaching, are still with us today and have increased in severity. Land claims are on the horizon, the invasion of alien vegetation remains a major problem and the area is under increasing human pressure from all sides.

The words of Jan Smuts remain as pertinent today as when they were first penned many years ago.

"the bushveld is a place that grips you and subdues you

and makes you one with yourself"

That is the heritage that we have to cherish.