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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
bushveld is a place that grips you and subdues you
you one with yourself"
That is the heritage that we have to cherish.