THE SOUTPANSBERG MOUNTAINS IN THE LIMPOPO PROVINCE ARE SOUTH AFRICA’S NORTHERNMOST MOUNTAIN RANGE, FULL OF MYSTERY AND MAGIC, WITH THOUSANDS OF SPECIES FOUND NOWHERE ELSE ON EARTH. FROM THE ENDAGERED WILDLIFE TRUST SHARES SOME INSIGHTS ABOUT THIS AREA WITH ROVE SA.
Why is it important to conserve the Soutpansberg?
The Soutpansberg is recognised as:
• A Priority Conservation Area by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)
• A Critical Biodiversity Area by the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET), the provincial conservation authority
• A Strategic Water Source Area by WWF-South Africa
• Part of the National Protected Area Expansion Strategy by South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and Environment (DFFE)
• Lying within the UNESCO Vhembe Biosphere Reserve, proclaimed in 2009
What are the unique attributes of Soutpansberg?
• There are 18 recognised centres of endemism in southern Africa – localised areas with high species diversity found nowhere else.
• The Soutpansberg is one of these and has the highest plant diversity of all these centres, home to various rare and threatened plant species. Approximately 3,000 vascular plant species are known to occur in the 6 800 km² that makes up the SoutpansbergMountains. Six biomes are found in the mountains: forest, thicket, savannah, grassland, fynbos, and wetland.
What are the threats facing the area, and what impact would this have if not mitigated?
These mountains currently receive little formal conservation support and are severely threatened by overexploitation of natural resources, invasive alien plant species, and habitat destruction through developments.
The Soutpansberg Mountains currently receive little formal conservation protection, with less than 1% of the area formally conserved in nature reserves. It is severely threatened by the overexploitation of natural resources, invasive alien plant species, and habitat destruction through unregulated developments.
The key threats to the unique biodiversity of the Soutpansberg mountains include the following:
• Illegal killing of wildlife for the local bushmeat trade and skins of species such as Leopard (Panthera pardus). Leopards have shown a 66% decline in population density over the past eight years, mostly due to illegal snaring
• Illegal killing of wildlife for the trade in animal products
• Illegal and unsustainable harvesting of medicinal plants and the uncontrolled collection of firewood
• Ongoing illegal sand mining in the Sand River for the construction industry
• Illegal fish poaching
• Illegal clearing of indigenous forests for agricultural development
• Bush encroachment
• The spread of invasive alien plants, especially within the riparian zones (on the banks of rivers), threatens freshwater biology, water quality, and the region’s water security.
Some of these threats are linked to pressures from the lack of economic opportunity for the rural communities surrounding the western Soutpansberg. The lack of socio-economic development results in communities relying heavily on extracting and using natural resources directly from their surroundings to survive, and the extent to which they do so is not always sustainable.
How does the Endangered Wildlife Trust work to conserve the area?
The Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Soutpansberg Protected Area Programme (SPA) works to address threats to species and their habitats across the Soutpansberg by promoting formal protection of the area and facilitating the development of local jobs in the ‘green’ jobs sector.
We actively engage the communities and landowners in and around the Soutpansberg to build capacity, generate awareness, and create resilience against environmental change. We also aim to collaboratively build a community of conservation practice across the region to benefit the Soutpansberg’s natural resources, wildlife, and current and future generations of people dependent on the area.
What are the plans for the future?
The EWT has embarked on a long-term project to realise our dream of establishing the Soutpansberg Protected Area (SPA) to protect the largely pristine mountainous environment within the western Soutpansberg’s Sand River Gorge.
We are working with landowners and communities to establish one large, protected area corridor through the Biodiversity Stewardship process. This network will conserve the region’s unique biodiversity, including critically endangered, endangered, and locally endemic species of animals and plants; maintain the integrity of the water sources and catchments locals rely on; improve land management; and expand sustainable livelihood options for the local communities in the ecotourism and conservation sectors.
Providing jobs will also stimulate growth in the local industries supporting these sectors and reduce the pressure on the surrounding environment.
What have been some of the major successes?
Western Soutpansberg Nature Reserve: The first phase of the SPA Protected Area project focused on the western Soutpansberg. Following biodiversity assessments, the western Soutpansberg properties identified for Biodiversity Stewardship due to their unique biodiversity value all qualified to be protected as a Nature Reserve, the highest level of protection.
Clearing out aliens: Since work began in August 2018, our team has cleared over 58 ha of dense invasive alien trees from within sensitive water catchments, replenishing over 12 million litres of water back into the environment every year. Based on our impact, in August 2022, the Fondation Franklinia provided additional funding to continue this vital work for another two years.
This work was made possible by the Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN) and Fondation Franklinia.
Making it RAIN in local schools: Our workshops with local community schools have been a core activity of the Soutpansberg Water Conservation Project, funded by the Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative (RAIN). The workshops complemented our water conservation work (through biodiversity stewardship and alien vegetation clearing on the mountain) by teaching local school children about the importance of water conservation.
As part of our commitment to empowering local communities, we partnered with Sumbandila Scholarship Trust, initiating a pilot reading club at the local rural primary school. Three volunteers also visited Pharani School daily for over a week to help learners with their reading and writing skills.
This work was made possible by the Coca-Cola Foundation’s Replenish Africa Initiative.
Besides invasive alien plants, poaching is one of the biggest threats to the Soutpansberg’s wildlife and ecosystems. This poaching can take the form of illegal harvesting of threatened medicinal plant species, illegal fishing in rivers, and snaring wildlife for commercial trade and household consumption. The SPA rangers conduct regular anti-poaching patrols to remove snares and fishing nets and escort intruders off the property.
The Old Salt Trail: After extensive work by the SPA Rangers, the Old Salt Trail routes have been cut, tested, and maintained in anticipation of the public launch of the trail (coming soon!).
Activities and experiences visitors can embark on when visiting the area
Medike Nature Reserve:
Day visits are R100 per person and R50 for kids under 12. These rates exclude additional activity costs that are specified below:
• 4×4 Trails
• Ranger Experiences
These fees go directly towards developing and maintaining trails on the reserve, which double up as anti-poaching patrol routes). Prices excl. Vat
The Old Salt Trail:
If you love hiking, incomparable views, rare and endemic wildlife, and rich cultural heritage, but you still enjoy your comfort, the Slackpacker’s Deluxe loop of the Old Salt Trail is for you!
This is a very challenging hike, and a high fitness level and hiking experience is required. But the challenge is rewarded with all meals taken care of and luggage transferred from lodge to lodge. Hikers need only take a day pack for water, snacks (provided by hosts), and hiking essentials.
• R8 240 per person for a group of 4
• R7 840 per person for a group of 6
• R7 400 per person for a group of 8
Prices include hiking, accommodation, luggage transfers, conservation fees, three meals a day, snacks, as well a Soutpansberg Ranger to accompany and guide you on the trail. The hike is five days, and four nights long. In total, you will hike for 73km.
How can people become actively involved in assisting with conservation efforts?
Donate to save the Soutpansberg. You can become an investor in our Protected Area Expansion project in the western Soutpansberg. Your conservation legacy in the Soutpansberg will ensure that this forgotten mountain’s unique wildlife will continue to thrive for generations to come. Please email us for more information on how you can support the development of South Africa’s most exciting new conservation area.
Share some of your time and skills with us. As we continue to protect and expand the Soutpansberg Protected Area, we may need help from volunteers to remove invasive alien plant species or other environmental management activities. But what we really need is for you to come to “the mountain”, as locals call it, and experience the magical secrets of the Soutpansberg. If we are to protect it, we need your help and supporting voice. If you’d like to offer your assistance, please email us.
• For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org