Conservation Through Collaboration

A success story involving community and conservation is unfolding on the farmlands of the Eastern Cape Karoo, where the Mountain Zebra Camdeboo Protected Environment project is pioneering eco-tourism. Louzel Lombard Steyn explains.


• The MZCPE was declared a protected environment in 2016.

• Four towns: It is situated between Graaff-Reinet, Nieu-Bethesda, Cradock and Pearston.

• Four biomes: The protected environment is located in a transitional area between the grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savannah biomes. All of the major vegetation types are currently poorly conserved elsewhere in South Africa.

• 64: The number of landowners that have secured 275,000 hectares of private land as part of the protected environment. Should the second phase be approved by the ministry, the project hopes to include over 700,000 hectares of land, with 150 farmers on board.

Restoration, conservation, collaboration and sustainable tourism. These terms are not often associated with intensive commercial farming. However, in the heart of the Eastern Cape, a success story involving community and conservation is unfolding as more and more farmers join forces with South African National Parks (SANParks) to protect and restore the environment.

A welcome ‘side effect’ of the collaboration has seen the rise of eco-tourism in this part of the Karoo. It has opened the region to eco-travel opportunities, offering guests the chance to immerse themselves in one of the most remote and unique landscapes in South Africa.

“The protected environment has a two-pronged approach to tourism,” says Mountain Zebra Camdeboo Protected Environment (MZCPE) project coordinator Bronwyn Botha. “Firstly, to promote private tourism on the farms and reserves in the region, and secondly, to create collaborative tourism events that help generate funds for work done in the area.”

The Roof de Karoo endurance ride is a case in point. This three-day, 190km mountain biking adventure is the only cycle event in South Africa that starts and finishes in two national parks – a proud product of the MZCPE.

The MZCPE landscape includes grassland, Nama Karoo, thicket and savanna vegetation. Photo: Bronwyn Botha

According to event organiser Annette Kingwell, entry numbers are limited. “At this stage, our maximum is 100 riders, due to the sensitive landscape they travel through.” 

For the past three years, it has drawn interest from the toughest of riders. More importantly, it has provided additional income, job opportunities and an incentive for good tourism practices in the Karoo.

Overnight accommodation spots are springing up on working farms, providing an additional income.
Jaco Loots from Pienaarsbaken Farm between Graaff-Reinet and Middelburg offers accommodation in a 200-year-old original farmhouse.

“Many of the farmers in the area are generating income through agritourism, especially during this ongoing drought. The partnership with the MZCPE gives us a more consolidated platform in terms of branding and best practice.”

The association with national parks is beneficial to both parties. When SANParks accommodation is full, the outlying landowners and entrepreneurs can offer alternative options that are validated under the MZCPE umbrella. “There is value in siding with SANParks as the organisation is already a global platform, recognised worldwide.

“The shared objective is to make this part of the Karoo a destination for travellers, not just a sleepover or drive-through destination,” Loots says.

The responsible tourism programme aims to provide a platform for new and existing tourism ventures to be recognised under the protected environment banner. “Camping infrastructure has also been procured to assist landowners in collaborative ventures,” Botha says.

The new wave of eco-tourism means better opportunities for travellers to experience rare and endemic creatures of the Karoo. Species like secretary birds, red-billed oxpeckers and the African black-footed cat are included in a Species of Special Concern Programme.

Safe zones for the possible reintroduction of Cape vultures into the area are also being scheduled. The MZCPE was initiated in 2012 in an attempt to secure critical buffer zone areas for the Mountain Zebra and Camdeboo national parks.

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