iSimangaliso’s uMkhuze jewel – reaching new heights

31 Oct 2016

If ever there was a time to visit the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso, it is now!

For over a century, the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso has protected wildlife and biodiversity. Through flood and drought, political upheaval and disease, this remarkable 43 000ha portion of the World Heritage Site has endured and displayed the utmost resilience. The soils are some of the richest to be found, regularly recovering from the stark barren destitution of drought periods to an abundance of nutritious grasses in times of rainfall. uMkhuze was renowned as one of the two last remaining bastions of black rhino in the 1960s before the campaign to repopulate other protected areas. Today it boasts the ‘Big 5’ and so much more.

Currently emerging from the worst recorded drought of our times, there is no doubt that uMkhuze will compete the cycle of rejuvenation once again, with the gradual return of spring rains bringing about a natural transformation. The rewilding process is almost complete and with all tourist network roads completely re-tarred and gravelled, the rebuild of hides, ablutions, the Fig Forest Walk and other visitor attractions and a new eMshophi Gate building well underway, this section of the Park is proudly placed as one of iSimangaliso’s greatest jewels.

Here’s why you should visit, now:

New blood line for iSimangaliso

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The three male lions that arrived at their new home in the uMkhuze section of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on Friday 9th September 2016 were collared and released from their holding boma on the 18th of October. The lions, from the Tswalu Kalahari Reserve are genetically distinct from the pride of 16 lions presently residing in iSimangaliso, all of which are from the same blood line. The lions remained in the boma for a several weeks before being released to acquaint themselves with the existing pride. The three brothers have maintained an exceptionally close bond as displayed above. (Photos by Brigitte Church)

This introduction is part of the plan to bring lions back to iSimangaliso after 44 years of absence, with the last lion shot by conservation in the 1960s for going “rogue” from what was then an unfenced park. The first lion introductions took place in December 2013 and 2014 respectively, beginning with a family of four lions – translocated from Tembe Elephant Park – comprising an adult female and three sub-adult offspring. Their arrival catapulted iSimangaliso to ‘Big 7’ status. This was followed by the coalition of two males (brothers) and three females during the course of 2014.

In order to slow down the breeding rate of the lions the females underwent partial hysterectomies. This requires the removal of one horn of the uterus. Lions breed prolifically and this action should halve the number of litters obviating the need for translocations to other parks in the short-term. Since December 2013, three sets of cubs have swelled the ranks.

“The rewilding of iSimangaliso through major eco-systems restoration and the introduction of historically occurring species like lions, cheetah, wild dog and buffalo is resulting in more sustainable conservation and an economic turnaround of the Park with meaningful empowerment and benefits to local communities, In addition to the ecological benefits of rewilding, the introduction of lion has boosted tourism arrivals to the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso which is enjoying consistently high accommodation occupancy since the introductions,” says iSimangaliso CEO, Andrew Zaloumis.

Recent research undertaken through the World Banks shows that iSimangaliso now generates nearly 7% of the province’s tourism GDP and over 7000 direct permanent tourism jobs.

All adult lions are fitted with satellite collars to monitor their movements for biological and safety reasons. They are tracked daily by Park staff supported by Wildlife Act volunteers with the information feeding into Park management.

A translocation is the culmination of the efforts of numerous parties and iSimangaliso expresses its sincere thanks to the combined contributions of all who continue to assist conservation. “In particular,” says Zaloumis, “we acknowledge the donation of the lions by Tswalu Kalahari Reserve, the Bateleur Society for aircraft and flights, Mr and Mrs Anton Van Langelaar for their donation to fuel costs and the many participants in iSimangaliso’s eco-series events whose contribution to the Park’s Rare and Endangered Species Fund has covered the cost of immobilising drugs and collars. Thank you also to the conservation staff of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and Wildlife ACT who are also a significant part of the success of the project.”

“This historic introduction brings iSimangaliso closer to achieving its conservation vision: the full restoration of eco-systems functioning, and the re-establishment of the migratory patterns of historically occurring animal populations – from the top of the Lebombo Mountains to the sea – as they occurred in the times of Shaka and before fencing fragmented the landscape and constrained animal movements. It is a reversal of the historic decimation of game for apartheid military bases, commercial plantations and other agriculture,” says Zaloumis.

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One of the most exciting sightings in this section of the Park is that of the endangered wild dog. With an estimated 1400 fully grown adult dogs left globally, the two packs that have been established in iSimangaliso’s uMkhuze form a vital part of South Africa’s metapopulation. A new litter of 14 healthy pups has recently been spotted! (Photo by Wildlife ACT monitor PJ Roberts)
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The cheetah on the left was photographed by uMkhuze visitor Amanda van Vuuren, while the collared animal on the right was one of two separate sightings photographed by iSimangaliso’s Land Care Manager Carl Myhill last week.

Another special resident of uMkhuze is the cheetah, a reintroduction success story despite initial challenges. Cheetah are categorised as vulnerable by the IUCN with a population of around 1500 adults in South Africa. Today, fifteen individuals live within uMkhuze, some of which have tracking collars to assist management. There is a good chance of seeing these on a game drive, especially while the vegetation is still so sparse. On Wednesday 19 October, no fewer than four individuals were spotted, while the previous weekend a visitor at the Mantuma Rest Camp captured photographs of a magnificent cheetah within metres of the huts.

“The success of the lion, wild dog and cheetah introductions is very rewarding for staff more so because they have overcome early setbacks that placed them in jeopardy. Snaring, though largely under control in the now fully fenced uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso, remains along with rhino poaching, one of the daily challenges facing our rangers” Zaloumis concludes.

And as the cherry on top of a smorgasbord of offerings, the recent spring rains have begun to bring about a flush in vegetation, as well as slowly filling the iNsumo Pan with water from the uMkhuze River. There simply could not be a better time to visit this iSimangaliso jewel!

Fact box

Several thousand heads of game have been translocated by iSimangaliso into the Park with the support of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife since 2000. All the game that historically occurred in the region (including oribi, tsessebe, black and white rhino, elephant, wild dog, cheetah, buffalo, waterbuck and blue wildebeest) with the exception of eland, have now been re-introduced. “Eland are currently being procured for introduction into iSimangaliso this capture session” comments Zaloumis. “Interestingly hyaena and jackal have returned on their own and with game numbers picking up, their populations are flourishing. In our marine section, fauna includes protected whale and shark populations, coelacanths, turtles as well as a myriad of species on our coral reefs. iSimangaliso can now proclaim itself as the most diverse park in Africa.”

Much of this work has been undertaken by community SMMEs, creating significant employment in an area marked by unemployment and poverty. Fencing was done by agreement with communities, involving negotiations with seven traditional council chiefs and dozens of isigodis (wards).

Media enquiries should be directed to Bronwyn Coppola +27 83 450 9111 or bronwyn@abetterworld.co.za.