Why our wild areas must survive

2009-10-16 00:00

“IT’S a taking stock,” says Roger ­Porter of the events planned this year and next to celebrate 50 years of ­wilderness conservation in South ­Africa. “It’s about looking at where we have come, and at what we still need to do. It’s also a celebration of those wilderness areas that have endured.”

Porter, who recently retired from Ezemvelo KZN Wildife after a distinguished career, has played a key role in seeing that such areas endure, ­including laying the ­foundations for the Drakensberg ­being proclaimed a World Heritage Site.

One of the most significant aspects of wilderness conservation in recent times, according to Porter, is that the concept of wilderness has been recognised legally. “The Protected Areas Act allows for wilderness areas to be proclaimed. It’s a breakthrough in our legislation, now wilderness has a protected place in legislation.”

According to the act, a wilderness area is an area designated for the “purpose of retaining an intrinsically wild appearance and character, or ­capable of being restored to such, and which is undeveloped and roadless, without permanent improvements or human habitation.”

Wilderness is land set aside by the state where “no damaging use” may occur. “In pure form it means ‘no ­disturbance’,” says Porter. “For ­example, roads and other infra­structure are prohibited in wilderness areas but in terms of human use it means leave no trace. Footprints fade away.

“The concept of wilderness is ­foreign to a large number of people,” says Porter. “There’s a need for a lot of promotional kind of work. The ­value of wilderness has to be recognised and safeguarded — so it can ­endure in time. It has to.”

Why exactly? Firstly, for psycho­logical and spiritual reasons, says Porter. “An experience of wilderness has the power to transform people.

“Prior to the elections of 1994 there was enormous unrest in KwaZulu-Natal. The Inkatha Freedom Party and African National Congress’s fighting traumatised entire communities. They knew nothing different to that way of life. But visiting St Lucia, a ­protected wilderness area, traumatised young people found there was an alternative. They were able to take a step back and address the essence of where they were going in life.”

Similar dynamics operate today. “People are stressed and downtime in natural areas becomes so important,” says Porter. “I’m not saying it has to be a wilderness. One can find wilderness in a garden. I’m talking about just getting away from it all to an area that is largely natural.

“Some people find wide areas ­foreign and frightening but the vast majority don’t find it so,” says Porter. “They need this psychological — some would call it spiritual — experience that helps them get through tough times.

“Wilderness has always had a deep resonance for human beings, it’s part of our oldest stories — Moses went to the mountain, Christ into the wilderness. Wilderness plays a major role in our welfare and sanity.”

The second reason why Porter ­believes wilderness must be valued and preserved is brutally pragmatic: “Our survival as a species depends on it.”

To survive, humanity requires ­natural resources. “Despite wars and disease, the human population increase continues, and resources to ­sustain life are giving out.

“Potable water for example — which is a big concern in a dry country like South Africa. In the next 30 years the planet’s sources of potable water will give out. We have to have resources to purify water.”

Porter notes that we now produce bottled water and that people are prepared to pay for it. “But what if they can’t? They have to find fuel to boil water to purify it. Waterborne diseases are major killers in Africa because people can’t afford to buy water.”

Which is why the preservation of a wilderness area such as the ­Ukhahlamba Drakensberg Park is ­vitally important. “It’s South Africa’s water factory,” says Porter. “The Drakensberg supports over 60% of the Gross Domestic Product of this country. It provides water for the industrial heart of the country. It provides water to six ­provinces. If you turn on a tap at Sun City the water that comes out is from the Drakensberg. Wilderness areas have immense economic value.”

 

CONSERVATION: CELEBRATING 50 YEARS

 

TO mark 50 years of wilderness ­conservation in South Africa a ­series of events will take place in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park. These events include a celebration function this Saturday featuring ­addresses by Drummond Densham of the Wilderness Action Group, ­renowned conservationist Ian Player, and a keynote speech by MEC for ­Agriculture, Environmental Affairs and Rural Development, Lydia Johnson.

Next year a series of commemorative trails will be run in a joint effort between the Wilderness Leadership School and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Participating in these trails will be special guest speakers and leaders who will focus on specific aspects of ­wilderness. Later in 2010 a seminar will be held on the subject, Celebrating 50 Years of Wilderness in South Africa — Charting the Future.

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