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Leave No Trace

Justin Brown looks at which tourist operations are leading the way in ensuring that the industry makes a positive environmental impact. 

Millions of tourists visit South Africa every year, mainly to revel in its natural beauty.  The hope is that their number will double, to 21 million, by 2030, bringing currency and employment opportunities in their wake. Many will, hopefully, want that their trip not only does no harm to the environment they come to see, but also benefits its long-term preservation.

Responsible tourism, however, requires a responsible industry to facilitate it.

About 4.5 million people visit South African National Parks (SANParks) reserves each year, SANParks’ flagship operation is the Kruger National Park, which covers a mammoth 1.9 million hectares, while the total area under the agency’s control is 3.7 million hectares. According to the organisation’s strategy document, it sees responsible tourism as helping to “conserve fragile cultures, habitats and species by maximising the benefits to local communities and minimising negative social or environmental impacts.”

So which tourist hot spots are working hard to combine visitor growth with positive environmental impact? We looked at four key examples.

Meeting demand

Many privately-owned tourist hotspots are using their environmental credentials to attract visitors.

A prime example is Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, which covers 2 500 hectares near Gansbaai in the Western Cape. The reserve has 765 plant species – 100 are endangered plants – as well as 29 mammal and 21 amphibian species.

In 2003, the owners set up the Grootbos Foundation to conserve endangered fynbos as well as provide training and skills development to local communities. This training covers organic farming, artisanal skills, horticulture, agriculture, and ecotourism. Over 11 000 people benefit each year from initiatives put in place by the Grootbos Foundation. Depending on funding available, three top local students are sent to the Eden Project in the UK each year, says  Ruth Crichton, Grootbos communications manager.

She says that in 2014, Grootbos stopped using single-use plastic bottles. “Grootbos has committed to eradicating all plastic use by the end of the year,” she explains.

The resort also aims to recycle everything that it can. It has a greywater system, which captures water from basins, baths and showers, and is used to irrigate an indigenous nursery. All the kitchen waste gets fed to pigs, and where recycling isn’t possible, Grootbos attempts to source locally. The resort’s hygiene products, such as shampoo, soap, and lotion, are a bespoke organic range created by a company using honey and fynbos from the reserve. The Grootbos Foundation has 180 hives, and the resort buys part of the honey produced.

To manage all of this, there is a six-person conservation team that conducts ecological research. One of the projects that Grootbos runs involves over 100 motion-sensing cameras used to observe the behaviour of the animals that live in the fynbos.

All these efforts have resulted in the resort being awarded the 2019 overall winner of the African Responsible Tourism Awards and it won gold for the best habitat and species conservation.

Mountain trails

Another venture that touts itself as environmentally-positive is the Green and Blue Mountain Trails in the Overberg area of the Western Cape run by entrepreneur Alison Green. “The biggest way we can have a positive impact on conservation is through awareness. By taking people on the trails, we are making them aware of the intense biodiversity we have here in the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve,” Green says.

“The guides teach the participants about the local fora and fauna,” she continues.

The Green Mountain Trail takes place over four days and is close to 60km in distance while the Blue Mountain Trail is a total of 50km over three days.

These trails started back in 2007 and about 250 people a year complete the walks, Green says.

For about five years Green was chairman of the local Groenlandberg Conservancy, which won the award for best-managed conservancy from nonprofit organisation Conservation at Work in 2018.

The island

One of South Africa’s most famous tourist attractions, Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, has many programmes to look after the environment.

Nolitha Kontsiwe, Robben Island marketing director, says that this environmental effort includes an integrated conservation management plan that looks after biodiversity and heritage resources.

The island has an impact assessment mechanism that subjects all proposed events and outdoor activities to an environmental or heritage impact assessment.

“All negative impacts get identified and mitigated. Linked to this is a plan that maps out and identifies restricted and sensitive ecological zones on the island, namely the breeding habitats of endangered African penguins,” Kontsiwe says.

The Robben Island Museum has a unit dedicated to the research, monitoring and management of biodiversity on the island.

“This unit ensures rehabilitation and protection of sensitive breeding habitats for seabirds and shoreline birds, including endangered wildlife, such as endangered African penguins and Bank cormorants,” Kontsiwe says.

On the border

The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park near Upington has community outreach programmes. These include allowing the San and Mier communities to hunt using bows and arrows as well as harvest medicinal plants, according to Genevieve Maasdorp, the SANParks arid region spokesperson.

On the other hand, the Mokala National Park near Kimberley is reducing its environmental footprint by cutting its energy use, she says.

At the Garden Route National Park, which spans Tsitsikamma, Knysna and Wilderness, there was a big battle to eliminate alien invasive plants.

“Alien invasive plants are the region’s biggest threat to conservation, so in Wilderness, the park has biodiversity programmes aimed at eradicating the fast-growing Madeira Vine in the national park. The park has found a way of turning Madeira Vine into compost to support indigenous plants,” SANParks spokesperson for the park, Nandi Mgwadlamba, explains.

“Where invasive alien plants are chopped off in large amounts, they are taken to the SANParks-managed eco-furniture factory in George for reuse into school desks, coffins and other items,” she adds.

Tsitsikamma ©SANParks

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